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Venezuela OKs Taking Guyana   12/04 06:26


   CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelans on Sunday approved a referendum 
called by the government of President Nicols Maduro to claim sovereignty over 
an oil- and mineral-rich area of neighboring Guyana it argues was stolen when 
the border was drawn more than a century ago.

   It remains unclear how Maduro will enforce the results of the vote. But 
Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its 
residents on edge.

   The National Electoral Council claimed to have counted more than 10.5 
million votes even though few voters could be seen at polling sites throughout 
the voting period for the five-question referendum. The council, however, did 
not explain whether the number of votes was equivalent to each voter or if it 
was the sum of each individual answer.

   Venezuelan voters were asked whether they support establishing a state in 
the disputed territory, known as Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and 
future area residents and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations' top 
court in settling the disagreement between the South American countries.

   "It has been a total success for our country, for our democracy," Maduro 
told supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after results were announced. 
He claimed the referendum had "very important level of participation."

   Yet long lines typical of electoral events did not form outside voting 
centers in Caracas throughout Sunday, even after the country's top electoral 
authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced the 12-hour voting period would be extended 
by two hours.

   If the participation figure offered by Amoroso refers to voters, it would 
mean more people voted in the referendum than they did for Hugo Chvez, Maduro's 
mentor and predecessor, when he was re-elected in the 2012 presidential 
contest. But if it is equivalent to each individual answer marked by voters, 
turnout could drop to as low as 2.1 million voters.

   "I came to vote because Essequibo is ours, and I hope that whatever they are 
going to do, they think about it thoroughly and remember to never put peace at 
risk," merchant Juan Carlos Rodrguez, 37, said after voting at a center in 
Caracas where only a handful of people were in line.

   The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take 
any action that would alter Guyana's control over Essequibo, but the judges did 
not specifically ban officials from carrying out Sunday's five-question 
referendum. Guyana had asked the court to order Venezuela to halt parts of the 

   Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain 
unclear, in comments explaining Friday's verdict, international court president 
Joan E. Donoghue said statements from Venezuela's government suggest it "is 
taking steps with a view toward acquiring control over and administering the 
territory in dispute."

   "Furthermore, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela is 
taking concrete measures to build an airstrip to serve as a ?logistical support 
point for the integral development of the Essequibo,'" she said.

   The 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) territory accounts for 
two-thirds of Guyana and also borders Brazil, whose Defense Ministry earlier 
this week in a statement said it has "intensified its defense actions" and 
boosted its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.

   Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also gives access 
to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in 
commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro's government.

   Venezuela's government promoted the referendum for weeks, framing 
participation as an act of patriotism and often conflating it with a show of 
support for Maduro. The country has always considered Essequibo as its own 
because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial 
period, and it has long disputed the border decided by international 
arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

   That boundary was decided by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United 
States. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the 
Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.

   Venezuelan officials contend that Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat 
their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the 
dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

   Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains the 
initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of 
Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.

   Voters on Sunday had to answer whether they "agree to reject by all means, 
in accordance with the law," the 1899 boundary and whether they support the 
1966 agreement "as the only valid legal instrument" to reach a solution.

   Maduro threw the full weight of his government into the effort. 
Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies 
and social media content helped the government to divert people's attention 
from pressing matters, including increasing pressure from the U.S. government 
on Maduro to release political prisoners and wrongfully detained Americans as 
well as to guarantee free and fair conditions in next year's presidential 

   In a tour of Caracas voting centers by The Associated Press, lines of about 
30 people could be seen at some of them, while at others, voters did not have 
to wait at all to cast their ballots. That contrasts with other electoral 
processes when hundreds of people gathered outside voting centers from the 

   The activity also paled in comparison with the hours-long lines that formed 
outside polls during the presidential primary held by a faction of the 
opposition in October without assistance from the National Electoral Council.

   More than 2.4 million people participated in the primary, a number that 
government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of 
available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a paper ballot. 
State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the fast speed at which 
people were casting their electronic ballots.

   Maduro told supporters celebrating the results that it only took him 15 
seconds to vote early Sunday.

   Angela Albornoz, a grassroots organizer for the ruling party, told the AP 
she estimated that between 23% and 24% of the voters assigned to her voting 
center cast ballots Sunday. Albornoz, 62, said that figure was below her 
expectations for an event meant to bring together all Venezuelans "regardless 
of politics."

   Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali on Sunday told Guyanese his government 
is working continuously to ensure the country's borders "remain intact" and 
said people have "nothing to fear over the next number of hours, days, months 

   "I want to advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to show 
maturity, an opportunity for them to show responsibility, and we call upon them 
once more join us in ... allowing the rule of law to work and to determine the 
outcome of this controversy," Ali said.

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