A ship creates an artificial island by extracting offshore sand to create a coastal port for offshore oil production at the mouth of the Demerara River in Georgetown, Guyana, Tuesday, April 11, 2023. Guyana is poised to become the world's fourth-largest offshore oil producer, placing it ahead of Qatar, the United States, Mexico and Norway. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
CNN  — 

Venezuelans voted by a wide margin Sunday to approve the takeover of an oil-rich region in neighboring Guyana – the latest escalation in a long-running territorial dispute between the two countries, fueled by the recent discovery of vast offshore energy resources.

The area in question, the densely forested Essequibo region, amounts to about two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory and is roughly the size of Florida.

Sunday’s largely symbolic referendum asked voters if they agreed with creating a Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region, providing its population with Venezuelan citizenship and “incorporating that state into the map of Venezuelan territory.”

In a news conference announcing preliminary results from the first tranche of counted votes, the Venezuelan National Electoral Council said voters chose “yes” more than 95% of the time on each of five questions on the ballot.

It is unclear what steps Venezuela’s government would take to enforce its claim, however.

Venezuela has long claimed the land, which it argues was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period. It dismisses an 1899 ruling by international arbitrators that set the current boundaries when Guyana was still a British colony, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has cast the referendum in anti-imperialist sentiment on social media.

Guyana has called the move a step towards annexation and an “existential threat.”

Last week, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali visited troops in Essequibo and dramatically hoisted a Guyanese flag on a mountain overlooking the border with Venezuela.

The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, ruled before the vote that “Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute.” It plans to hold a trial in the spring on the issue, following years of review and decades of failed negotiations. Venezuela does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction on the issue, however.

What happens next

The vote’s result was widely expected within Venezuela, although its practical implications are likely to be minimal, analysts say, with the creation of a Venezuelan state within the Essequibo a remote possibility.

It’s unclear what steps the Venezuelan government would take to follow through on the result, and any attempt to assert a claim would certainly be met with international resistance.

Still, the escalating rhetoric has prompted troop movements in the region and saber-rattling in both countries, drawing comparisons from Guyanese leaders to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many residents in the predominantly indigenous region are reportedly on edge.

“The longstanding row over the border between Guyana and Venezuela has risen to a level of unprecedented tension in the relations between our countries,” Guyanese Foreign Minister Robert Persaud wrote Wednesday in Americas Quarterly.

Even without implementing the referendum, which would require further constitutional steps and the likely use of force, Maduro may stand to gain politically from the vote amid a challenging re-election campaign.

In October, the Venezuelan opposition showed rare momentum after rallying around Maria Corina Machado, a center-right former legislator who has attacked Maduro for overseeing soaring inflation and food shortages, in the country’s first primary in 11 years.

“An authoritarian government facing a difficult political situation is always tempted to look around for a patriotic issue so it can wrap itself in the flag and rally support, and I think that’s a large part of what Maduro is doing,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.