Maduro opponents claim big turnout in Venezuelan protest

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An elderly man votes in a consultation organized by the opposition to reject the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. The survey, asking Venezuelans to weigh in via cellphone apps or in-person voting whether they want to see an end to Maduro's rule and new elections, takes place just days after the governing party won congressional elections boycotted by the opposition. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

CARACAS – Droves of Venezuelans blaming President Nicolás Maduro for their country’s collapse voiced their frustrations Saturday in a creative protest rivaling recent elections they boycotted as fraudulent.

In the so-called “people’s consultation,” U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó urged Venezuelans at home and around the world to register their ire through cellphone apps. Others visited makeshift polling stations in cities across Venezuela and in other Latin American Nations, the U.S. and Europe.

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“Hope has been mobilized in Venezuela,” Guaidó said shortly before the results were announced. “We must underscore a heroic people who mobilized throughout the country and the world in defense of their rights.”

Opposition leaders reported that nearly 6.5 million people responded to the survey. The Associated Press could not independently verify the validity of the figures, and even some opposition election experts questioned the number.

The opposition's report said more than 3.2 million participated in person within Venezuela and nearly 850,000 visited centers outside the country, while more than 2.5 million sent in their responses digitally.

The survey asked whether people want to end Maduro’s rule and hold fresh presidential and legislative elections, and also seek even greater pressure from international allies to make it happen.

Though the event had no legal force, opposition leaders said the survey would unify the foes of Maduro. That includes the 5 million Venezuelans who have fled the nation’s hyperinflation and lack of basic services such as reliable running water, electricity and gasoline, they said.

Mirla De Lorenzo, a bank employee, visited a center in her Caracas neighborhood to participate, saying she would take any opportunity to express herself if there was any chance it could bring international attention to Venezuela’s plight and trigger an end to Maduro’s rule.

“We’re definitely tired of this situation that’s brought us nothing but poverty,” she said, adding that her daughter moved to Spain and her sister migrated to Chile, among relatives who have fled the crisis.

“You can’t compete with deceitful people, with people who use force, with people who have weapons,” she said. “There is no way.”

The consultation came days after Maduro’s ruling socialist party declared victory in congressional elections that Guaidó’s coalition boycotted, arguing the vote was a fraud. The United States and European Union are among nations and regional bodies that rejected the elections as undemocratic.

Guaidó, acting as the National Assembly’s leader, proclaimed himself interim president in early 2019, arguing that Maduro was an illegitimate leader because his most popular challengers were barred from running in the presidential election the previous year.

Guaidó quickly won broad support at home among energized supporters who flooded the streets as well as the backing of leaders in dozens of nations, including the U.S. The Trump administration took the lead, imposing sanctions on Maduro, dozens of his political allies and the state-run oil firm PDVSA. The U.S. Justice Department also unveiled an indictment of Maduro charging him with being a “narcoterrorist,” and offered a $15 million reward for his arrest.

Nearly two years later, however, Maduro remains in power with control of the military and international allies including Iran, Russia, China, Tukey and Cuba.

On Jan. 5, the term of the current opposition-dominated National Assembly ends and Maduro’s political allies take over the last governmental body not controlled by the president’s socialist party. Guaidó and his political allies vow to continue fighting.

Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela analyst for the Eurasia Group, said that in addition to seeking to unite Venezuelans who don’t like Maduro, the symbolic referendum was meant to send a message to international supporters.

“They’ve organized a process for their foreign partners from the U.S. to the European Union and regional governments,” Grais-Targow said. “So they can continue to back him even when he’s no longer in control of the National Assembly.”

The U.S. ambassador for Venezuela, James Story, praised the opposition’s survey from Colombia’s capital, where he has worked since the U.S. and Venezuela broke diplomatic relations and the U.S. closed its embassy in Caracas.

“We’re proud to see the people of Venezuela in the street voting for their right to democracy, justice, liberty,” Story tweeted. “Their voices have been heard. Democracy must return to Venezuela.”

Support among Venezuelans for the opposition has waned amid growing frustrations over Maduro remaining in power.

Maduro’s popularity is even lower. Just 31% of Venezuela’s voters cast ballots in the Dec. 5 congressional elections — less than half the turnout for the 2015 legislative elections.

Maduro’s ruling party staged a celebration in the historic center of Caracas on Saturday to mark the victories of their National Assembly candidates, including Maduro’s wife and son. Politicians gave speeches condemning the domestic opposition and U.S. policy interference in Venezuela. Salsa music played and people danced.

A political talk show on state television Saturday night featured a segment mocking the referendum by showing cellphone videos said to have been recorded by people who drove by survey centers in cities across the nation.

“There’s nobody, absolutely nobody,” one unidentified driver says. “Look there’s four people standing around talking nonsense.”


Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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