Just two weeks before an election to decide the delegates who will rewrite Venezuela's national constitution, opposition activists held a symbolic vote of their own on Sunday. In the nonbinding referendum, roughly 98 percent of voters rejected President Nicolas Maduro's plan to replace the constitution.
More than 7 million Venezuelans voted in the referendum, according to the local university administrators tasked with overseeing the vote. NPR's Philip Reeves notes that number — which includes nearly 700,000 expatriates who voted overseas — constitutes about a third of Venezuela's registered voters.
"It's a way to show how many people are actually against the government, and to give support to people that are actually doing the protests and have been arrested," expat Andrea de Lima, who participated in South Florida, tells reporter Keyvan Antonio Heydari.
Still, Maduro has vowed that Sunday's referendum will do nothing to stall a July 30 election for delegates for a constituent assembly, which will be responsible for rewriting the country's 18-year-old constitution. That rewrite would have the capacity to dissolve the National Assembly, an opposition-heavy body of lawmakers that has been a source of frustration for Maduro for years.
It was an earlier attempt to dissolve this legislature — an attempt made by the Supreme Court, then quickly reversed in early April — that set off more than 100 days of unrest in Venezuela. The anti-government protests, and their clashes with government security forces, have seen nearly 100 people killed and more than 1,500 injured in the three and a half months that followed.
The referendum Sunday was also marred by violence. A 61-year-old nurse was shot dead and three more were injured when men on motorbikes — described by the opposition as members of a "paramilitary" — opened fire on a polling place.
Maduro has positioned his proposed constitutional rewrite as a solution to this continuing unrest, calling Sunday's vote "a meaningless internal exercise."
But NPR's Philip Reeves notes the unofficial referendum does send a message.
"It clearly states that Maduro is as deeply unpopular as he has long been thought to be, and it shows, as the polls have suggested, that Venezuelans are overwhelmingly against the idea of establishing a constitutional assembly," Philip reports.
And NPR's Greg Allen says that sentiment extends to Venezuelans living in the U.S. One expatriate, Mario Di Giovanni, tells Greg that while the vote isn't official, the process is supported by Venezuela's constitution.
"So for us it's binding," Di Giovanni says, "and we are following the constitution. "
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