Sym­bolic re­bel­lion in Venezuela

Ac­tivists say mil­lions par­tic­i­pated in an un­of­fi­cial vote on leader’s plans

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Mery Mo­gol­lon and Pa­trick J. McDon­nell

CARACAS, Venezuela — Gov­ern­ment op­po­nents sought to deal a sym­bolic blow Sunday to Venezue­lan President Ni­co­las Maduro, cast­ing votes in an un­of­fi­cial ref­er­en­dum de­signed to re­ject his con­tro­ver­sial plan for a con­sti­tu­tional over­haul.

The bal­lot­ing was or­ga­nized by the op­po­si­tion and de­nounced by the gov­ern­ment as il­le­gal and sedi­tious. But turnout ap­peared high at thou­sands of makeshift vot­ing places set up through­out the coun­try.

Op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said mil­lions par­tic­i­pated, and the count­ing of bal­lots con­tin­ued into the night.

Although there were no im­me­di­ate re­sults re­leased, the count was ex­pected to mark a clear re­pu­di­a­tion of Maduro, since pro-gov­ern­ment Venezue­lans re­jected the ef­fort.

Still, it seemed un­likely that the vote would shift the points of view of many in this long-po­lar­ized na­tion. Gov­ern­ment back­ers de­nounced the bal­lot­ing as a public re­la­tions scheme meant to sap sup­port from Maduro’s em­bat­tled ad­min­is­tra­tion, which still has sub­stan­tial sup­port among poor and work­ing-class Venezue­lans.

A cel­e­bra­tory mood seemed to dom­i­nate as gov­ern­ment op­po­nents gath­ered from early in the morn­ing to cry, “Free­dom!” raise the na­tional flag and cast bal­lots.

“I’m poor but not stupid,” said Car­men Gar­cia, a restau­rant cook and 33year-old mother of three who voted against the gov­ern­ment. “We know that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t work, that they only use us to re­main in power, to make us poorer all the time.”

Venezue­lans who live abroad were also cast­ing bal­lots. In neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia, to which many Venezue­lans have fled, there were emo­tional scenes as ex­pa­tri­ates gath­ered to take part in the anti-Maduro ref­er­en­dum. Vot­ing was also re­ported to be brisk among the many Venezue­lans liv­ing in Spain and else­where in Europe.

Some un­rest was re­ported in Venezuela, which has been racked by vi­o­lent protests in re­cent months.

At least one per­son was re­ported killed and three in­jured in what the op­po­si­tion termed an at­tack on a polling site in the poor Ca­tia district of the cap­i­tal, Caracas, a bul­wark of gov­ern­ment sup­port. Lo­cal me­dia said that as­sailants fired shots and tear gas as op­po­si­tion ac­tivists scat­tered and took shel­ter in a church.

Sunday’s sym­bolic plebiscite came two weeks be­fore a gov­ern­ment-backed vote to elect a new assem­bly with the power to re­write the coun­try’s 1999 con­sti­tu­tion.

The op­po­si­tion has called for a boy­cott of the July 30 vote, la­bel­ing it a power play by Maduro and his back­ers. The gov­ern­ment ap­plauds the prospect of a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly as nec­es­sary re­form.

Once-wealthy Venezuela has be­come an eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ter zone, riven by protests and suf­fer­ing from wide­spread short­ages. About 100 peo­ple are re­ported to have been killed in more than three months of near-daily street demon­stra­tions. Even some tra­di­tion­ally pro-gov­ern­ment dis­tricts have turned against the ad­min­is­tra­tion as short­ages of food­stuffs, medicine and other ba­sics have made life in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult. Venezue­lans have be­come ac­cus­tomed to lin­ing up for hours to pur­chase food.

The op­po­si­tion blames the poli­cies of the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of Maduro, suc­ces­sor to Hugo Chavez, the late left-wing fire­brand. The gov­ern­ment blames what it terms a U.S. “eco­nomic war” against Venezuela, which it says is aided by right-wing col­lab­o­ra­tors in the coun­try.

Maduro and his al­lies have long framed the coun­try’s cri­sis as a United States-backed ef­fort to roll back re­forms that have ben­e­fited poor and work­ingclass Venezue­lans at the ex­pense of an elite that dom­i­nates the na­tion. Washington has de­nied any role in fo­ment­ing the cri­sis.

Fall­ing world oil prices have con­trib­uted heav­ily to the eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties in Venezuela, one of the world’s ma­jor pro­duc­ers.

Par­tic­i­pants in Sunday’s in­for­mal plebiscite were asked three yes-no ques­tions: Do they re­ject Maduro’s planned con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly? Do they want the armed forces to sup­port the ex­ist­ing con­sti­tu­tion and the de­ci­sions of the op­po­si­tion-controlled congress? And do they want a na­tional unity gov­ern­ment to be formed and fresh elec­tions held?

Maduro’s term ends next year, but the op­po­si­tion has called for early bal­lot­ing on a new gov­ern­ment.

As the op­po­si­tion sought to make a point with its un­of­fi­cial ref­er­en­dum, the gov­ern­ment con­ducted what it called a dry run of the planned vote for the new con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly sought by Maduro.

The gov­ern­ment de­clared this vote a great suc­cess, say­ing thou­sands had par­tic­i­pated na­tion­wide. Maduro called it a “hymn to peace,” the of­fi­cial Venezue­lan news ser­vice said.

The president did not com­ment di­rectly on the op­po­si­tion’s ref­er­en­dum against his plan to re­vise the con­sti­tu­tion. But he said, “I’m call­ing on the op­po­si­tion to re­turn to peace, to re­spect for the con­sti­tu­tion, to sit and talk.”

Raul Arboleda AFP/Getty Im­ages

IN BO­GOTA’S Bo­li­var Square, Venezue­lans re­sid­ing in Colom­bia gather to take part in the un­of­fi­cial ref­er­en­dum de­signed to re­ject Venezue­lan President Ni­co­las Maduro’s plan for an over­haul of the con­sti­tu­tion. Ex­pa­tri­ates also voted in Spain and else­where in Europe.

Fed­erico Parra AFP/Getty Im­ages

OP­PO­SI­TION LEADER Hen­rique Capriles stands un­der a Venezue­lan f lag in Caracas dur­ing the vote, which the gov­ern­ment called il­le­gal and sedi­tious.

Ron­aldo Schemidt AFP/Getty Im­ages

FOR­MER Mex­i­can President Vi­cente Fox, left, was named by the Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion as an ob­server.

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