Woman slain, 4 hurt as violence erupts at critical Venezuela vote
CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of Venezulans 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 proposal that’s raising tensions in a nation battered by shortages and anti-government protests.
A 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded in shooting that erupted after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in 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 the Our Lady of Carmen Church around 3 p.m.
Video posted to social media showed massive crowds outside the church, then hundreds of people running in panic outside the church as motorcycleriding men zoomed past and shots rang out.
Maduro 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.”
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 assembly that will retool Venezuela’s 1999 constitution.
The opposition says that vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power.
The success of the opposition’s symbolic referendum will be measured by how many millions participate. Democratic Unity, a coalition of some 20 opposition parties, printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people. Few expected turnout that high, but analysts say participation by more than 8 million people would put 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.
Juan Madriz, a 45-yearold insurance company employee, said he didn’t object to rewriting the constitution per se but 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.
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 opposition is boycotting the constitutional assembly. Instead, it called backers to 2,000 sites across the country to fill out ballots featuring three yesor-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?
Polls show that barely 20 percent of Venezuelans favor rewriting the late Chavez’s 1999 constitution — about the same level of support as for Maduro.
People gather in Caracas on Sunday to cast votes on rewriting the nation’s constitution.