SURAMA, Guyana (AP) — Worshipers at an Anglican church in a sparsely populated village in Guyana’s rainforest recently gathered to bid on a bounty of bananas, squash and other produce at an event community. They sang hymns and rang a bell after each successful bid.
They offered grateful devotions typical of a harvest festival, but also asked for peace for their community amid what they see as an existential threat. Their village, Surama, is part of the Essequibo region of Guyana, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals that Venezuela claims its own and whose future will be decided on Sunday by referendum.
The practical and legal implications of this vote, which notably calls for making Essequibo a Venezuelan state, remain unclear, but the referendum left area residents on edge.
“We pray and we hope and we have faith that nothing negative will happen,” said Loreen Allicock, who led the congregation during the harvest festival. “We want to continue to live a peaceful life in our beautiful country. »
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro has thrown the full weight of his government into the effort, using patriotic rhetoric to try to summon voters to the polls to answer five questions about the territory, including whether current and future residents of the region should be granted citizenship Venezuelan.
Guyana considers the referendum a case of annexation and on November 14 asked the International Court of Justice to interrupt part of the vote. The court has not issued a ruling, but even if it rules against Venezuela, Maduro’s government intends to hold the elections on Sunday.
The area of 61,600 square miles (159,500 square kilometers) represents two-thirds of Guyana. Yet Venezuela has always considered Essequibo its own because the region was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long contested the boundary decided by international arbiters in 1899, when Guyana was still a colony British.
Venezuela’s commitment to pursuing its territorial claims has fluctuated over the years. His interest was piqued again in 2015 when ExxonMobil announced it had discovered oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.
The latest chapter of the conflict has angered the region’s residents, the majority of whom are indigenous, against the Guyanese government. Information about the referendum reached them mainly through inaccurate social media posts which only served to sow confusion among Guyanese.
“We feel neglected as a people of this country. Nothing is being done for us at the moment,” said Michael Williams, an indigenous leader from the Essequibo village of Annai. “The government (…) only comes when it wants our votes. Now there is this dispute. No one is there to tell us: “These are the problems”. It can come. Let’s prepare for this. We negotiate. We hope for the best. Nobody comes to tell us.
The disputed border was decided by British, Russian and American arbitrators. The United States represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had severed diplomatic relations with Britain.
Venezuelan officials say Americans and Europeans conspired to defraud their country and say a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively overturned the original arbitration. Guyanathe only English-speaking country in South America, maintains that the original agreement is legal and binding and in 2018 asked the world court to rule it as such.
Venezuelan voters will have to answer on Sunday whether they “agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law”, the 1899 border and whether they support the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument” to achieve a solution.
Maduro’s government held a mock referendum on November 19 to familiarize voters with the issue, but it did not say how many voters participated or what the results were. Officials also did not propose a timeline or specific steps for how they would transform the Essequibo region into a Venezuelan state and grant citizenship to area residents if voters approve the proposed measures.
Juan Romero, a deputy from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, told state media that one of the measures the government should take if the people vote in favor of the measures is a constitutional reform aimed at incorporating the English as one of the official languages of Venezuela. Meanwhile, another ruling party deputy, William Fariñas, claimed that the “Essequibans” “already feel Venezuelan.”
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The people of Essequibo are proud of their indigenous heritage. They cite the names of monuments, given in their native language, to illustrate why they believe the region never belonged to Venezuela. And they insist they do not want their lives disrupted by the referendum.
The International Court of Justice is expected to rule this week on Guyana’s request to halt parts of the referendum. But it will still be years before the court rules on Guyana’s broader request to consider the 1899 border decision valid and binding. Judges accepted the case last April despite opposition from Venezuela.
Meanwhile, Essequibo resident Jacqueline Allicock asks Venezuelan voters a question: “Why would you want to take away something that doesn’t belong to you?”
____ Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.
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