Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has ordered the country’s state-owned companies to “immediately” begin to explore and exploit the oil, gas and mines in Guyana’s Essequibo region, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals that Venezuela claims as its own.
The announcement came a day after Maduro declared victory in a weekend referendum on whether to claim sovereignty over the region.
Maduro said he would “immediately” proceed “to grant operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the entire area of our Essequibo.”
He also ordered the creation of local subsidiaries of Venezuelan public companies, including oil giant PDVSA and mining conglomerate Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.
On Sunday Venezuelans approved a referendum called by Maduro to claim sovereignty over Essequibo.
Venezuela has long argued the territory, which comprises two-thirds of Guyana, was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. But Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.
Guyana has denounced the referendum as pretext to annex the land. It had appealed to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ top court, which on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action to change the status quo until the panel can rule on the two countries’ competing claims, which could take years.
There were reports that voting stations across the country were largely quiet on Sunday as most voters shunned the issue. The turnout appeared so underwhelming that the Venezuelan government has been widely accused by analysts of falsifying the results.
Guyana’s foreign secretary said on Monday that Venezuelans had “sent Maduro a very strong message” and sources inside Guyana’s government told the Guardian they were “relieved” by the surprisingly poor turnout.
Associated Press contributed to this report