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Venezuela’s planned vote over territory dispute leaves Guyana residents on edge

Published:Wednesday | November 29, 2023 | 10:46 AM
Homes stand in the village of Surama in the Rupununi area of the Essequibo, a territory in dispute with Venezuela, Saturday, November 18, 2023. Venezuela has long claimed Guyana’s Essequibo region — a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals. (AP Photo/Juan Pablo Arraez)

SURAMA, Guyana (AP) — Congregants of an Anglican church in a sparsely populated rainforest village in Guyana gathered recently to bid on a bounty of bananas, squash and other produce during a community event.

They sang hymns and rang a bell after each successful bid.

They offered grateful devotions typical of a harvest festival but also asked for peace for their community amid what they see as an existential threat.

Their village, Surama, is part of Guyana's Essequibo region — a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals that Venezuela claims as its own and whose future it intends to decide Sunday with a referendum.

The practical and legal implications of the vote, which among other things calls for turning Essequibo into a Venezuelan state, remain unclear, but the referendum has left area residents on edge.

“We are praying, we are hoping and we are having faith that nothing negative will come,” said Loreen Allicock, who led the congregation during the harvest festival. “We want to continue living a peaceful life in this beautiful land of ours.”

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro has thrown the full weight of his government into the effort, using patriotic rhetoric to try to summon voters to the polls to answer five questions over the territory, including whether current and future area residents should be granted Venezuelan citizenship.

Guyana sees the referendum as a case of annexation and asked the International Court of Justice last month to halt parts of the vote.

The court has not issued a decision, but even if it rules against Venezuela, Maduro's government intends to hold the election Sunday.

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