Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro finds himself in a political bind. He is under pressure from the United States to hold free and fair elections after years of authoritarian rule or face reinstatement of crippling economic sanctions. But analysts say he is unlikely to give up power and would most likely lose in a credible election.
Now, Maduro has reignited a border dispute with a much smaller neighboring country in a move that seems driven, at least in part, by a desire to divert attention from his political troubles at home by stoking nationalist fervor.
Maduro claims that the vast, oil-rich Essequibo region of Guyana, a country of about 800,000, is part of Venezuela, a nation of roughly 28 million people, and is holding a nonbinding referendum Sunday asking voters whether they support the government’s position.
Maduro’s argument is based on what many Venezuelans consider an illegitimate agreement dating to the 19th century that gave the Essequibo region to Guyana.
Although most countries have accepted that Essequibo belongs to Guyana, the issue remains a point of contention for many Venezuelans, and the referendum is likely to be approved, experts said.
President Irfaan Ali of Guyana has said that “Essequibo is ours, every square inch of it,” and has pledged to defend it.
For Maduro, stoking a geopolitical crisis gives him a way to shift the domestic conversation at a moment when many Venezuelans are pressing for an election that could challenge his hold on power.
“Maduro needs to wrap himself in the flag for electoral reasons, and obviously a territorial dispute with a neighbor is the perfect excuse,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who lives in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.
Venezuelan groups and activists opposing Maduro organized a primary in October without any official government support to choose a candidate to run in elections that are supposed to be held next year. More than 2.4 million Venezuelans cast ballots, a large number that suggests how engaged voters could be in a general election.
But since then, the Maduro government has questioned the vote’s legitimacy and has taken legal aim at its organizers, raising concerns that Maduro will resist any serious challenge to his 10-year tenure even as his country continues to suffer under international sanctions.
Turnout Sunday was expected to be large given that, among other factors, public sector employees are required to vote. A turnout larger than that of the opposition’s primary could bolster Maduro’s standing, analysts said.
“It’s aimed at producing the impression that the government can mobilize the people in a way that the opposition can’t,” Gunson said.
Essequibo, a region slightly larger than the state of Georgia, is a tropical jungle rich in oil, as well as minerals and timber. In recent years, many people have migrated there from Venezuela and Brazil to capitalize on the illegal mining industry.
Guyana has increased its police presence along the Venezuelan border, while Brazil has sent troops to the region. So far, Venezuela has not deployed any additional forces to the border.
But part of the referendum’s language states that the government has to exercise full sovereignty over the Essequibo, and some analysts said its passage could give Maduro a rationale to launch hostilities.
“Once the referendum is approved, it gives a blank check to Maduro so that he can at any time, at his discretion, initiate or have any kind of border clash of a military nature in the Essequibo territory,” said Rocío San Miguel, a defense analyst in Venezuela who studies the military.
And if Maduro believes he could be defeated in an election, he might “activate the war button,” San Miguel said, and suspend elections by declaring a national emergency.
The modern-day dispute over Essequibo dates to around 1899, when a tribunal was held in Paris to determine the boundaries of what was then called British Guiana. Venezuelans say the area had been part of Venezuela when it was part of the Spanish empire.
But Venezuelans did not take part in the tribunal and consider its decision null and void.
In 1966, the governments of Britain, British Guiana, and Venezuela signed the Geneva Agreement to settle the boundary dispute. Under the accord, in the case of a stalemate, the dispute would be referred to the United Nations.
Since then, the region has been led by an independent Guyana but claimed by Venezuela.
In 2020, the dispute was taken up by the United Nations’ top court, the International Court of Justice, where it is still pending. But Maduro has said that the court does not hold jurisdiction over the issue.
The court Friday ordered Venezuela to refrain from taking any action that would alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo. But the court did not ban Venezuela from holding the referendum, as Guyana had sought.
Even if the referendum passes, reviving Venezuela’s claim to the territory would most likely prove a temporary distraction and would not increase Maduro’s popularity, analysts said.
“People need practical solutions to their everyday needs: food and medicine and education and hospital services and roads,” Gunson said. “They don’t need flag-waving. That’s not going to put food on the table.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.