Venezuelans in South Florida vote in symbolic protest against Maduro

DORAL, FLA. (WSVN) - Venezuelan citizens in South Florida joined those in their home country and around the world at the polls, Sunday, for what organizers described as a symbolic protest against President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelans living in South Florida were able to cast their ballot at four locations in Miami-Dade and two in Broward, in what was called an informal plebiscite regarding the future of Venezuela.

“We are Venezuela. What do we want? Liberty!” chanted participants in Spanish at Miami Dade College West Campus in Doral, one of the polling sites.

Voters are aware their ballots have no legal impact, but they nevertheless lined up to make their voices heard. “We need to do a change in my country,” said one woman.

“Everybody is here just to make a difference, and it’s going to happen,” said another voter in Doral as she held up her inked thumb.

Voters will decide whether or not they support the government’s plan to rewrite the South American country’s constitution, which opponents say is the president’s way of creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.

For Franchesca Marquez, altering the constitution is unthinkable. “The right thing is democracy and fight for human rights,” said the voter, who had a Venezuelan flag draped over her shoulder.

“Basic things like food and shelter are being stripped away from them,” said one South Florida voter.

The symbolic vote, organized by the Democratic Unity Opposition Coalition, took place at polling locations across the globe. Organizers said Venezuelans in more than 75 countries, including Chile, Panama and Spain, took part in the event.

Coordinator Jose Hernandez listed some of the other countries where the vote took place. “We have places in Anchorage, Alaska. We have places in Hong Kong. We have places in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Meanwhile, gun violence broke out in Caracas at one of the polling locations, a church in the western part of the city. According to the chief prosecutor’s office, a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people hurt by gunfire that erupted when armed government supporters on motorcycles surrounded the site.

Local congressional representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were on hand at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables to express their support for the Venezuelan community.

Ros-Lehtinen told 7News Sunday’s vote is important to send a message. “The Venezuelans have their country in their hands,” she said. “They can vote to reject the cynical ploys of Nicolas Maduro and embrace democracy or go down the wrong path just as Cuba has.”

Polling locations opened Sunday morning at 7 a.m. and closed at around 6 p.m.

The opposition group claims to have printed 14 million ballots for voters inside and outside the country. Just before midnight, they announced more than 7.1 million people had voted.

“People are so brave, I’m so proud,” said a local voter.

Organizers said the turnout will put pressure on the government to rethink its next move. “We trust that the government hears the voice of the people,” said a local voter.

The vote took place two weeks before Venezuela’s government holds elections for a constitutional assembly that, Maduro argues, will promote peace.

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