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Venezuela to hold referendum upholding its claim on what Guyana says is its territory

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Since the 1800s, Venezuela and neighboring Guyana have bickered over where the border between the two countries should lie. The dispute has intensified in the wake of huge offshore oil strikes in Guyana. Now, as John Otis reports, Venezuela has launched a campaign to reclaim more than half of the territory.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Venezuela is holding a referendum today over the future of a disputed region inside Guyana, known as Essequibo. To get out the vote, state TV has broadcast a steady stream of upbeat spots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL ESEQUIBO ES NUESTRO")

XUXO: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: In this one, a Venezuelan singer insists that Essequibo is ours. A jungle region nearly the size of Florida, Essequibo makes up the western two-thirds of Guyana, a former British colony. In a radio interview, Guyana's Prime Minister Mark Phillips noted that the border dispute was resolved in Guyana's favor by an international tribunal in Paris in 1899.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MARK PHILLIPS: As far as Guyana's concerned, we have a border that is settled between Guyana and Venezuela.

OTIS: However, Venezuela insists that the judges in the Paris decision had been bought off. The dispute is now before the U.N.'s International Court of Justice, though Venezuela refuses to recognize the court's jurisdiction.

GEOFF RAMSEY: The stakes are high. We're talking about one of the most resource-rich areas on the planet.

OTIS: That's Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. He says Venezuela covets Essequibo's timber, diamonds and minerals. What's more, in 2015, ExxonMobil discovered huge oil deposits just off the Atlantic coast of Essequibo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a TV appearance, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's authoritarian leader, warned Guyana not to develop oil in the disputed territory and demanded respect for Venezuela's sovereignty. His regime also organized today's referendum, in which Venezuelans will vote on five issues concerning Essequibo. The most audacious proposes annexing Essequibo and issuing Venezuelan identity cards to its residents. In a speech, Guyana's vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, mocked the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT BHARRAT JAGDEO: We don't want your ID cards. We are happy to be Guyanese. We are happy to live in our own country.

OTIS: Although armed conflict seems unlikely, Guyana has launched a propaganda offensive with songs about defending its territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) We ain't giving up no mountain. We ain't giving up no trees. We ain't giving up no river that belong to me.

OTIS: Ramsey, of the Atlantic Council, says that in ramping up the conflict with Guyana, Maduro's true aim is to stoke nationalist sentiment.

RAMSEY: What we're seeing is sort of a classic maneuver from the dictators playbook.

OTIS: After smothering Venezuela's democracy and overseeing an economic meltdown, Maduro is deeply unpopular. But Ramsey says his push to take back Essequibo could help Maduro drum up support for his campaign to win next year's presidential election. Indeed, Venezuela's claim to the Essequibo region is one of the few things most people agree on in the deeply polarized country.

ELVIS PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Elvis Paez, a retired engineer who is voting in today's referendum, says he was taught in school that Essequibo belongs to Venezuela.

PAEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But he adds, "I support this referendum, not the Venezuelan government."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis. 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.