Venezuela referendum shows strong opposition to Maduro's constitution plan
Voters demand immediate general elections government, rejecting constitutional change
Until Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) decided to stop the presidential referendum last year, the opposition coalition had just one goal in mind: to surpass the 7,505,338 votes that made Nicolas Maduro officially Hugo Chavez's successor as head of state.
Almost eight months later, they now know for sure that they can get that kind of support — in even tougher conditions.
In an unofficial, opposition-organized referendum, about 7.2 million people voted against Maduro's plan to change the constitution, demanding immediate general elections to renew all branches of government.
"We are saying enough is enough: leave this country alone," said Mirlena Hernandez, a 27-year-old working woman who decided to vote against Maduro and his regime in La Florida, an eastern sector of Caracas.
"I can't find diapers or milk in the stores for my baby, despite the fact I work all day long. We want a better future."
She was among those who cast their votes in a plebiscite with no campaign period, no military security or state funding, and with only 35 per cent of the polling stations that the CNE used in the 2013 presidential elections.
But as Hernandez was getting in line to vote east of Caracas, tragedy once again showed its face in the streets of western Venezuela.
Moments after thousands of people chanted "murderers, murderers" at several National Guard soldiers who were passing in front of the El Carmen church in Catia, unknown armed civilians attacked the voting centre located right beside the temple, killing Xiomara Scott, a 61-year-old nurse who was waiting to vote against Maduro's government.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Venezuela?src=hash">#Venezuela</a> 🇻🇪 no se merecen menos.,... Asesinos Asesinos!! Así le gritó el pueblo en <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/catia?src=hash">#catia</a> a la GNB <a href="https://t.co/QxsiL74blI">pic.twitter.com/QxsiL74blI</a>—@ANDRES_CANO42
ÚLTIMA HORA | El momento en que colectivos disparan a la gente en Catia que se concentraba cerca del punto soberano <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/16Jul?src=hash">#16Jul</a> <a href="https://t.co/QfQFPhNa5p">pic.twitter.com/QfQFPhNa5p</a>—@AlbertoRT51
"We heard a couple of explosions," said Willy McKey, 37, a writer who was escorting his mother to the voting centre in Catia.
"We thought at first it was some fireworks or something else. After all, an explosion there is anything but strange. Nevertheless, the second we turn at the Catia Theatre, we saw a mob of people … around what looked like a crime scene.
"Later, I learned that I was looking at the site were Xiomara, the neighbour, the friend of my aunt, got shot."
Four other people were wounded in the attack, and even Venezuelan Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino was forced to take refuge in the church along with hundreds of civilians, said parish priest Eric Tovar.
"This happened right in front of the National Guard and the police, and they did nothing to stop it," said Tovar.
Carlos Ocariz, who speaks for the opposition coalition, said that the attack was the deadliest suffered all day. But it was only one of almost 270 incidents reported by the opposition around the country.
As expected, Chavismo officials didn't validate any part of the referendum. Instead they spent the day preparing for the upcoming national constituent assembly elections ("constituyente") scheduled for July 30.
Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodríguez, an electoral chavismo strategist, called the opposition activity fraud. It "allowed a single person to vote 17 times," he said.
Later, President Nicolas Maduro congratulated everyone who took part in the "constituyente" drill and assuring people that it was "the biggest in Venezuelan history."
Maduro's claim was challenged by José Pastrán, a 64 year-old Venezuelan from San José del Ávila who voted against Maduro and opposes plans to change the constitution without a referendum, something that not even Hugo Chavez did while he was alive.
"The people were voting against the constituyente, not practising to vote in two weeks like the government says," Pastrán said. "We are tired of this. The people need to be heard."
Former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana categorized the plebiscite as something never seen before that needs to be recognized and applauded.
"I remember talking to Hugo Chávez and hear him say that the voice of the people was the voice of God," he said. "Well, today the people spoke.
"Today there was no drill, there was a voting and democracy won."
Pastrana was one of four former heads of state who observed the plebiscite in Caracas.
The governments of Canada and Mexico praised the results of this unofficial referendum Sunday night, The Associated Press reported.
And according to Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica, the initiative should be emulated by all democratic countries in the region.
With this support behind him, Julio Borges, speaker of the opposition-controlled Venezuela National Assembly, made a vow that could foreshadow even more conflict if Maduro doesn't back down.
"The people can be assured that we will honour this mandate that we have received," he said.