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Maduro Vote to Claim Guyana’s Territory Backfires as Venezuelans Stay Home

The government of Guyana has breathed a sigh of relief after a referendum intended to rubber-stamp Venezuela’s claim to about two-thirds of the tiny South American country’s territory appeared to have backfired.

Nicolás Maduro had hoped to leverage his country’s century-long claim to the disputed Essequibo region to mobilise public support but voting stations across the country were largely quiet on Sunday as most voters shunned the issue.

The turnout appeared so underwhelming that the Venezuelan government has been widely accused by analysts of falsifying the results.

“The Venezuelan people have sent Maduro a very strong message and I do hope that Maduro has taken note of what they’ve said,” said Robert Presaud, Guyana’s foreign secretary, on Monday.

Guyanese officials would not comment directly on the results but sources close to the government told the Guardian they were “relieved” by the surprisingly poor turnout.

Venezuela has laid claim to the oil-rich Essequibo region ever since it gained independence from Spain in 1811, alleging that its borders were drawn up unfairly in an act of international collusion.

The dispute is being reviewed in the international court of justice but Maduro has pleaded for weeks on TikTok and national TV for the Venezuelan public to back the government to take matters into its own hands.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/11/venezuela_guyana/giv-13425Oo0t7F8RJ4xl/

Among the five questions asked on Sunday were whether Venezuela should ignore the international arbitrators at The Hague, grant Venezuelan citizenship to Essequibo’s English-speaking inhabitants and convert the 160,000 sq km of territory into a new Venezuelan state.

Both Guyana and Venezuela have increased military activity on their borders in recent weeks as tensions between the bickering nations reached unprecedented heights. Brazil also sent troops to its jungle frontier over the weekend as fears grew that the vote could spark military action.

But voting stations across the country were largely empty, national and international media reported.

“I have seen no independent reports of queues anywhere in the country. It looked like a normal Sunday in Caracas,” says Phil Gunson, analyst at international crisis group. “It was a resounding failure for Maduro.”

Nonetheless, Maduro was quick to hail the vote – in which 95% of those who voted yes to the government’s five questions – as a victory.

“It has been a total success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told supporters in Caracas on Sunday evening, praising the “very important level of participation”.

Venezuela’s government has said that more than 10.5 million people voted in the referendum – which would be a higher number than voted to re-elect Maduro’s more popular predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2012.

Venezuela’s electoral authority said it had extended the voting window on Sunday evening due to “massive participation”.

The government figures have been widely scrutinised, however, given that analysts say they do not correspond with the scenes at voting stations.

“They haven’t admitted it explicitly but it’s obvious [they rigged the results],” Gunson said.

An image purported to have been shared and later deleted by Venezuela’s electoral authority showed a table with about 2 million votes for each of the five questions, suggesting that they tallied the number of votes rather than voters to spin the public relations disaster.

The Venezuelan government has not published any detailed or regional results, adding to doubts around their validity. “If the government stands by their claim that this is a massive success they should have no difficulty in publishing the breakdown of votes,” said Geoff Ramsey, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“This is a massive PR disaster for Maduro. They’ve been firing the propaganda machine on all cylinders for months but despite their best efforts turnout is way below what we expected,” he added.

Intelligence collected by Guyana and its allies suggest the actual turnout was fewer than 1.5 million people – less than a 10th of the population – said a source close to the Guyanese government who described the move as “rigonomics”.

“I think Maduro miscalculated in a very, very big way,” the source added.

Guyana remains on high alert given the unpredictability of the Venezuelan president, Guyana’s foreign minister, Hugh Todd said.

“What we see from afar is that he is operating as a one man-show, as a dictator telling the people what they need and not the other way around,” Todd told the Guardian.

“Ninety-five per cent of people voted yes, so he can still claim a victory out of that … We are not jubilant. We’re still very cautious,” he said.

The Essequibo is home to only 120,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 people but the vast swath of jungle is rich in natural resources including copper and gold.

Maduro’s rhetoric over the region has become more bellicose since massive oil reserves were discovered in 2015 but the weekend’s plebiscite is seen foremost as a way to gauge how many people he can mobilise in presidential elections expected for next year.

The opposition candidate María Corina Machado is widely predicted to defeat Maduro if the election is a free contest and the US is threatening to snap back recent sanctions relief if the dictator does not permit a fair election.

The Essequibo is the only issue that unites Venezuelans across the political spectrum but the vote suggests people care more about more pressing issues, such as the economic collapse which has driven more than 7 million people to flee the country, Gunson said.

If Maduro is unable to rally the people under the banner of Venezuela’s claim to the Essequibo, there are few options left but to rig the contest.

“This leaves an enormous gap where there used to be a resemblance of a strategy. What are they going to do now? They have an unpopular president heading for a disaster in anything remotely approaching a free and fair election,” he said.

Source: The Guardian