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7.1 million Venezuelans vote in opposition referendum

7.1 million Venezuelans vote in opposition referendum
From CBC - July 16, 2017

Venezuelan's opposition said more than 7.1 million people responded to its call to vote Sunday in a symbolic rejection of President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that has raised tensions in a nation suffering through widespread shortages and months of anti-government protests.

A 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire that erupted after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in a church in the traditionally pro-government Catia neighbourhood of western Caracas.

Analysts said the vote for the opposition across Venezuela and the country's far-flung diaspora was an impressive show of support. However, it fell short of the opposition's 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought Maduro to power in 2013. Opposition leaders said that was because it was only able to set up 2,000 polling places in a largely symbolic exercise that the government labeled as illegitimate. Still, some supporters said they were disappointed.

"I thought it was going to be more," said Mariela Arana, a 56-year-old school counsellor. "But these seven million people spoke and it was plenty."

Building international support

David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela, said Sunday's results would likely rally the international community even more strongly against the July 30 vote Maduro has called to elect members of the assembly that will retool Venezuela's 1999 constitution.

The opposition says that 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.

Canada and Mexico were among the countries that issued statements Sunday evening lauding the opposition vote.

"Overall this vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned," Smilde said. "I think it's going to embolden the international community to reject it."

Late Sunday Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on Twitter that he was declaring former Mexican president Vicente Fox persona non grata and banning him from the country for conspiring to promote violence and foreign intervention. Fox travelled to Venezuela Saturday with a group of fomer Latin American presidents to show support for the opposition referendum. Moncada offered no evidence to support his accusations.

The day was marred by violence when pro-government paramilitary groups attacked voters outside the Our Lady of Carmen Church around 3 p.m., according to the opposition mayor of the Caracas borough of Sucre, Carlos Ocariz. The chief prosecutor's office said Xiomara Soledad Scott, a nurse, had been killed and four others wounded in the shooting.

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

'Sit and talk'

Maduro 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.

Government dominates

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