Sym­bolic ref­er­en­dum

Yet even as the op­po­si­tion hailed the turnout for the 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.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - COM­PILED BY DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE STAFF FROM WIRE RE­PORTS In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Michael Weissenstein and Fabiola Sanchez of The As­so­ci­ated Press; by Carolina Mil­lan, Noris Soto, Fabiola Zerpa and Nathan Crooks of Bloomberg News; by Me

Vol­un­teers count bal­lots Sunday af­ter a poll sta­tion closed dur­ing a sym­bolic ref­er­en­dum in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela’s op­po­si­tion called for a mas­sive turnout Sunday in a sym­bolic re­jec­tion of President Ni­co­las Maduro’s plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Venezue­lans lined up across the coun­try and in ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­ni­ties around the world Sunday to vote in a sym­bolic re­jec­tion of President Ni­co­las Maduro’s plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion.

A 61-year-old woman was killed and four peo­ple were wounded in shoot­ing that broke out af­ter gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers on mo­tor­cy­cles swarmed an op­po­si­tion polling site at a church in the tra­di­tion­ally pro-gov­ern­ment Ca­tia neigh­bor­hood of west­ern Caracas.

The op­po­si­tion mayor of the Caracas bor­ough of Su­cre, Car­los Ocariz, said pro-gov­ern­ment para­mil­i­tary groups at­tacked vot­ers out­side Our Lady of Car­men Church around 3 p.m. The chief pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice said Xiomara Soledad Scott, a nurse, was killed and four oth­ers were wounded in the in­ci­dent.

Video posted to so­cial me­dia showed large crowds out­side the church, then hun­dreds of peo­ple run­ning in panic as mo­tor­cy­cle-rid­ing men zoomed past and shots rang out.

Maduro, whose South American na­tion has been bat­tered by short­ages and anti-gov­ern­ment protests, made no men­tion of the in­ci­dent in com­ments on state tele­vi­sion shortly af­ter the of­fi­cial close of op­po­si­tion polls at 4 p.m., but he called for an end to vi­o­lence that he blamed on the op­po­si­tion.

“I’m call­ing on the op­po­si­tion to re­turn to peace, to re­spect for the con­sti­tu­tion, to sit and talk,” Maduro said. “Let’s start a new round of talks, of di­a­logue for peace.”

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

The op­po­si­tion called sup­port­ers to 2,000 sites across the coun­try to fill out bal­lots fea­tur­ing three yes-or-no ques­tions: Do they re­ject the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly? Do they want the armed forces to back congress? Do they sup­port the for­ma­tion of a gov­ern­ment com­prised both of Maduro back­ers and op­po­nents?

While no of­fi­cial re­sults or es­ti­mates of voter turnout were avail­able by early even­ing in Venezuela, op­po­si­tion al­liance mem­bers cel­e­brated the strong dis­play of sup­port, with op­po­si­tion deputy Juan An­dres Me­jia say­ing that mil­lions of peo­ple have cast votes, “with­out a doubt,” ac­cord­ing to a post on this Twit­ter ac­count.

CON­STITUENT ASSEM­BLY

Yet even as the op­po­si­tion hailed the turnout for the 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.

In what ap­peared to be smaller num­bers in many parts of the cap­i­tal, gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers went to polling sta­tions in a re­hearsal for a July 30 vote to elect mem­bers of the con­stituent assem­bly that will re­tool Venezuela’s 1999 con­sti­tu­tion.

Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife and a can­di­date for the 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 says that vote has been struc­tured to pack the assem­bly with gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and al­low Maduro to elim­i­nate the few re­main­ing checks on his power, cre­at­ing a Cuba-style sys­tem dom­i­nated by his So­cial­ist Party.

The op­po­si­tion in­stead hoped that its ref­er­en­dum would send a mes­sage to the rul­ing party.

“If I was one of 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.”

The suc­cess of the op­po­si­tion’s sym­bolic ref­er­en­dum will be mea­sured by how many mil­lions par­tic­i­pate. Demo­cratic Unity, a coali­tion of about 20 op­po­si­tion par­ties, printed 14 mil­lion bal­lots for vot­ers in­side and out­side the coun­try of 31 mil­lion peo­ple. Few ex­pected turnout to be that high, but an­a­lysts said par­tic­i­pa­tion by more than 8 mil­lion peo­ple would sig­nif­i­cantly add to pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion ap­peared to be high, with large crowds of peo­ple lin­ing up at ta­bles in churches and parks across the cap­i­tal.

“Since we opened at 7 a.m., the line hasn’t let up,” said Pe­dro Gar­cia, or­ga­nizer of a vot­ing sta­tion filled with hun­dreds of peo­ple in the south Caracas neigh­bor­hood of El Valle, a strong­hold of gov­ern­ment sup­port that has been weak­en­ing in re­cent years.

Juan Madriz, a 45-yearold in­sur­ance com­pany em­ployee, said he didn’t ob­ject to rewrit­ing the con­sti­tu­tion per se, but he re­jected Maduro’s de­ci­sion to do so with­out putting that de­ci­sion to a vote, as his pre­de­ces­sor Hugo Chavez did.

“If they’re forc­ing us, it isn’t democ­racy,” Madriz said.

Is­abel San­tander, a 67-year-old re­tired au­di­tor, said she was vot­ing against the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly as a protest against the coun­try’s eco­nomic col­lapse.

“I signed be­cause there’s no medicine, no food, no se­cu­rity,” she said. “There’s no sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, no free­dom of ex­pres­sion.”

Maduro and the mil­i­tary dom­i­nate most state in­sti­tu­tions, but the op­po­si­tion con­trols the congress and holds three of 23 gov­er­nor­ships. The coun­try’s chief pros­e­cu­tor has re­cently bro­ken with the rul­ing party.

The gov­ern­ment calls the op­po­si­tion vote a ma­nip­u­la­tion aimed at desta­bi­liz­ing the coun­try, and it has been urg­ing sup­port­ers to par­tic­i­pate in the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly, which it calls a way of restor­ing peace to Venezuela.

“Some com­rades and broth­ers may be worn out by the right’s great me­dia cam­paign. Now they’ve in­vented this July 16 thing to put the bur­den on their own peo­ple and evade their re­spon­si­bil­ity,” So­cial­ist Party Vice President Dios­dado Ca­bello said Satur­day. “That’s how the right is, ma­nip­u­la­tive, fool­ing their own peo­ple.”

For the gov­ern­ment-backed re­hearsal, hun­dreds of peo­ple lined up out­side a school in El Valle guarded by heav­ily armed soldiers and mili­ti­a­men, wait­ing qui­etly to place a prac­tice vote that also served as a show of sup­port for the gov­ern­ment.

“Our president Chavez sup­ported the poor, the peo­ple,” said Yveth Me­len­dez, a 41-year-old home­maker. “To­day we’re fol­low­ing his legacy, with President Ni­co­las Maduro. … The con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly is some­thing that ben­e­fits the peo­ple.”

Polls show that barely 20 per­cent of Venezue­lans fa­vor rewrit­ing the Chavez’s 1999 con­sti­tu­tion — about the same level of sup­port as for Maduro.

Op­po­nents of Venezuela’s gov­ern­ment blame it for turn­ing one of the re­gion’s most pros­per­ous coun­tries into an eco­nomic bas­ket case with a shrink­ing econ­omy, soar­ing in­fla­tion and wide­spread short­ages. The gov­ern­ment blames the cri­sis on an eco­nomic war waged by its op­po­nents and out­side back­ers. The pe­tro­leum-rich na­tion has been hit hard by fall­ing world oil prices.

Clashes be­tween protesters and po­lice have left at least 93 peo­ple dead, 1,500 wounded and hun­dreds be­hind bars.

FOOD SCARCE

Though it was once the rich­est coun­try in South Amer­ica, food prices in Venezuela have sky­rock­eted in re­cent years, forc­ing many peo­ple to scav­enge for things to eat.

The cost of ba­sic gro­ceries is now about five times the min­i­mum wage.

On July 1, the monthly min­i­mum wage was raised for the third time this year, to help con­trol in­fla­tion. Still, the in­crease does lit­tle to help strug­gling fam­i­lies, and the coun­try’s in­fla­tion rate could reach 720 per­cent this year, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund.

Since April, protesters have taken to the streets, de­mand­ing in­ter­na­tional food aid and early pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Chavez, who was elected in 1998, be­came widely pop­u­lar for his prom­ise to share the coun­try’s oil wealth with the poor and to guar­an­tee food se­cu­rity. To fund his “21st Cen­tury So­cial­ism” agenda, he re­lied on oil rev­enue, which ac­counted for 93 per­cent of ex­ports in 2008.

The gov­ern­ment im­ported goods and sold them at sub­si­dized prices to make food af­ford­able to the coun­try’s poor.

But when oil prices col­lapsed, gov­ern­ment spend­ing be­came un­sus­tain­able. By late 2014, oil money had stopped flow­ing in. Venezuela had saved lit­tle from the oil price boom of the 2000s. Un­der Maduro, the coun­try slashed im­ports and used thin­ning re­serves to pay its for­eign debt and avoid de­fault. As a re­sult, food and medicine be­came scarce.

And com­pound­ing the prob­lem, a se­ries of gov­ern­ment ac­tions par­a­lyzed lo­cal food pro­duc­tion. For years, oil rev­enue had en­abled the gov­ern­ment to im­port most con­sumer goods. Mean­while, the gov­ern­ment in­creased reg­u­la­tions, sti­fling do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion. And when the coun­try cut im­ports, weak­ened lo­cal pro­duc­ers could not keep up with the de­mand.

Still, the gov­ern­ment blames its op­po­si­tion and for­eign ene­mies for the food scarcity, ac­cus­ing pri­vate com­pa­nies of in­ten­tion­ally cut­ting back pro­duc­tion in an at­tempt to desta­bi­lize the coun­try.

As a re­sult, Venezue­lans have turned to ex­pen­sive im­ports or to the black mar­ket. For many peo­ple, sta­ples such as eggs and rice have be­come un­af­ford­able.

AP/ARI­ANA CUBILLOS

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