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With patriotic reggaeton and videos, Venezuela's government fans territorial dispute with Guyana

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Middle school student Jeanmaikol Castrillo can quickly point out Venezuela on a map and identify what’s around it — the Caribbean Sea and the countries of Colombia, Brazil and Guyana.

But the map with which he is familiar differs greatly from those included in plenty of books, textbooks and even a CIA website. It shows a much larger Venezuela, one that includes a big chunk of Guyana.

Venezuelans hold as self-evident truth that their homeland’s eastern end includes Guyana's Essequibo region next to the Atlantic — a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals. As students, they learn it is subject to a century-old dispute and then, for the most part, forget about it.

These days, however, Venezuela’s government wants it to be the focus of their attention.

President Nicolás Maduro and his allies are appealing to Venezuelans' patriotism as they summon voters supposedly to decide the territory’s future in a Dec. 3 referendum, although the legal and practical implications of the vote are questionable. They are using leaflets, reggaeton, videos and other content to promote what Jeanmaikol already knows.

“The Essequibo belongs to Venezuela,” the 11-year-old said firmly outside his school. He then added that the two South American neighbors are fighting over the territory “because it has gold, a lot of wealth, and oil, too.”

Most of Guyana’s foreign investment is in the 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) area, which accounts for two-thirds of its territory. Yet, Venezuela has considered Essequibo as its own since gaining independence from Spain in 1811, and it disputes the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

Venezuela’s commitment to pursue the territorial claim has fluctuated over the years. Its interest piqued again in 2015 when ExxonMobil announced it had found oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.

But the five questions it plans to ask voters about Essequibo prompted Guyana to urge the International Court of Justice on Nov. 14 to halt parts of the referendum, telling judges it poses an “existential” threat.

Maduro and his allies are encouraging voters to answer “yes” to all the questions, one of which proposes creating a Venezuelan state in the Essequibo territory and granting Venezuelan citizenship to the area's current and future residents.

The government has not explained how it would create the state should voters approve it. The Ministry of Communication and Information did not respond to requests for interviews with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, who leads the government’s Essequibo-related efforts, and Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations.

“The collective decision called for here involves nothing less than the annexation of the territory in dispute in this case,” Paul Reichler, an American lawyer representing Guyana, told the world court. "This is a textbook example of annexation.”

Venezuela considers Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colony.

The disputed boundary was decided by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.

Venezuelan officials contend the Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration. Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains the initial accord is legal and binding.

Now, Venezuelan voters will also be asked whether they “agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law,” the 1899 boundary and whether they support the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument" to reach a solution.

To get people ready, Maduro’s government has embarked on what he calls a “pedagogical electoral campaign,” and he has become a sort of teacher-in-chief, giving hours-long nationally televised history lessons on Essequibo.

School teachers and parents have taken notice.

“The oldest one has to make a drawing highlighting the Essequibo,” Luz Marina Rua said referring to her son’s middle school homework. “Yesterday, I had to make a bib for my preschool daughter that represented bauxite, a mineral she was going to play in a sort of performance and say, ‘I am the rock that appears in the Essequibo.’”

Rua, 38, remembers learning as a child that the territory is under dispute and being taught to mark it with diagonal lines on any map. But, she said, it wasn’t until Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, became president in 1999 that she noticed the Venezuelan government start “to pay attention to it.”

After taking office, Chávez promised to seek redress for the 1899 boundary accord “injustice.” He then softened his rhetoric, and Venezuela began supplying oil to Guyana and other countries at preferential rates until a drop in crude prices and mismanagement pushed the nation into a complex economic and political crisis that has not ended.

While ExxonMobil's 2015 discovery fueled the dispute, it also proved to be convenient for Venezuela’s government.

“It appears to be something that politicians in Venezuela use every now and then to gin up support, to gin up that sentiment, I guess, over what is Venezuela and what it means to be Venezuelan,” said Anthony Cummings, associate professor of geospatial information sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Maduro has agreed with a faction of the opposition to hold a presidential election in 2024, but discontent with his United Socialist Party of Venezuela was underlined in October when over 2.4 million people voted in the opposition’s presidential primary.

The turnout exceeded expectations and prompted the government to label the vote as fraudulent. And now, chants and speeches at rallies to drum up attention for the referendum are also in support of Maduro.

Guyana’s people believe Essequibo is theirs and see no legal issue in the matter, said Cummings, who has written about the dispute and grew up in Guyana, four miles from the border with Venezuela.

After years of fruitless mediation, Guyana asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule the 1899 border decision as valid and binding. Judges accepted the case last April, rejecting Venezuela's argument that the court could not hear it without the involvement of the United Kingdom, Guyana’s colonial master during the disputed decision.

While judges will likely rule within weeks on Guyana’s request to halt the referendum, they need a few years to issue a border decision, which would be final and legally binding. Still, a referendum question asks whether Venezuelans agree with their country’s “historic position of not recognizing" the world’s court jurisdiction in the territorial dispute.

Caracas-based lawyer Rocío San Miguel said that question shows Maduro’s government intends to abandon the case even though court proceedings will continue regardless of Venezuela’s participation. She expects public employees, contractors and others dependent on the government to be “compulsively led to vote” and effectively give the state the cover it needs to make an irrational decision.

“It is as if there is a piece of land that you say is yours, and you decide, ‘I am not going to court anymore,’” San Miguel said. “Well, I am going to go, and I am going to demonstrate to the judge that you have no rights. Who loses? You or I? He who does not attend loses.”

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