A man checks his ID number on the electoral roll outside a polling station in Caracas during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region controlled by neighboring Guyana / © AFP
Venezuelan electoral authorities on Sunday claimed that 95 percent of voters in a nonbinding referendum approved of the nation's territorial claim on a huge chunk of neighboring oil-rich Guyana.
President Nicolas Maduro hailed what he called "an overwhelming victory for the 'Yes' throughout Venezuela."
"We have taken the first steps of a new historic stage in the struggle for what belongs to us, to recover what the liberators left us," he said.
The referendum raised fears in Guyana, and around the region, about Venezuela's ultimate intentions over the contested territory.
Maduro, who will seek reelection next year amid a punishing economic crisis, hopes the outcome of the referendum will strengthen his nation's century-old claim to the oil-rich Essequibo territory governed by Guyana.
"Today is a day of ratification, of national sovereignty, and the people have done it with flying colors," said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino in an evening address on state television.
About 10.5 million votes were cast by Venezuela's 20.7 million eligible voters, said the president of the National Electoral Council, Elvis Amoroso.
But the tally stirred confusion, since an opposition politician suggested that each voter cast a total of five votes -- one for each question on the referendum related to Venezuela's claim.
Henrique Capriles, a two-time opposition presidential candidate, suggested that just over two million voters turned out.
In Guyana, thousands of people, some of them wearing T-shirts reading "Essequibo belongs to Guyana," formed human chains in solidarity with their government, and their president offered assurances that the country's borders were secure.
Venezuelans marching in support of the Essequibo referendum in Caracas on December 1 / © AFP/File
The Maduro government has said it is not seeking justification to invade or annex the huge territory, as some fear in Guyana, an English-speaking former British colony.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, little will change in the short term: The people of Essequibo are not voting, and the referendum is nonbinding.
But tensions have been rising since Guyana took bids in September for several offshore oil exploration blocks, and after a major new find was announced in October.
Guyana's petroleum reserves are similar to those of Kuwait, with the highest reserves per capita in the world.
Meanwhile, Maduro's government released a video Sunday suggesting that some Guyanese would prefer to be under Venezuelan rule.
It purportedly shows an Indigenous group of Pemon people in Guyana lowering the nation's flag and raising a Venezuelan flag in its stead.
One individual begins to sing the Venezuelan national anthem.
- 'Nothing to fear' -
Guyana's President Irfaan Ali said Sunday that his government was working to protect the country's borders and keep people safe.
"I want to assure Guyanese that there is nothing to fear," Ali said in an address carried on Facebook.
Venezuela has claimed the huge territory of Essequibo for decades -- even though its 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles) represent more than two-thirds of Guyana, and its population of 125,000 is one-fifth of Guyana's total.
A woman in Caracas shows support for a referendum over the oil-rich Essequibo region, claimed both by Venezuela and Guyana / © AFP
Caracas contends that the Essequibo River to the region's east is the natural border between the two countries, as declared in 1777 under Spanish rule, and that Britain wrongly appropriated Venezuelan lands in the 19th century.
Guyana, however, asserts the border was set in the British colonial era and was confirmed in 1899 by a court of arbitration.
It says the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's top judicial body, has validated this finding.
Guyana had asked the ICJ to block the referendum. But while the court on Friday urged Caracas to take no action that might affect the disputed territory, it did not mention the measure.
Handout picture released by the Venezuelan presidency showing President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores at a Caracas polling station during a referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region controlled by Guyana / © Venezuelan Presidency/AFP
The referendum covers five questions, including proposals for the creation of a Venezuelan province to be called "Guyana Essequibo," giving the inhabitants Venezuelan citizenship, as well as a call to reject the ICJ's jurisdiction.
The referendum "will probably produce the result desired by Maduro," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said from Dubai, where he is attending the COP28 environment conference.
"I hope good sense will prevail," he said.
In Guyana, some locals played down the vote.
Disputed territory between Venezuela and Guyana / © AFP
"The referendum is probably important for them, for Venezuela -- not for us," said Dilip Singh, a businessman who lives in the disputed region.
"I grew up in Essequibo," he said, adding, "The Spanish have never occupied it -- not at any time in our history... Now it is independent, and it will always be so."