More than 100,000 Venezuelan expats came out to vote in South Florida Sunday in a hastily arranged election that officially means nothing - but which could end up meaning a lot if the international community is paying attention.
In Venezuela and in expat communities around the world, opposition organizers say 7.6 million Venezuelans sent a message to socialist President Nicolás Maduro: Do NOT rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.
“If we let this happen, it’s the end,” said Daniela Ortigoza, a 25-year-old accountant who voted at a site set up in Coral Gables at the University of Miami.
Ortigoza came to the U.S. last year after graduating from college in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and each month she sends food, money and medicine to her family there because Venezuela’s oil-rich economy has collapsed under socialist rule. She said Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution means “the end” because the socialists will likely create a Marxist-style dictatorship.
“Right now they control almost everything,” said Ortigoza, wearing a cap emblazoned with Venezuela’s flag. “So with that they’re going to control absolutely everything. Everything. I mean, you live over there now and you’re scared every day.”
But as resounding as Sunday’s vote was, will it really do anything to prevent Venezuela from turning into communist Cuba? As expected, Maduro ridiculed the symbolic opposition referendum. Still, Venezuela’s opposition is counting on a big psychological effect.
That’s because Maduro’s project to rewrite the constitution – known as a constituyente – is itself unconstitutional. Venezuela’s current constitution requires that any constituyente first get the approval of Venezuela’s 20 million registered voters. But Maduro is thumbing his nose at that step.
“He’s going to do whatever it takes to keep himself in power,” says Venezuelan expat Pedro Vasquez, who lives in Plantation and is a spokesman for the opposition party Voluntad Popular, or Popular Will.
Vasquez says a goal of Sunday’s vote was to get other countries to convince Maduro to halt the constituyente.
“To bring international pressure against this crazy idea of changing the constitution,” says Vasquez. “The only thing the constituyente is going to bring is chaos. So I think what we’d like to do is just send a message out there that this affects all the countries in the Americas.”
On Sunday, expats like Miami IT worker Patty Fucci, who also voted in Coral Gables, insisted foreign capitals and international bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS) will have no excuse now to remain quiet.
“This is very tangible proof of what the people want,” said Fucci. “What else can be done to show there’s no way this situation in Venezuela can be sustainable anymore?”
Problem is, it is sustainable because Maduro still has the support of Venezuela’s military and state security. They’re responsible for almost all of the nearly 100 deaths of protesters during anti-government demonstrations this year.
Which is why, over the weekend, Maduro confidently huddled with cabinet ministers and leaders of his socialist party and assured them the constituyente will begin as planned on July 30 with the election of a special constitutional assembly. “Nothing is going stop this,” he said.
And if Maduro does unconstitutionally rewrite the constitution, it’s unlikely he’ll ever meet any of the other opposition demands. Those include holding elections he’s been blocking, releasing hundreds of Venezuelan political prisoners and respecting the opposition-led National Assembly. In fact, the constituyente will likely abolish that legislature.
“If Maduro follows through with this, it takes Venezuela’s crisis to another level,” says Pedro Mena, a former Miami director for the Venezuelan opposition.
Like most expats, Mena fears the constituyente will only cause more violent unrest in Venezuela – especially since polls show almost 90 percent of the population wants a change of government.
“I have no doubt Venezuela could go up in flames,” says Mena. “We could be staring at civil war.”
José Gregorio Correa, a National Assembly deputy from the opposition party Primero Justicia, echoed Mena’s concerns by phone from Caracas.
“Ninety percent of the population is not going to tolerate 10 percent imposing this fraud on them by fiat,” Correa told me. “Not when they can’t find food.”
In the meantime, Venezuela’s opposition upped the ante on Monday by calling for a general strike in the country - and President Trump warned Monday night the U.S. will issue "strong" economic sanctions if the constituyente happens.
The prospect of worse bloodshed may well move the international community to lean harder on Maduro. Even the U.N.’s human rights commission – which is notoriously soft on left-wing and anti-U.S. regimes like Maduro’s – warned him last week to rein in his regime’s increasingly brutal repression.
Still, the expat cheers that rang out at the various referendum polling sites in South Florida on Sunday may have been a bit too optimistic.
"Se va, se va, se va, se va!" The socialist government is leaving soon! they chanted in Coral Gables – hoping that someday soon it will actually mean something official.