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Venezuelans at polls reject charter's rewrite

Leaders unmoved by symbolic vote

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Photographs by AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS

People line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, during a symbolic referendum against rewriting the nation’s constitution.

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans lined up across the country and in expatriate communities around the world Sunday to vote in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution.

Volunteers count ballots after a polling station closed during a symbolic referendum Sunday in Caracas, Venezuela.

A 61-year-old woman was killed and three people were wounded in shooting that broke out after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site at 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 Our Lady of Carmen Church around 3 p.m. The chief prosecutor's office said Xiomara Soledad Scott, a nurse, was killed and three others were wounded in the incident.

Video posted to social media showed large crowds outside the church, then hundreds of people running in panic as motorcycle-riding men zoomed past and shots rang out.

Maduro, whose South American nation has been battered by shortages and anti-government protests, 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."

Voting was extended across parts of the country Sunday as the opposition said it had been overwhelmed by the crowds, and officials said they believed that several million people had cast ballots to reject the government's plans.

The opposition called supporters 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?

While no official results or estimates of voter turnout were available by early evening in Venezuela, opposition alliance members celebrated the strong display of support, with opposition deputy Juan Andres Mejia saying that millions of people have cast votes, "without a doubt," according to a post on this Twitter account.

Constituent assembly

Yet even as the opposition hailed the turnout for the referendum, the socialist administration seemed no closer to dropping its plans to convene a National Constituent Assembly that critics fear will be one more step toward totalitarian rule.

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 constituent assembly that will retool Venezuela's 1999 constitution.

Cilia Flores, Maduro's wife and a candidate for the assembly, said the strong government turnout was proof of the people's "love" for "President Nicolas Maduro and the revolution."

"The National Constituent Assembly is peace," she said. "Change is coming July 30 with the constituent, and it fills us with much more determination."

The opposition says that vote has been structured to pack the 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 opposition instead hoped that its referendum would send a message to the ruling party.

"If I was one of Nicolas Maduro's advisers, I would tell him to look at what's happening all over the country [and] stop trying to impose this constituent on the people," said Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state. "What Maduro should do in the next hours is cancel the fraudulent constituent."

The success of the opposition's symbolic referendum will be measured by how many millions participate. Democratic Unity, a coalition of about 20 opposition parties, printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country of 31 million people. Few expected turnout to be that high, but analysts said participation by more than 8 million people would significantly add to pressure on the government.

Participation appeared to be high, with large crowds 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 he 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 against 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 government calls the opposition vote a manipulation aimed at destabilizing the country, and it has been urging 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."

For the government-backed rehearsal, hundreds of people 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."

Polls show that barely 20 percent of Venezuelans favor rewriting the Chavez's 1999 constitution -- about the same level of support as for Maduro.

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 hundreds behind bars.

Food scarce

Though it was once the richest country in South America, food prices in Venezuela have skyrocketed in recent years, forcing many people to scavenge for things to eat.

The cost of basic groceries is now about five times the minimum wage.

On July 1, the monthly minimum wage was raised for the third time this year, to help control inflation. Still, the increase does little to help struggling families, and the country's inflation rate could reach 720 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Since April, protesters have taken to the streets, demanding international food aid and early presidential elections.

Chavez, who was elected in 1998, became widely popular for his promise to share the country's oil wealth with the poor and to guarantee food security. To fund his "21st Century Socialism" agenda, he relied on oil revenue, which accounted for 93 percent of exports in 2008.

The government imported goods and sold them at subsidized prices to make food affordable to the country's poor.

But when oil prices collapsed, government spending became unsustainable. By late 2014, oil money had stopped flowing in. Venezuela had saved little from the oil price boom of the 2000s. Under Maduro, the country slashed imports and used thinning reserves to pay its foreign debt and avoid default. As a result, food and medicine became scarce.

And compounding the problem, a series of government actions paralyzed local food production. For years, oil revenue had enabled the government to import most consumer goods. Meanwhile, the government increased regulations, stifling domestic production. And when the country cut imports, weakened local producers could not keep up with the demand.

Still, the government blames its opposition and foreign enemies for the food scarcity, accusing private companies of intentionally cutting back production in an attempt to destabilize the country.

As a result, Venezuelans have turned to expensive imports or to the black market. For many people, staples such as eggs and rice have become unaffordable.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael Weissenstein and Fabiola Sanchez of The Associated Press; by Carolina Millan, Noris Soto, Fabiola Zerpa and Nathan Crooks of Bloomberg News; by Mercy Benzaquen and Sergio Pecanha of The New York Times; and by Cody Weddle and Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald.

A Section on 07/17/2017

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