Guyana’s government has breathed a sigh of relief after a referendum aimed at approving Venezuela’s claim to about two-thirds of the small South American nation’s territory appeared to backfire.
Nicolas Maduro had hoped to leverage his country’s claim to the disputed, century-old Essequibo region to rally popular support, but polling stations across the country were largely quiet on Sunday as most voters avoided the issue.
The turnout seemed so disappointing that analysts widely accused the Venezuelan government of rigging the results.
“The Venezuelan people have sent Maduro a very strong message and I hope Maduro has taken note of what they said,” Robert Brissaud, Guyana’s foreign minister, said on Monday.
Guyanese officials did not comment directly on the results, but sources close to the government told the Guardian they were “relieved” by the surprisingly low turnout.
Venezuela has claimed the oil-rich Essequibo region since it gained independence from Spain in 1811, alleging that its borders were drawn unfairly as part of international collusion.
The dispute is being reviewed at the International Court of Justice, but Maduro has for weeks appealed on TikTok and national television to the Venezuelan people to support the government to take matters into its own hands.
Among the five questions raised on Sunday were whether Venezuela should ignore international arbitrators in The Hague, grant Venezuelan citizenship to the English-speaking population of Essequibo and turn the 160,000 square kilometer territory into a new Venezuelan state.
Guyana and Venezuela have intensified military activity on their borders in recent weeks, with tensions between the two warring countries reaching unprecedented levels. Brazil also sent troops to its jungle border over the weekend as fears grew that the vote could lead to military action.
But national and international media reported that polling stations across the country were largely empty.
“I have not seen any independent reports of queues anywhere in the country. “It looked like a normal Sunday in Caracas,” says Phil Johnson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It was a colossal failure for Maduro.”
However, Maduro was quick to hail the vote – in which 95% of those who voted yes on the five questions posed by the government – as a victory.
“It was a complete success for our country and for our democracy,” Maduro told his supporters in Caracas on Sunday evening, praising the “very important level of participation.”
The Venezuelan government said more than 10.5 million people voted in the referendum – a higher number than those who voted to re-elect Maduro’s most popular predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in 2012.
Venezuela’s electoral body said it extended the voting period Sunday evening due to “wide participation.”
However, the government figures have come under widespread scrutiny, since analysts say they do not match government figures Scenes at polling stations.
“They haven’t admitted it outright but it’s clear [they rigged the results]“Gonson said.
An image allegedly shared and later deleted by Venezuela’s electoral body showed a table of about 2 million votes for each of the five questions, suggesting they counted votes rather than voters to spin a PR disaster.
The Venezuelan government has not published any detailed or regional results, which raises doubts about their veracity. “If the government sticks to its claim that this is a massive success, it will have no difficulty publishing details of the votes,” said Geoff Ramsay, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“This is a massive PR disaster for Maduro. He added: “They ran the propaganda machine full force for several months, but despite their best efforts, the result was much lower than we expected.”
Intelligence gathered by Guyana and its allies indicates that the actual turnout was less than 1.5 million people – less than a tenth of the population – said a source close to the Guyanese government who described the move as “practical.”
The source added: “I think Maduro made a very big mistake in his calculations.”
Hugh Todd said Guyana remains on high alert due to the unpredictability of what Nicolas Maduro, Guyana’s Foreign Minister, will do.
“What we see from afar is that he is acting as a one-man, as a dictator who tells people what they need and not the other way around,” Todd told The Guardian.
“95% of people voted yes, so he can still claim victory from that… We are not thrilled. “We are still very cautious,” he said.
The Essequibo region is home to only 120,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 people, but the vast expanse of forest is rich in natural resources including copper and gold.
Maduro’s rhetoric on the region has become more aggressive since the discovery of huge oil reserves in 2015, but the weekend’s referendum is seen primarily as a way to gauge how many people he can mobilize in presidential elections expected next year.
Opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado is widely expected to defeat Maduro if the election is a free contest, and the United States is threatening to reverse recent sanctions relief if the dictator does not allow a fair election.
Johnson said Essequibo is the only issue that unites Venezuelans across the political spectrum, but the vote indicates that people care more about more pressing issues, such as the economic collapse that has prompted more than seven million people to flee the country.
If Maduro is unable to rally the people under the banner of Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo, there will be few options left other than rigging the competition.
“This leaves a huge gap where there was similarity in strategy. What are they going to do now? They have an unpopular president who is headed toward disaster in anything approaching a free and fair election,” he said.
“Infuriatingly humble analyst. Bacon maven. Proud food specialist. Certified reader. Avid writer. Zombie advocate. Incurable problem solver.”