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Venezuela opposition plots ‘zero hour,’ government belittles vote
By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Oré
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition vowed on Monday to escalate protests after a massive vote against President Nicolas Maduro in an unofficial plebiscite the government mocked as a fraud.
After months of demonstrations that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition said it brought 7.2 million people out on Sunday for an informal referendum intended to de-legitimize a leader they call a dictator.
“We’re going to be on the streets every day, the whole country is going to rise, it’s the start of zero hour,” said opposition legislator Tomas Guanipa, drawing on military jargon for a decisive operation or moment of truth, ahead of an official announcement of tactics by the opposition coalition.
Maduro’s foes are demanding a general election and want to stop his plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
Opposition strategy may include lengthy road blockades and sit-ins, a national strike, or possibly a march on the Miraflores presidential palace, similar to events before a short-lived coup against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
“We don’t want a fraudulent Constituent Assembly imposed on us. We don’t want to be Cuba. We don’t want to be a country without freedom,” Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-controlled legislature, said shortly after midnight when the referendum results were announced.
On three questions at Sunday’s event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly – by 98 percent – to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro’s term ends, according to academics monitoring the vote for the opposition.
Sunday’s nearly 7.2 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.
Opposition organizers said the turnout followed just two weeks of organization, with voting at just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 for the 2015 vote.
“The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela’s opposition,” New York-based Torino Capital said, noting participation also meant openly defying the government.
“The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election.”
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and long-serving foreign minister for Chavez, narrowly won election in 2013 and his ratings have plunged to just over 20 percent during a brutal economic crisis in the South American OPEC member.
Though polls show the opposition has majority support and his foes repeatedly call for a free and fair election as their top demand, Maduro insists they are U.S. pawns intent on sabotaging the economy and bringing him down through violence.
Most Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and annul the current opposition-led legislature, but Maduro is pressing on anyway for the vote in two weeks’ time.
Maduro, whose term is due to end in early 2019, dismissed Sunday’s event as an internal exercise by the opposition with no bearing on his government. “Don’t go crazy, calm down,” he said on Sunday, vowing his Constituent Assembly would bring peace to the volatile nation of 30 million people.
State media largely ignored the event, concentrating instead on a practice run on Sunday for the July 30 vote, while Maduro allies accused the opposition of inflating numbers with multiple voting and false registrations.
“Ten year old kids voted, thousands of minors, Australians, U.S. citizens … a gigantic fraud,” Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez said, mocking Sunday’s vote which also took place among Venezuela’s large diaspora communities.
This year’s political turmoil has taken a heavy toll on Venezuela: 95 deaths in unrest since April, thousands of injuries, hundreds of arrests, and further damage to an economy in its fourth year of decline.
The latest fatality came on Sunday when gunmen shot a 61-year-old woman in a crowd of opposition voters in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia. Hundreds of people were besieged in a church for hours during the melee, a witness said.
For a graphic on Venezuela’s dark days, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2qsTmHg
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Alexandra Ulmer and Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Editing by Bernadette Baum)
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