Diego Chacin left Venezuela and his parents a year and a half ago to come live in Austin. Life was hard there, he said, and his family says things have gotten worse since he left.
A lack of food, increasing violent crime and rocketing inflation have spurred massive anti-government protests, and the Venezuelan government has responded with lethal force, killing more than 90 citizens in clashes with protesters. Chacin said he holds Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responsible.
“Honestly, I just hate him,” Chacin said. “I used to love what my country was. I feel sad when I remember Venezuela, because it’s not like the country I used to live in.”
Chacin joined a group of his friends Sunday in a voting event organized by Venezuelans across the globe who oppose the Maduro government.
The event put up for a vote Maduro’s proposal to appoint a citizen assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. Many Venezuelans believe Maduro would use the rewrite to give himself more power and eliminate opposition. In March, the Maduro-backed Venezuelan Supreme Court issued a ruling taking away the powers of the National Assembly, the Venezuelan legislative body, though the ruling was later retracted, the Associated Press reported.
Several of the gathered Venezuelans wore their country’s flag as they waited in line under a pavilion in Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park on Sunday to present their proof of Venezuelan citizenship and cast a vote. Locally, the vote was hosted by several organizations, including the Austin Venezuelan Association and the expatriate group Avenext.
The Austin Venezuelan Association’s function coordinator Elizabeth Gunz estimated that a couple thousand Venezuelans live in the Austin area.
Opposition parties in Venezuela set the symbolic vote for Sunday, two weeks before the constitutional rewrite assembly is elected.
“A citizen’s assembly is not in our constitution,” Gunz said. “We do not recognize it … the frustration is that nobody sees the money. It all goes to the regime to support what they do. There are people dying on the street looking for food and medicine, and (the government doesn’t) allow international assistance to come in.”
It’s doubtful the government will recognize the opposition vote. But a vote of this kind is supported by the Venezuelan constitution, AVA executive director Raynell Martinez said.
“This is a protest,” Martinez said. “We are using our civilian rights based on Article 350 that we are totally against the government … in Venezuela the situation is different. Here we can express ourselves with total freedom. In Venezuela they have people that are very scared because the people around them with the government that are trying to intimidate them.”
In addition to seeking the citizens’ views on the constitutional rewrite assembly, the ballot asks whether citizens “demand” that the armed forces and public officials support the 1999 constitution and support the decisions of the National Assembly, and asks whether citizens “approve the renewal of public powers in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution” and support “free and transparent elections.”
“You cannot change a comma or a period in the constitution without asking the people,” Avenext director Igor Bastidas said.
“I love these people,” Bastidas said of his Venezuelan compatriots. “We are bonding together through this. We will show the world we really care. We have been a democracy for over 50 years and now our country is in shambles.”