Venezuela's opposition stages a symbolic referendum on plans to rewrite the constitution

Government opponents sought to deal a symbolic blow Sunday to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, casting votes in an unofficial referendum designed to reject his controversial plan for a constitutional overhaul.

The balloting was organized by the opposition and denounced by the government as illegal and seditious. But turnout appeared high at thousands of makeshift voting places set up throughout the country.

A celebratory mood seemed to dominate as Venezuelans gathered from early in the morning to cry, “Freedom!” raise the national flag and denounce Maduro’s government.

“I’m poor but not stupid,” said Carmen Garcia, a restaurant cook and 33-year-old mother of three who voted against the government. “We know that the government doesn’t work, that they only use us to remain in power, to make us poorer all the time.”

Venezuelans who live abroad were also casting ballots at special voting places.

Some unrest was reported in a nation that has been racked with violent protests in recent months.

At least one person was reported killed and three injured in what the opposition termed an attack on a polling site in the poor Catia district of the capital, Caracas, a bulwark of government support. Local media said that assailants fired shots and tear gas as opposition activists scattered and took shelter in a church.

Sunday’s symbolic plebiscite came two weeks before a government-backed vote to elect a new assembly with the power to rewrite the country’s constitution.

The opposition has called for a boycott of the July 30 vote, labeling it a power play by Maduro and his backers. The government applauds the prospect of a constitutional assembly as necessary reform.

Once-wealthy Venezuela has become an economic and political disaster zone, riven by protests and suffering from widespread shortages. About 100 people are reported to have been killed in more than three months of near-daily street demonstrations.

The opposition blames the policies of the socialist government of Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez, the late left-wing firebrand. The government accuses the United States of waging an “economic war” against Venezuela, aided by right-wing collaborators in the country.

Falling world oil prices have contributed heavily to the crisis in Venezuela, one of the world’s major producers.

The opposition expected to announce results from Sunday’s informal plebiscite later in the day.

Opposition activists said they expected that millions would vote on ballots asking participants three yes-no questions: Do they reject Maduro’s planned constitutional assembly? Do they want the armed forces to support the existing constitution and the decisions of the opposition-controlled congress? And do they want a national unity government to be formed and fresh elections held?

Maduro’s term ends next year, but the opposition has called for early balloting on a new government.

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and Times staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City.

twitter: @mcdneville

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