The results of the consultative referendum called by Nicolás Maduro on the dispute with Guyana over the Essequibo territory are unverifiable. According to figures from the National Electoral Council, there were more than 10 million votes, although the voters were not specified. Despite doubts about the transparency of this process, its consequences, both domestically and internationally, will mark Venezuela's political-electoral agenda immediately and in 2024.
There is a reading according to which this consultation was made to stop the enthusiasm of the opposition primary election that was held on October 22, which Maria Corina Machado won with more than 90% of the votes.
In its experiment that led to the day of December 3, the Chavista government tested its electoral engineering, its power to call for spontaneous voting, its capacity for coercion and also measured the dynamics and responses of the different sectors that oppose it, says Stefania Vitale, a political scientist and researcher on issues of authoritarianism and opposition parties
Chavismo resorted to different tactics: regular propaganda, threats to declare those who expressed their disagreement traitors to the country, pressure on public employees to attend the vote. The opposition Unitary Platform left voters without guidance. Among the opposition leaders who decided to vote, there were those who followed the government's line of giving a Yes to the five questions submitted for consultation, while others indicated that they would vote No to the two most controversial questions.
No long lines of voters were observed during voting day. This was justified by the fact that the voting took no more than a minute and by the number of polling stations set up. As there are no opposition witnesses, any figure offered by the CNE is disputable. On Sunday night, Rector Elvis Amoroso, president of the electoral body, made several mistakes when giving the initial bulletin: he did not refer to the number of votes counted, he did not report on the percentage of participation or abstention and to top it all off he spoke of votes. A detail that may seem trivial, but it is crucial in an election with five questions.
It seems that the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) was then unable to call for the spontaneous vote. However, Chavismo scored points by appealing to the external enemy and nationalist sentiment – a manoeuvre that some have compared to that of Galtieri when he declared war over the Malvinas Islands in 1982; He took over a narrative that displaced the impact of the opposition primaries and evidenced the inability, at this time, of the opposition sectors to articulate a strategy.
For as long as I can remember, Venezuelans have repeated the refrain of "The Essequibo is ours," but it was perhaps on this occasion that more information was available about the state of the controversy. On the Venezuelan map, this strip of 160,000 square kilometers appears under the label of "Territory in Reclamation", while Guyana assumes it as its own. The dispute dates back to 1899. The case must be heard by the International Court of Justice. The public discussion was reactivated by the concessions for oil exploitation that Guyana recently granted in marine areas that have not been demarcated.
The referendum raised five questions. There are three points that refer directly to the rejection of the ICJ's jurisdiction to settle the dispute, Guyana's management of the undemarcated sea and the creation of a new administrative entity in the region and incorporating it into the Venezuelan map. Guyana asked the Court to suspend the electoral event.
On Friday, December 1, the magistrates ordered Venezuela to refrain from any action that "modifies the situation that currently prevails." It also ordered both countries to avoid "any action that could aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve."
Although the results of the referendum are not binding and it is difficult to predict how Chavismo will use it, it is obvious that it will be a new card for the Maduro government. This can range from a new negotiation to an escalation of a conflict that generates a state of internal turmoil. In any case, it opens up scenarios not contemplated until now.
While there is a suspicion that the ruling Chavismo seeks to move forward to suspend next year's presidential electoral process, the opposition does not seem to have any plan that would allow the participation of Maria Corina Machado, who is under a rigged disqualification.
On November 30, the procedure agreed upon by the Unitary Platform and the Government of Nicolás Maduro for disqualified persons to appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice was announced. This takes place within the framework of the Barbados Agreement, signed on 17 October. Machado has not yet said whether he will go to the Supreme Court. It is to be hoped that the other opponents who are affected by similar measures will appeal to this body, which in practice is not independent of the Executive.
For Vitale, with the referendum "the government imposed several dilemmas that are difficult to solve. In a coordinated way, it could have been better tackled." For this reason, he believes that it is necessary for the opposition not only to reach an agreement between the political-partisan factors, but also for there to be agreements with other sectors, such as the unions.
According to the CNE, the Yes vote on all questions received more than 95% support. Even if the government inflates the results, as it did in the 2017 constituent election, it is forced to act in accordance with the popular mandate. This is not an easy path. If they do, tensions will be greater. If they don't, this would expose their weaknesses. The route that has been opened is a very high-risk bet for Venezuela. For Maduro's government, it may be what is popularly known as bread for today and hunger for tomorrow.