UPDATE 2-Venezuela opposition plots 'zero hour,' government belittles vote
(Recasts; adds Socialist Party official)
By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Oré
CARACAS, July 17 (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. [nL1N1K706Q]
"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
"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.
Disgruntled Venezuelan state workers seek ways to join
opposition vote [nL1N1K41VV]
Venezuela's dark days http://tmsnrt.rs/2pPJdRb
From Miami to Madrid, Venezuelan diaspora mobilizes against
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Alexandra Ulmer and
Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas;
Editing by Bernadette Baum)
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Keywords: VENEZUELA POLITICS/ (UPDATE 2, PIX, TV, GRAPHIC)