Sunday 17 November 2019

Woman killed as tensions rise over Venezuelan vote to reject leader

Volunteers count the ballots after the poll station closed during a symbolic referendum in Caracas, Venezuela (AP)
Volunteers count the ballots after the poll station closed during a symbolic referendum in Caracas, Venezuela (AP) Newsdesk Newsdesk

A woman has been killed by gunfire that erupted after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in Venezuela's capital, Caracas.

Venezuelan's opposition said more than 7.1 million people responded to its call to vote on 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.

The day was marred by violence when pro-government paramilitary groups attacked voters outside the Our Lady of Carmen Church, 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 incident.

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.

Mr Maduro made no mention of the incident in comments on state television shortly after the official close of opposition polls, 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," Mr Maduro said. "Let's start a new round of talks, of dialogue for peace."

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 Mr 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 labelled as illegitimate.

"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."

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 Mr 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 Mr 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 on Sunday evening lauding the opposition vote.

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

Late on 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.

Mr Fox travelled to Venezuela on Saturday with a group of Latin American former presidents to show support for the opposition referendum. Mr Moncada offered no evidence to support his accusations.

At an opposition site, Juan Madriz, a 45-year-old insurance company employee, said he did not object to rewriting the constitution per se, but rejected Mr 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," Mr 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."

PA Media

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