Venezuelans rebuke government in massive ‘symbolic’ vote

Local Venezuelans vote in Doral on country's referendum

The vote was part of the country’s opposition symbolic straw-poll asking voters to reject government plans to overhaul the constitution amid months of escalating and lethal tensions.
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The vote was part of the country’s opposition symbolic straw-poll asking voters to reject government plans to overhaul the constitution amid months of escalating and lethal tensions.

Venezuelans around the globe turned out in droves Sunday 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.

Even as the opposition was hailing the massive turnout for the informal referendum, the socialist administration seemed no closer to dropping its plans to convene a National Constituent Assembly that critics fear will be one more step toward totalitarian rule.

Organizers said that more than 7.2 million people cast a ballot Sunday, despite the limited number of voting centers, and that 98 percent rejected the government’s plan.

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“If I was one Nicolás Maduro’s advisers, I would tell him to look at what’s happening all over the country [and] stop trying to impose this constituent on the people,” said Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state. “What Maduro should do in the next hours is cancel the fraudulent constituent.”

So far, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. On Sunday, Maduro downplayed the vote saying the opposition was “demoralized.” And election authorities reminded the country that the results were not legally binding.

Facing more than 100 days of protests that have left more than 90 dead, thousands injured and hundreds detained, Maduro has said the National Constituent Assembly is the “only solution” to bring peace to the country.

But even as Maduro was preaching pace, there were fresh reports of intimidation and bloodshed. The MUD coalition of opposition parties said they’d had received reports of at least 236 “irregularities” during the referendum. In one of the most serious incidents, pro-government gunmen allegedly opened fire on voters in the Catia neighborhood of Caracas leaving at least one woman dead and four injured.

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Even so, turnout was strong even in parts of the capital considered ruling-party strongholds.

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 ruling-party hotbeds, some analysts were predicting that more than 8 million people might have voted 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.

Not surprisingly, voting appeared to be particularly intense among Venezuela’s ex-pat community. In Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas more than 102,000 Venezuelans cast ballots, according to organizers.

Outside of the Watsco Center at the University of Miami — one of eight voting centers in South Florida — the line snaked around the basketball arena and into the parking lot, with waits stretching 90 minutes in the early afternoon.

Cristina Pocaterra, the election-site coordinator, said the only problem they’d had was “too many volunteers.”

“For Venezuelans in Miami this is an opportunity to show the world that civil society is committed to liberty and democracy,” she said.

As cars streamed by honking horns, vendors sold T-shirts emblazoned with the tri-color Venezuelan flag and political opposition slogans. There was no question that most, if not all, were intending to reject the constituent assembly.

There were also reports of long lines in Georgia and Washington, D.C.

An estimated 12 percent of the Venezuelan population now lives abroad — many of them fleeing the country’s economic and political troubles — and residents in more than 75 countries were thought to have cast votes.

With almost 20 million registered voters, the opposition had been hoping to break the 10 million mark to send a message to the government. But Sunday’s vote still represented a strong turnout, considering that there were only 2,300 voting tables in the country — far fewer than the 14,000 used in most sanctioned votes.

The administration, however, has actively been trying to silence the uproar. It held a competing election on Sunday: a “trial run” for the July 30 vote where voters will be asked to choose more than 500 delegates for the new constituent assembly.

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 strong government turnout 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.”

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The opposition complains the delegate system for the National Constituent Assembly is designed to stack the body with the ruling-party faithful. And they fear Maduro will use the new entity 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 beforehand if the constitutional body should be convened.

Sunday’s ballot gave voters a chance to vote “yes” or “no” on three issues. Along with accepting or rejecting the constituent assembly, voters were asked they wanted the armed forces and public officials to defend the 1999 constitution, and if they wanted general elections and the conformation of a “government of national unity to restore the constitutional order.”

It’s unclear what happens next. On Sunday, Maduro reiterated the need for a national dialogue, but the opposition has said that without concrete concessions, including general elections, there’s nothing to talk about.

And some parties are advocating a national strike — in addition to the almost daily protests — to try to force the government’s hand.

Carlos Rodríguez, a 47-year-old manager in the opposition-controlled neighborhood of Chacao, said he said he voted “yes” on all three questions Sunday.

And although he was aware that his vote might only be symbolic, he said the government can’t keep ignoring the will of the people.

“We have to prove that we don’t want this government,” he said, “and it has to listen.”

El Nuevo Herald Reporter Daniel Shoer-Roth, and Miami Herald reporters Patricia Mazzei and Amy Driscoll contributed to this report