More than 7 million Venezuelans vote in anti-Maduro referendum

A remarkable statement of opposition to the presidency of Nicolas Maduro took place yesterday in Venezuela when more than 7 million people went to the polls in an unofficial referendum on his regime.

The ballot asked three questions of voters: should a constituent assembly be formed to change the constitution, should the military defend the current constitution, and should there be an early vote before Maduro's term ends in 2019.  More than 98% of the 7.2 million people who cast ballots indicated their support for the opposition.

Maduro has called for his own vote on July 30 to approve a super-assembly that would have the power to rewrite the constitution and change state institutions like the judiciary.  Most observers see this as a power-grab by Maduro that would make him a dictator.


Sunday's participation by nearly 7.2 million Venezuelan voters compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections, which they won by a landslide, and the 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro

The event appeared to rejuvenate the opposition amid weariness with street protests, but does not augur for a change of government in the short term or a solution to the political stalemate.

The opposition described it as an act of civil disobedience that will be followed by "zero hour," a possible reference to a national strike or other escalated actions against Maduro.

Lines formed during the day at makeshift polling stations at theaters, sports fields, and traffic circles in the oil-rich nation of 30 million as Venezuelans furious over food shortages and rampant inflation sought to make their voices heard.

There was a festive atmosphere under the Caribbean sun in most places, with people blasting music, honking car horns, waving Venezuelan flags, and chanting "Yes we can!"

"Maduro has done everything very badly, and now, via a fraudulent constituent assembly, he wants to gain time, but his time is up," said shopkeeper Rafael Betancourt, voting in late leftist leader Hugo Chavez' home state of Barinas, which has flipped to the opposition.

"This is the proof that the people will kick out whoever submits us to hunger and despair," he said, as hundreds waited to cast their ballot.

Crowds gathered to vote in other former "Chavista" strongholds too, such as the poor slums of Caracas.

The opposition coalition said a pro-government "paramilitary" gang opened fire in the poor neighborhood of Catia, where thousands were participating in the referendum.

A 61-year-old woman was killed and three people were wounded, the state prosecutor's office said.

Mariela Perez, who works in a clinic, said hundreds of people ran into a nearby church when the shots rang out. She said pro-government demonstrators then besieged those inside.

"They started yelling for the priest to come out, that they were going to set him on fire, that this plebiscite was not going to happen," said Perez, 42.

"It was horrible. We were desperate," she said. A church official eventually helped negotiate their exit.

Maduro has refused to recognize the 2015 landslide vote that brought the opposition to power in the legislative assembly.  Everything the opposition has tried to head off Maduro's lust for control has been stymied by the high court, which is still under Maduro's thumb.  The result has been a gridlock that has paralyzed the government at a time when the economy is in free fall.  Basics like food and fuel are virtually unobtainable in Venezuela, leading to mass hunger, unemployment, and hopelessness.

The referendum may be only symbolic, but it is a powerful symbol.  Maduro and his regime remain extremely unpopular, and a demonstration of that fact cannot be lost on the military.

Maduro's Cuban-trained bodyguards and the upper echelons of the officer corps may still be loyal to the president.  But the military is popular in Venezuela.  Whether it will remain so if it becomes too closely associated with Maduro is the question.

While the referendum shows that the opposition still has momentum, the people are becoming exhausted with the daily grind of having to find food to survive and the violence of Maduro's paramilitary thugs.  Maintaining enthusiasm for their cause by the opposition will be a challenge as the crisis drags on month after month.

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