“Essequibo is ours”, proclaims the official slogan plastered all over the streets: some 21 of the 30 million Venezuelans are called to the polls on Sunday to decide on the future of this oil-rich territory that Caracas claims from Guyana. “Today we vote as Venezuela for one color, one feeling. We vote for Venezuela to be respected,” President Nicolas Maduro said after voting at a military fort.

While offices are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. local time, results are expected in the evening. But the referendum, which is not a self-determination vote, Essequibo being under the administration of Guyana, will not have concrete consequences in the short term, Caracas seeking with the expected plebiscite to strengthen its credibility and its pretensions. Authorities have stressed that they are not looking for a motive to invade the area, as Guyanese fear.

Guyana on the defensive

In Guyana, thousands of people, many waving flags or wearing “Essequibo Belongs to Guyana” T-shirts, formed human chains along the country’s roads to show their attachment to Essequibo. “I want to assure Guyanese that there is nothing to fear in the hours, days and months to come,” the Guyanese president said on Facebook on Sunday. “We are working around the clock to ensure our borders remain intact.”

“Our first line of defense is diplomacy and we are in a very, very strong position,” he added, assuring that the country had broad international support.

After Guyanese oil tenders and a new discovery of black gold in October, tension has risen in recent months with tough declarations, military exercises and talk of the installation of American bases.

A long-disputed border

Venezuela has claimed for decades this territory (sometimes called Guayana Esequiba) of 160,000 km² representing more than two thirds of Guyana and where 125,000 people live, or a fifth of its population. Caracas argues that the Essequibo River should be the natural border, as in 1777 during the Spanish Empire, and believes that the United Kingdom took over Venezuelan land in the 19th century.

Guyana, which ranks at the top of the list of per capita oil reserves in the world, believes that the border dates from the English colonial era and was ratified in 1899 by a Court of Arbitration. The country has seized the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the highest judicial body of the UN, to have it validated. Georgetown also went to the ICJ to try to stop the referendum, citing incitement to “the violation of international rights”.

In vain. In a decision on Friday, the ICJ ordered Caracas to “refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation in the disputed territory”, without mentioning the referendum.

Since COP28 in Dubai, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, a neighbor of two countries, has “hoped that common sense will prevail”. “There is a referendum, which will probably result in the outcome Maduro wants. (…) But if there is one thing that the world does not need, that South America does not need, it is unrest,” added Lula.