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On December 3, 2023, the Venezuelan government held a referendum on whether it should lay claim to the oil-rich region of Essequibo in neighboring Guyana. According to the authorities, citizens overwhelmingly supported the idea. What follows will be consequential for President Nicolás Maduro’s regime and the international order.

 

Jaroslav Bílek

December 11, 2023

 

An unusual referendum was held in Venezuela on December 3. The government asked whether it should lay claim to the oil-rich region of Essequibo, which makes up approximately two-thirds of the territory of neighboring Guyana. According to the authorities, there was a record turnout of 50% (10.5 million voters) for a referendum, with approximately 95% supporting the idea. This initiative echoes Russia’s example where it called unconstitutional referendums regarding the fate of Ukrainian territories that it illegally occupies. In a variation, Venezuela held a referendum to ask its citizens whether it should annex a territory it wishes to occupy. What follows will be consequential for President Nicolás Maduro’s regime and the international order. At this point, while Venezuela going to war with Guyana cannot be ruled out, it is more likely that Maduro’s government seeks domestic consolidation rather than international expansion.

 

Venezuela Ahead of a Presidential Election

At first glance, a record turnout in a referendum seems like good news, especially for the supporters of direct democracy. A closer look, however, reveals that this was all but this. Venezuela has long had an authoritarian regime; thus, there can be no question of any form of democracy at play. Given the country’s political system, the referendum’s result cannot be verified either and, according to the information available, the result and the declared turnout can be seriously doubted. Opposition representatives claim that only around 11% of eligible voters took part, which contrasts sharply with the government’s statement.

Even worse, this referendum was a vote on the territory of a neighboring state; in this case, one that Guyana has held since 1899. Whether this is motivated by the discovery of oil there or by Venezuela’s poor economic situation and the regime’s need to find a strong theme for the 2024 presidential election is unclear. In any case, Maduro’s move greatly undermines international stability and security in Latin America and beyond.

Four Explanations for the Referendum

Venezuela holding a presidential election next year may not mean much in such an authoritarian regime as the opposition’s chances of winning are anyhow limited. Caracas is negotiating a further reduction in international sanctions in exchange for holding the election in line with a new electoral agreement between the government and the opposition and with credible international electoral monitoring. There are signs, however, that the regime intends to make the contest uncompetitive. Notably, after winning the opposition primary in October, María Corina Machado was excluded from the presidential race by the authorities, which suggests that she may be a serious rival for Maduro. The United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and several countries have condemned this move and it is not yet clear whether Machado will be able to run. If the government bows to international pressure and allows this, Maduro will need a strong issue to mobilize his voters. An attempt to return the historically disputed territory of Essequibo to Venezuela might do this. In essence, then, the referendum may have been mainly a tool for Maduro’s reelection, which might be threatened due to society’s severe polarization and the government’s poor record in recent years.

Another possibility is that the government will use the result of the referendum to increase pressure on Guyana. It could then declare a state of emergency and postpone the presidential election to avert a possible defeat for Maduro. The dispute could also serve as another bargaining chip in the negotiations over lifting sanctions. The United States wants Venezuela to run elections with unrestricted opposition participation. Venezuela wants the sanctions to be lifted and to occupy two-thirds of Guyana. Both sides could make some kind of concession as part of a bargain in which Venezuela would forget about Guyana’s territory and the United States would content itself with elections in which only part of the opposition competes.

The third possibility is that Venezuela will try to use its overwhelming military superiority over Guyana and simply occupy at least part of Essequibo. This scenario would not necessarily lead immediately to a full-scale war. The disputed territory boasts relatively difficult terrain and Guyana would not be able to dislodge Venezuelan forces from it on its own. The question is, however, who would come to its aid and when. Brazil and Colombia have left-wing presidents who are unlikely to rush into a fight with their ideological peers in Venezuela. An intervention by the United States, the United Kingdom, or other countries would require time, and also political will and resources that are currently tied up with the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine as well as a potential one in Taiwan. The question is whether the United States and others are interested in a forceful response to Venezuela’s expansionism. The seizure of all or part of the disputed territory could thus be a victory for Venezuela and another opportunity to consolidate its authoritarian regime.

The last and least likely option would then be an open and full-fledged military conflict between Venezuela and Guyana as well as the states that decide to help the latter. In such a scenario, Venezuela would very likely suffer a defeat that would probably lead to the end of the regime, similarly to the case of  Argentina’s dictatorship in the 1980s. However, this scenario would require decisive action by the international community, and recent years have shown that the world remains very divided when it comes to dealing with crises.

“At this point, while Venezuela going to war with Guyana cannot be ruled out, it is more likely that Maduro’s government seeks domestic consolidation rather than international expansion.”

The referendum was, above all, part of the effort to prolong authoritarian rule in Venezuela. Nonetheless, such events need to be carefully monitored and analyzed, because authoritarians in other parts of the world may also consider adopting a similar strategy to preserve their power. Developments in world politics over the last decade clearly show that authoritarian regimes do not only work together but also learn from each other. In essence, Maduro and his regime slightly altered Russia’s strategy. Depending on its success, others might take inspiration and follow suit.

 

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Jaroslav Bílek is a research fellow at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Charles University in Prague. His research interests cover authoritarian politics, electoral manipulation, international linkages, and civil-military relations.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Photo credit: StringerAL via Shutterstock

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