On July 16, more than seven million Venezuelans showed their government and the world that they want nothing to do with President Nicolás Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, and called for immediate elections. Maduro’s moves have been widely condemned, including by many who see it as a ploy to put off next year’s presidential elections.
In an unofficial vote organized by the opposition with the support of civil society groups, universities, and hundreds of volunteers in Venezuela and abroad, participants were asked to indicate whether they opposed President Maduro’s Constituent Assembly proposal to rewrite the Constitution. Almost all of those who took part in the exercise said that they did, according to the opposition. They were also asked to express support for the opposition’s positions on other key issues including the idea of a government of national unity, and respect for the powers of the opposition-led National Assembly. Participants expressed similarly overwhelming support for all of those positions.
The enormous turnout of mostly government opponents was truly remarkable under the circumstances, however. The government had gone out of its way to undermine the exercise and deter participation. Notably, the national telecommunications agency ordered local news outlets not to speak about the plebiscite, and government employees understandably feared they would face reprisals for participating.
About 7.6 million Venezuelans reportedly participated, including many former government supporters. They voted at some 14,000 tables in about 2,000 polling sites. Hundreds of thousands waited for hours in very long lines – this time, not to buy bread or cooking oil, but to cast their ballot.
In Catia, a low-income area near Caracas that had traditionally been a Chavista stronghold, armed government supporters reportedly burst into a crowd that was standing in line to vote. Some of them killed a 61-year-old nurse who was waiting to vote and injured three others, including a journalist who was covering the event. About 200 people were forced to stay inside a church, with a cardinal who has openly criticized the government, for several hours. In other reported incidents, teargas canisters were thrown into a voting center, and attempts made to steal electoral ballots and material.
The message from the people who stood in line for hours to make their voices heard was loud and clear – they want to be able to vote in free and fair elections. It’s past time for the National Electoral Council to listen. And if its members are unable or unwilling to organize those elections, as has been the case since the opposition won the December 2015 legislative elections, regional governments need to press the Maduro administration to do so.