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Venezuelan voters approve referendum that would take over disputed area with Guyana


Venezuela held a referendum Sunday over its long-running border dispute with Guyana. Caracas says that millions of voters overwhelmingly approved a claim of sovereignty over an oil rich portion of its neighbor, but independent observers say, in fact, few people turned out to vote. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Venezuela's referendum was over a jungle region called Essequibo that makes up the western two-thirds of Guyana. In 1899, an international tribunal declared that the territory belongs to Guyana. But more than a century later, Venezuela continues to reject that ruling. And it became more insistent about its claim after huge offshore oil deposits were discovered in Guyana in 2015.



OTIS: On Sunday, Venezuela's autocratic president Nicolas Maduro held a news conference urging Venezuelans to throng to the polling stations. They were asked to approve or reject five ballot questions. The most provocative proposal was to annex Essequibo. Guyana's prime minister, Mark Phillips, said in a radio interview that his country was preparing for the worst.


PRIME MINISTER MARK PHILLIPS: You go to war with what you have. We are prepared to defend Guyana with what we have.

OTIS: But rather than invading Guyana, Maduro is actually much more focused on next year's presidential election. Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, points out that Maduro is deeply unpopular.

GEOFF RAMSEY: Maduro is desperate to make up for his lack of popular support, and so he's trying to unite the country against an exaggerated external threat.

OTIS: But his plan appears to have backfired.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At a news conference, Venezuela's top electoral official claimed that voter turnout was massive, but journalists and independent observers reported that polling stations across the country were largely vacant.

PHIL GUNSON: What seems to have happened is disastrous from the government's point of view because it's exactly the reverse of what they intended to prove.

OTIS: That's Phil Gunson, who's based in Caracas for the international Crisis Group. He said the low turnout was so disconcerting for the government that it could even jeopardize Maduro's standing as the ruling party's candidate in next year's presidential election.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "WOODEN LINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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