Venezuelans across the globe Sunday appeared to be turning out in droves to reject the government’s controversial plan to rewrite the constitution at a time when the South American nation is staggering under protests and violence.
Venezuelans in more than 75 countries and across the nation began lining up in the pre-dawn hours to vote in a largely symbolic referendum to denounce plans to convene a National Constituent Assembly that many fear is another attempt by President Nicolás Maduro to shutdown dissent and hold onto power.
Not surprisingly, turnout appeared to be strongest in opposition strongholds in the capital and abroad.
The line outside the Watsco Center at the University of Miami — one of the eight Venezuelan voting sites in South Florida — snaked around the basketball arena and into a long stretch of parking lots, with waits stretching 90 minutes in the early afternoon.
"Who are we? Venezuela!" people in the crowd chanted. "What do we want? Freedom!"
As cars streamed in flying, vendors along the line sold T-shirts emblazoned with the flag and political opposition slogans. There was no question that most, if not all, were intending to reject the constituent assembly.
But the turnout was also surprisingly strong in parts of the capital considered ruling-party bulwarks.
In the municipality of Libertador, near downtown Caracas, voters had come out despite fears that they might face retaliation from pro-government groups.
"Yes I'm scared," said Yoviann Suárez, a 19-year-old student. "But if I live with fear, and don't take a risk, nothing will ever change here."
Reviewing pictures of long lines in different parts of the country, some analysts were predicting that more than 8 million people might vote in the plebiscite.
"Places that are emblematic for being pro-government are seeing the massive presence of voters," Jesús Seguías, with DatinCorp polling firm, said.
With almost 20 million registered voters in Venezuela, the opposition has been hoping to break the 10 million mark.
Even so, the administration has said it won't recognize the results of the referendum and will move forward with the constitutional overhaul regardless of the outcome. The administration also held a competing "trial-run" Sunday for its July 30 vote to pick more than 500 delegates for the new entity.
As state-run media was touting the government's simulacrum as an overwhelming success it all but ignored the opposition event.
Cilia Flores, the first lady and a candidate for the constituent assembly, said the turnout for the government event was proof of the people’s “love” for “President Nicolás Maduro and the revolution.”
"The National Constituent Assembly is peace," she said. "Change is coming July 30th with the constituent, and it fills us with much more determination.”
Maduro has said the new body is the "only solution" to bring peace to a country that has been racked by more than 100 days of protests that have left more than 90 dead, thousands injured and hundreds detained.
But the opposition says the government is ignoring Sunday’s turnout at its own peril. And some parties are pushing for a national strike — in addition to the almost daily protests — to try to force the administration’s hand.
"The government still has time to turn back and cancel this constituent [assembly] that nobody wants," Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state, said in a statement. "This constituent isn’t going to resolve any of Venezuela’s problems."
The opposition fears that Maduro will use the new body to snuff out the opposition-controlled National Assembly and further delay, or outright eliminate, upcoming elections. In addition, critics say the government is acting illegally by not allowing voters to decide if the constitutional body should be convened or not.
Along with accepting or rejecting the constituent assembly, Sunday’s opposition ballot is also asking voters if they want the armed forces and public officials to defend the 1999 constitution; and if voters support general elections and the conformation of a "government of national unity to restore the constitutional order."
Carlos Rodríguez, a 47-year-old manager in the opposition-controlled neighborhood of Chacao, said he said he voted "yes" on all three questions. Even though the administration says his vote is meaningless, he said it can’t continue ignoring the country.
"We have to prove that we don’t want this government and it has to listen," he said.
Polls close at 5 p.m and organizers say they will announce the results late Sunday.
Miami Herald reporters Patricia Mazzei and Amy Driscoll contributed to this report.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss