Venezuelans beat back Maduro, but millions still remain firmly entrenched in his grip

Venezuela’s opposition leaders are cautiously claiming victory in Sunday’s second nationwide referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro, but victory for democracy looks very far off.

For nearly a year, Venezuelans have enthusiastically turned out to vote to remove the man who has pursued policies perceived by many as driving the country toward economic collapse. Maduro rejected the vote as a sham.

But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans from trying to shed their president, and though he lost the first plebiscite, he appears to have tamped down voter participation.

According to the national electoral council, just 2.43 million people voted, a mark that will not satisfy international observers. But that remains a massive improvement over the 1.7 million who were expected to participate — and Maduro would surely balk at the reality that an unprecedentedly large swath of the electorate did not vote for him.

Still, the vote does not amount to a popular mandate for his mandate to remain in power. With the vote closed, the opposition’s rival party, the Popular Will party, put out a brief statement proclaiming the election to be a “complete failure,” according to AFP.

The only other entity with the power to stop the constituent assembly from being seated is the Supreme Court, but as The Associated Press has reported, the court could become even more of a vehicle for Maduro’s repression under the new assembly.

The government initially called Sunday’s referendum to hold a vote on a proposal to create a new constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. But government opponents organized an alternative vote on whether to abandon their efforts to remove Maduro.

Maduro scorned that measure, calling it a “scam” and an attempt to undermine his presidency. He vowed to block the proposal to proceed with the election of a new constituent assembly if the initial one went forward as planned, calling it a “storm cloud on the horizon.”

Throughout Sunday’s vote, long lines of voters waited to exercise their right to vote, though it remained unclear how many chose to vote as opposed to boycott.

Protests Sunday appeared to be less than those seen in October, though there were no reports of tear gas or violence. In scenes reminiscent of the 2014 crisis, state oil giant PDVSA ran two buses in support of a measure to maintain its oil revenues, bringing about 500 people from different cities to vote.

In a nation accustomed to chaos, Venezuela’s frequent hyperinflation, widespread shortages of food and medicine, violent crime and the mass exodus of its citizens brought to life painful scenes of disappointment.

Government opponents formed long lines outside polling stations. Despite confronting attacks by state security forces that included tear gas, rubber bullets and batons, opposition supporters put on a brave face and denied that they were looking for a convenient way to oust Maduro.

The vote, they argued, was about sending a message to the world that Venezuela’s government should be taken to task. As one opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, put it, Venezuela must reassert itself as a country with a rightful leadership.

On Sunday, Maduro did his best to quash such protest, tearing off and hurling a makeshift flag made out of tear gas and water bottles at a group of opposition leaders who had taken to the streets in Caracas and elsewhere. Maduro was criticized by a Supreme Court panel that he claims the opposition created as “US agents.”

Weeks before the vote, opposition supporters gathered in Caracas and several other cities in a march called to demand the president’s resignation. Opposition leaders had called the vote part of a peaceful protest, but Maduro’s opponents mobilized their supporters to block his re-election.

At least 32 people were killed, according to local news reports, and several thousand were injured, many during repeated clashes between security forces and opposition supporters.

Another casualty of the vote was opposition peace efforts.

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