CARACAS/MIAMI/MADRID – Chanting “freedom!” and waving their country’s tri-color flag, thousands of Venezuelans lined up across the country on Sunday to vote in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that’s escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests.
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 the vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.
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. Few expect turnout that high but analysts say participation by more than 8 million people would significantly hike pressure on the government.
By midmorning 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.
Juan Madriz, a 45-year-old 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.
Isabel Santander, a 67-year-old retired auditor, said she was voting against the constitutional assembly as a protest over the country’s economic collapse.
“I signed because there’s no medicine, no food, no security,” she said. “There’s no separation of powers, no freedom of expression.”
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 yes-or-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?
The government calls the opposition vote a manipulation aimed at destabilizing the country, and has been urging its supporters to participate in the constitutional assembly, which it calls a way of restoring peace to Venezuela.
“Some comrades and brothers may be worn out by the right’s great media campaign. Now they’ve invented this July 16 thing to put the burden on their own people and evade their responsibility,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said Saturday. “That’s how the right is, manipulative, fooling their own people.”
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.
For the government-backed rehearsal, hundreds lined up outside a school in El Valle guarded by heavily armed soldiers and militiamen, waiting quietly to place a practice vote that also served as a show of support for the government.
“Our President Chavez supported the poor, the people,” said Yveth Melendez, a 41-year-old homemaker. “Today we’re following his legacy, with President Nicolas Maduro. … The constitutional assembly is something that benefits the people.”
Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers. The petroleum-rich nation has been hit hard by falling world oil prices.
Clashes between protesters and police have left at least 93 people dead, 1,500 wounded and more than 500 behind bars.
Meanwhile Venezuelan migrants, many of whom fled economic crisis and rampant crime in their homeland, voted in droves in hundreds of cities around the world on Sunday in an unofficial plebiscite that aims to challenge leftist President Maduro.
With improvised polling stations in more than 80 countries, the Venezuelan diaspora was seeking to delegitimize Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution after three months of anti-government protests that have led to nearly 100 deaths.
Lines snaked around blocks at some polling stations in expatriate hubs like Miami, Madrid and Bogota, where Venezuelans draped themselves in flags and shouted, “We want freedom!”
“With this vote we want to say to Maduro that Venezuela can’t wait. We want elections now. The people want him out,” said Audrey Lopez, 49, who was among volunteers staffing a polling station in the Spanish capital.
“I haven’t been back to Venezuela in four years. What I save on the journey I send to my family in food, medicine or hygiene products because they are either very expensive or non-existent there,” she added.
Mitzy Capriles, wife of former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is currently in prison on charges of conspiracy, also voted in Madrid, while the father of prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez cast his ballot in Rome.
“Today we are gathering peacefully to send a clear message that (the Venezuelan government) needs to listen … and to open its eyes and see what is happening and what the people of Venezuela want,” the elder Leopoldo Lopez told reporters.
In Latin America, where ranks of Venezuelan migrants have been swelling, voters participated from Quito to Rio de Janeiro.
Official data on Venezuelans who have left are difficult to come by. Sociologist Tomas Paez estimates some 2 million have emigrated since Chavez took office in 1999 and that the pace has picked up under Maduro, though government supporters dispute those figures as overblown. Caracas-based Paez has published papers and books on migration.
Nicknamed “Saudi Venezuela” in the booming 1970s and once a magnet for European migrants, the OPEC nation is now brimming with goodbye parties and lines for passports or visas outside embassies in Caracas.
Officials often ridicule Venezuelans abroad as histrionic elitists made in the same mold as the traditionally right-wing Cuban exiles in Florida.
While the early diaspora was mostly a middle-class phenomenon, recent migrants are often less economically stable due to a collapse in the local bolivar currency.
Expatriates have mobilized en masse in past presidential elections, even traveling by bus from Miami to New Orleans to cast ballots against the ruling movement known as “Chavismo,” named after the charismatic former leader who died in 2013.
But they have faced bitter setbacks time after time.
“Ever since we left Venezuela in 2002, I knew the country would get worse with this regime, and time has proven us right, but I’m upbeat about change coming to Venezuela,” said engineer Juan Sansiviero, 41 a former employee of state oil company PDVSA, voting in Katy, Texas.
The government will hold an official vote on July 30 for a new assembly, which would be able to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
The two elections this month are a show of force from each side. Both the government and opposition are effectively boycotting the other, hoping to legitimize themselves in the polarized environment.