On Sunday, Venezuelans and Venezuelan expats will hold a vote that’s expected to send a strong message to President Nicolás Maduro: Don’t rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. In South Florida, the campaigning got under way on Thursday with a conference of Venezuelan voices in Coral Gables.
As anti-government protests rage on in Venezuela, the socialist regime looks set to rewrite the country’s 1999 charter Critics fear it will abolish the opposition-controlled National Assembly and give President Maduro Cuba-style dictatorial powers.
At the Hotel Colonnade, the New York-based Americas Society/Council of the Americas hosted a forum on how to confront that threat. Among the Venezuelans taking part was Juan Manuel Raffalli, a constitutional law professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) in Caracas.
“The problem," says Raffali, "is that [Maduro] never respected the representation of the people. [He is] trying to avoid elections. They are thinking about keeping in power forever – consolidate a dictatorship.”
Maduro and his government are widely unpopular in Venezuela, which is suffering the world’s worst economic collapse. Analysts worry if he goes ahead with the constitutional rewrite, the political unrest could morph into civil war.
So millions of Venezuelan voters – including tens of thousands in South Florida – look set to urge Maduro on Sunday to change his mind. If so, Raffalli says he hopes the international community will then lean harder on Maduro too.
“Maybe the demonstration of July 16 will be the final of this transition period," says Raffalli, "and maybe Venezuela will take another way to progress.”
Some Venezuelans see hope in the fact that opposition leader Leopoldo López was released from a Caracas prison last weekend. But other speakers at the forum, including former Venezuelan presidential chief of staff Beatrice Rangel, said ousting the socialist regime will be harder since so many of its leaders have allegedly become "gangsters" involved in looting Venezuela's prodigious oil wealth and trafficking drugs.