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‘People in Venezuela are scared to vote,’ say expats in Canada

Globe and Mail Update

As Venezuelans living in Canada prepare to take part in a worldwide referendum on their country's future on Sunday, many worry citizens back home will not cast ballots for fear of being denied food or physically harmed.

The plebiscite is viewed as illegal by the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelan opposition parties, under a coalition called Unidad, have organized the three-question ballot to be cast at locations across the globe, including at least 18 centres in Canada, from St. John's to Victoria.

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Violent protests have rocked the country in defiance of the government's plan to reform the constitution, a move seen by the opposition as a bid to further solidify Mr. Maduro's power.

"People in Venezuela are scared to vote. They will not [vote] in their neighbourhood because they do not know where they're watching if you are voting," said Laura Aveledo, who lives in Vancouver and who says Sunday's vote is a "the last hope" for her country.

Originally from Caracas, Ms. Aveledo, who has been in Canada for 20 years, is with the group Venezuelans in Vancouver. "What happens in this environment of terror, or getting people scared so they don't vote, it really works well especially when you are hungry," she said, adding it's the fear of armed militias fuelling an environment of voter intimidation and suppression in Venezuela.

Ms. Aveledo is one of dozens of volunteers across Canada helping to organize and encourage as many Venezuelans expats to vote in the plebiscite.

From Hong Kong to Britain, Honduras to India, Venezuelans living at home and abroad will be asked:

1.) Do you refuse the attempt by the current government to change the constitution without proper public consultation?

2.) Do you demand the military and public institutions honour the Venezuelan constitution?

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3.) Do you support the start of a transparent electoral process to re-legitimize and re-establish constitutional and democratic order in Venezuela?

"They are very key questions because what we are saying is we support the constitution made in 1999, we ask everybody who is in public office to support that constitution, especially our armed forces, who haven't been doing that, and we need elections that are transparent," Ms. Aveledo said.

Upwards of 100 people have been killed and at least 1,500 others injured in anti-government protests in Venezuela since April. Images of hundreds of thousands people taking to the streets have been broadcast around the world as they called for Mr. Maduro to step down. The economy of the oil-rich nation has collapsed, causing inflation to soar, the currency to become next to worthless, and rampant shortages of food and medical supplies.

Opposition parties are pushing Sunday's referendum just two weeks before the Maduro government plans to hold a vote on July 30 to elect what is known as a constituent assembly. That Maduro planned-vote aims to re-write Venezuela's constitution, a process that Mr. Maduro has said will help return stability to the country while those opposed say it would see the country slide even closer to a dictatorship.

On Friday, the United Nations urged the Maduro government to allow people to take part in this weekend's plebiscite, fearing that forces could excessively crackdown on those taking part who oppose the Venezuelan President.

"We urge authorities to respect the wishes of those who want to participate in this consultation and to guarantee people's rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," said UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell.

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The UN says as many as eight million people could cast ballots. However, the Maduro government maintains the vote is illegal.

"This so-called 'plebiscite' is not being organized by the Venezuelan national electoral agency … its outcome is not legally-binding," said a spokesman via e-mail in Ottawa at the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in Canada.

"This self-styled 'plebiscite' only contributes towards instability in Venezuela," the spokesman said, adding that Sunday's plebiscite would not "hinder" the Maduro government's vote to elect its constituent assembly.

While those participating in Sunday's balloting are aware the Maduro government will not heed the result, they are banking on the court of public opinion having weight in the long run as they continue what they say is a fight to return their country to democracy.

"The only way to get back to democracy is for people to keep pressuring and requesting fair elections," said Rebecca Sarfatti, who is with the Canada Venezuela Democracy Forum.

Ms. Sarfatti, a mother of two originally from Caracas who lives in Toronto, hopes Sunday's vote will also indicate to governments around the world that further political intervention is needed in her home country.

"We want to be counted in a way so we can show the government and the world that we want elections, we want the rule of law to be reinstated in Venezuela because it has been violated," she said.

With files from Reuters

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