Venezuelans in their country and scattered around the globe turned out by the thousands for Sunday’s unofficial elections organized by opponents of President Nicolás Maduro to condemn his plans to rewrite the South American nation’s constitution.
Maduro has called for a July 30 vote to elect a special assembly that would rewrite the 1999 constitution. Opposition leaders, who now control Venezuela’s congress, known as the National Assembly, say the changes would allow Maduro consolidate greater power.
While Sunday’s vote has no legal impact because it’s not sanctioned by the government, the opposition sees it as an important, symbolic vote intended to send a strong message condemning Maduro’s plan that has escalated tension in the nation that is already stricken by widespread shortages and that has seen more than 100 days of 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. The chief prosecutor’s office said Xiomara Soledad Scott, a nurse, had been killed and three wounded in the incident.
Video posted to social media showed massive crowds outside the church, then hundreds of people running in panic outside the church as motorcycle-riding 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.”
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, has printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people, The Associated Press reported. Few expect turnout that high, but analysts say participation by more than 8 million people would significantly hike pressure on the government.
By mid-morning Sunday, participation appeared to be high, with thousands 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.
A coalition of opposition parties set up thousands of polling places not only in Venezuela, but also in 80 other countries, from the United States to the Middle East and New Zealand. Lines at polling places suggested that the Venezuelan diaspora has high interest in weighing in on Maduro’s proposed constitutional rewrite.
Voters were being asked to answer three “yes or no” questions: whether they reject the constitutional National Assembly, want the armed forces to back the National Assembly and whether they support the formation of a government made up of supporters and opponents of Maduro.
On social media and under the hashtag #HoyElPuebloDecide, people were posting videos and photographs of long lines of people waiting to vote.
Participating in the vote is important, said Maibe Ponet, 42, who was getting ready to vote in New York City.
“For Venezuelans living abroad, today’s vote is an expression of solidarity for our fellow Venezuelans who have been in the streets for more than 100 days fighting for their basic rights,” Ponet said. “But it’s also an expression of extreme frustration against the government of Maduro; enough is enough. There is no way back, this movement must continue until the government acknowledges our requests.”
Martha Power Pérez voted in a polling station in Doral, Florida.
“People have to know that the majority of people want change and we need this change for Venezuela,” Power Pérez said. “We are going against the president in changing the constitution.”