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Throughout Tampa Bay, Venezuelan nationals turn out in large numbers for straw poll

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Thousands of Venezuelan nationals living in the Tampa Bay region waited in long lines Sunday to participate in a non-binding vote directed against the government led by President Nicholas Maduro.

“I don’t think words can explain – you just stand here and look around,” said Spring Hill resident Stephanie Labrecque, referring to the large line of people waiting to vote in the parking lot at Are Pitas restaurant on University Square drive just north of Fowler Avenue.

Labrreque left her native city of San Antonio De Los Altos a year ago because of a lack of opportunity and concerns about security.

“I want to go back, but I want to go back to something good, something where I know my future is going to be good,” she said. “I’m just fighting for it.”

A lack of food, increasing violent crime and rocketing inflation have spurred massive anti-government protests in the South American nation. The Venezuelan government has responded with lethal force, killing more than 90 citizens in clashes with protesters.

In Venezuela, the opposition  et up a non-binding straw poll to let people share opinions about the Maduro administration’s plan to elect a National Constituent Assembly that will overhaul the 1999 constitution. The process was created to show the rejection of Maduro, his government, and the role of the armed forces.

The ballot consisted of three questions:Do you reject the Constituent Assembly proposed by Maduro without the prior approval of the Venezuelan people? Do you demand that the National Armed Forces and all public officials obey and defend the Constitution of 1999 and support the decisions of the National Assembly? And do do you approve of the renewal of public powers in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, and the holding of free and transparent elections, as well as the formation of a government of national unity to restore constitutional order?

The vote was open to Venezuelans in more than 90 other countries. Tampa was one of more than 75 cities in the U.S. to hold a vote, and more than 93,000 Venezuelans voted in Florida, according to NBC News.

“I want to express my will to change the current situation, we all need it,” said a Bradenton woman holding her baby who only wanted to be identified by her first name of Monique.

She left Venezuela a decade ago, moving first to Baltimore and then to Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, an orthopedic surgeon. She says the lack of safety was acute and the main reason she escaped from her homeland, which was in the capital of Caracas.

“I was mugged three times in a year, ” Monique recounted, and said her husband’s house was broken into.

Miguel Martinez, 24, moved with his family to Tampa from Caracas back in 2003, at the height of the Hugo Chavez era. He says he stays informed about what is going on his native country from his parents, though the majority of his family remains in Venezuela.

“There are so many unhappy people in Venezuela and they are fleeing due to the insecurity and the lack of food,” added Jesus Rincon, who hails from Valencia and has only been living in Tampa for the past four months.

More than 7.1 million Venezuelans participated in the vote on Sunday, and opposition leaders hailed the results.

“Today, Venezuela stood up with dignity to say freedom does not go backwards, democracy is not negotiated,” said Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-controlled legislature after the referendum results were announced.”We don’t want a fraudulent Constituent Assembly imposed on us. We don’t want to be Cuba. We don’t want to be a country without freedom,” he added.

 

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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