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All Eyes on Venezuela

  • Volunteers count the ballots after a poll station closed during a symbolic referendum in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 16, 2017. Venezuela's opposition called for a massive turnout Sunday in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that's escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests. (AP Photo/Jesus Hernandez)

  • Flor Rojas hands her Venezuelan flag to her daughter, Sophia La Loggia, after voting in the country's referendum at the Watsco Center at Coral Gables on Sunday, July 16, 2017. (Bryan Cereijo/Miami Herald/TNS)

  • A voter displayed her inked finger after she voted. Thousands of Venezuelan nationals headed to the polls to vote on country's weekend plebiscite that ask voters if they support the government's plan to elect an unpopular National Constituent Assembly that will overhaul the 1999 constitution at Miami-Dade College West Campus in Doral, Florida on Sunday, July 16, 2017. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

  • Opposition leader Henrique Capriles casts his ballot during a symbolic referendum in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 16, 2017. Venezuela's opposition called for a massive turnout Sunday in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that's escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)



Miami Herald
Monday, July 17, 2017

Caracas, Venezuela — Venezuelans around the world turned out in large numbers Sunday to reject President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution as the South American nation staggers under protests and violence.

Even as the opposition hailed the big turnout for the nonbinding 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.

Voting was extended across parts of the country on Sunday as the opposition said it had been overwhelmed by the crowds, and officials said they believed several million people had cast a ballot to reject the government’s plans.

“If I was one Nicolas 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 in which more than 90 people died, thousands were injured and hundreds were 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 new reports of intimidation and bloodshed. The MUD coalition of opposition parties said they 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 as many as two dead and four injured.

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 Susrez, a 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 said 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,” said Jesus Seguias of the DatinCorp polling firm.

Not surprisingly, voting appeared to be particularly intense among Venezuela’s expatriate community. In Florida, more than 100,000 Venezuelans were thought to have cast ballots.

Venezuelans in more than 75 countries were thought to have cast votes.

With almost 20 million registered voters, the opposition is hoping to break the 10 million mark to send a message to the government.

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 elections in which voters will be asked to choose more than 500 delegates for the new constituent assembly.

Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife and a candidate for the constituent assembly, said the strong government turnout was proof of the people’s “love” for “President Nicolas Maduro and the revolution.”

“The National Constituent Assembly is peace,” she said. “Change is coming July 30 with the constituent, and it fills us with much more determination.”

The opposition complains that 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 cancel, 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.