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Venezuela Essentially Approves a Petrowar

The country votes to annex their oil-rich neighbor, Guyana.

Nicolas Maduro.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Under pressure from the U.S. to hold a free and fair election, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro upped the ante.On Sunday, the nation went to the polls — to vote to invade its neighbor and the world’s newest petrostate, Guyana.

Approval was seemingly swift and suspiciously overwhelming. According to the Venezuelan National Electoral Council, the ballot’s five-question referendum — which culminated in asking if Caracas should incorporate Guyana’s Essequibo region “into the map of Venezuelan territory” — passed by a margin of 95%.

Calling the vote a free or fair election might be a bit of a stretch; local opponents seized on the fact that the National Electoral Council touted “10.5 million votes cast,” rather than the overall number of voters, meaning that — given the five ballot questions — potentially as few as 2 million people actually turned out to vote in the nation of 28.2 million. Reuters also reported that lines were scarce at voting centers.

Still, snatching the Essequibo region, which makes up about two-thirds of Guyana and is roughly the size of Florida, is popular among Venezuelans due to a controversial 1899 decision by an international tribunal that gave the territory to what was then the British colony of Guiana. Venezuelans have long considered themselves to have been swindled by Western powers in the deal, with decades of revanchist schooling and local propaganda making the Essequibo issue an easy and appealing way for Maduro to shore up domestic support.

It remains unclear, though, how far Venezuela might go in the enforcement of its claim on the land, CNN notes. International Court of Justice President Joan E. Donoghue has nevertheless warned that Caracas appears to be “taking steps with a view toward acquiring control over and administering the territory in dispute.” Comparisons to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands are already popping up, with commentators wondering what President Biden will do if the crisis escalates to actual fighting — and on America’s hemispheric doorstep, no less.

Many experts on the region also say the referendum, and any ensuing land grab, are distractions meant to bolster nationalist sentiment and Maduro’s popularity during a time of domestic turmoil and outside pressure for a leadership change. But it’s hardly a coincidence that the land in dispute is oil-rich — and newly considered to be so. Guyana was a poor, remote, and tiny neighbor to Venezuela before the discovery of oil offshore (and in Essequibo) in 2015. Now the country is thought to be sitting on 11 billion recoverable barrels and international oil companies are jostling for a go at the reserves, even as Guyana faces the irony of being especially susceptible to climate change.

The easy comparison between the two oil states makes the situation even more bruising for Caracas: Guyana is now “set to surpass the oil production of Venezuela,” CNN writes, while the latter country’s production has dropped from a height of 3 million barrels per day in 1999 to a mere 700,000 barrels per day this year, due to ongoing mismanagement and U.S. sanctions. No wonder the oil reserves just across the border look so tempting.

Perhaps, then, this will be the way the world’s next oil war starts: Not with a bang but with a vote.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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