With just days to go before a symbolic referendum called by Venezuelan opposition, protesters on Thursday embraced another spectacle thick with symbolism: Oscar Perez, the fugitive pilot who dropped grenades from a helicopter on the Venezuelan Supreme Court last month, reappeared at an opposition rally and delivered a statement to demonstrators.
"Today is the moment that you are paying tribute to the fallen ones," Perez told the crowd, which had assembled in Caracas to commemorate those who had died during the unrest that has racked Venezuela for months. "The tribute to the fallen ones is not just to be here in this moment. The real tribute is for this dictatorship to fall."
Then Perez, who was flanked by people in masks, said a few words to the media and left the rally on a motorcycle.
It was the first in-person public appearance for the 36-year-old police officer and film actor, who has been the subject of a manhunt since stealing a helicopter and firing on two public buildings. No one was injured in the attack, which the Venezuelan government called a "terrorist act."
It was also a surreal mile marker in what has become a long and desperate struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition activists, which has seethed on city streets for more than 100 days.
Since April 1, when the country's Supreme Court reversed its attempt to dissolve the opposition-heavy National Assembly, tens of thousands of protesters have loudly called for new elections and even Maduro's removal from power. Amid the unrest, the Attorney General's office estimates that at least 92 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured.
Maduro, who asserts the protests against his regime are driven by foreign powers, has offered his own version of a solution to the discord: He has called for the July 30 election of delegates to a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country's 18-year-old constitution.
But, as John Otis noted on Morning Edition earlier this week, Venezuelan law dictates that the government hold a referendum first on whether to conduct that rewrite — a vote that Maduro has refused to schedule.
Opposition leaders have decided to hold a vote anyway this Sunday.
"The opposition is boycotting the election and promoting an alternative round of balloting. On Sunday, a symbolic nationwide plebiscite will be held in which Venezuelans will be asked whether or not they want a new constitution. The opposition is hoping to embarrass Maduro with a massive turnout and millions of Venezuelans voting no."
Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Maduro's government to "respect the wishes of those who want to participate in this consultation and to guarantee people's rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly."
"We appeal to all sides in Venezuela to renounce violence and the harassment of opponents," she said in comments to the media Friday. "We express our hope that Sunday's consultation will proceed peacefully and in the full respect of the human rights of all."
In his brief speech Thursday, Perez called for a nationwide strike next week — and he vowed to be "in the streets defending the public" during Sunday's referendum.
Voters "will use this means to tell the world what we already know," Perez said. "We do not want this narcogovernment, this corruption. And we will win."
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