by Maria Isabel SANCHEZ Gunmen on motorbikes attacked Venezuelan voters lining up for an opposition-organized ballot challenging President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday, killing a 61-year-old woman and wounding three other people, according to prosecutors.
Television footage of the attack showed a panicked crowd running and screaming while gunshots were heard. Many sought refuge in a nearby church.
The armed assault occurred in Catia, a working class neighborhood in the west of the capital Caracas. Prosecutors said an investigation had been opened.
The opposition coalition blamed “paramilitary groups” linked to Maduro’s government.
The violence confirmed fears surrounding an electoral tussle between the opposition and Maduro, focused on the beleaguered president’s bid to rewrite the constitution.
It also fed into nearly four months of protests during which almost 100 people have died.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took part in Sunday’s vote, which asked whether they supported Maduro’s plans to have a citizens’ body elected on July 30 to carry out the constitutional do-over.
With government supporters boycotting the process, the result looked likely to be an overwhelming rejection.
– ‘Government is falling’ -After polls closed, opposition supporters in Caracas shouted “this government is falling” as motorists honked their horns in celebration.
But while the opposition called the unofficial balloting a “plebiscite,” the government slammed it as “illegal.”
Maduro warned the opposition “don’t go crazy” over its vote, after the head of the national electoral council said the symbolic poll was of “no legal consequence.”
The president urged the opposition to “come over to peace, to the constitution,” telling officials who were setting up his July 30 election that differences “must be resolved in peace, with ballots, not bullets.”
To detract from the opposition vote, Maduro’s government held a dry-run simulation on Sunday the Constituent Assembly election.
Several Latin American countries and the Catholic Church have criticized Maduro’s move to a new constitution, which the opposition says is a bid by Maduro to concentrate dictatorial prerogatives.
Voters who took part in the opposition vote said they wanted to see Maduro and his government leave power.
“We can’t find medicines, every day there is less food in the country. And they (Maduro and his officials) only want to hold on to power. We are voting to get them out,” 49-year-old Tibisay Mendez said in Caracas.
Venezuelans abroad, casting ballots in some 80 countries, concurred.
“I want the entire world to see that there are millions of Venezuelans who do not agree with the Maduro regime and that want to live in democracy and peace,” 60-year-old Maria del Perez, clutching a Venezuelan flag, told AFP in Spain’s capital.
Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature in Venezuela, said the vote was a watershed moment “in this fight to win back democracy for Venezuela.”
– Unpopular president -With the opposition and the government dug in on their respective courses, dialogue — attempts at which had already failed — appeared a distant prospect.
The population in the oil-rich South American nation, meanwhile, is suffering a crushing economic crisis, with shortages of food and medicine and triple-digit inflation.
The opposition accuses Maduro of driving the country into bankruptcy, and of using the Constituent Assembly to entirely sideline the legislature.
The president, in turn, says the opposition is collaborating with the “imperialist” United States to undermine to topple his government.
He says his proposed 545-member Constituent Assembly is “the only path” to peace and economic recovery.
Although he is deeply unpopular — the Datanalisis polling firm says 80 percent of Venezuelans reject Maduro as leader — he retains the loyalty of military chiefs, and can count on the support of electoral authorities and judges.
But some cracks are appearing in his camp. The most stark was the rebellion of Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who came out against the Constituent Assembly. She holds onto her office, for now, remaining a potent voice of dissent in government.
According to Datanalisis, 70 percent of voters taking part in Sunday’s consultation were expected to reject the Constituent Assembly.
A result was expected late Sunday, Venezuela time. DM