South Florida’s Venezuelan community came out in full force yesterday to take part in the opposition-sponsored referendum on President Nicolás Maduro’s attempt to rewrite that country's constitution. The Maduro government likely won't acknowledge the symbolic vote, but the more than 100,000 South Floridians who took part hope the high turnout will ensure their voice, both inside the country and out, will be heard. Yesterday’s referendum was held two weeks prior to the July 30 ballot proposed by Maduro on a new constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Opponents fear that will take Venezuela toward a formal dictatorship.
Weston, the Broward suburb affectionately referred to as Westonzuela for its high number of Venezuelan expats, had to move its initial voting site at Bonaventure Resort and Spa to Cypress Bay High School to accommodate the extraordinary volume of people.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic lined Bonaventure Boulevard near the voting site, and pedestrians of all ages stood under the unforgiving South Florida sun awaiting their chance to vote. Through it all, people remained jovial and optimistic, cheering, “Si va caer, si va caer, ese gobierno va caer!" ("This government will fall.")
“We have about 400 volunteers here," said Geraldine Vera, coordinator of logistics and security. "Everyone is efficient and enthusiastic. The turnout has been outstanding. We are here to change Venezuela’s future — to have a say in a peaceful and organized manner."
A woman with a broken ankle sang songs as she pushed her scooter in line. Throughout her two-hour wait, several volunteers offered to take her to the front, explaining that those with injuries, babies, or the elderly were allowed to bypass the line. The woman refused, explaining she needed to experience the line with her countrymen and women.
Sofia Loucher, the youngest volunteer at age 16, was passionate and eloquent in her mission to help out. “I have been here four years but I was born and raised in Venezuela. It is my country, even if I can’t graduate from high school there. I do what I can to help. We expected about 6,000 to 8,000 people today and we are already at 15,000. Us Venezuelans are very proud. I feel very moved. We are all waiting for a change.”
Voting began at 7 a.m. and was supposed to run until 4 p.m., but was extended to allow everyone to vote. As of 10 p.m. last night, organizers counted 16,846 ballots in Weston and 13,044 in Fort Lauderdale. Miami-Dade County had even higher numbers with 31,189 in Doral, 23,839 in Coral Gables, and 13,856 in Aventura. In West Palm Beach, 4,400 voters came out.
Flor Rivero, 86, wore a booney hat emblazoned with the Venezuelan flag. She smiled and gave a big thumbs up before heading to the mural that had been covered with flags signed with personal messages. “Everyone has been so incredibly helpful," she said. "I am hopeful today.”
Marieva Martinez came out to vote with her young son and ended up staying to help with the event. “It is wonderful, wonderful: a superb effort. Everyone is so happy and enthusiastic. It’s brutal in Venezuela so this turnout against Maduro is excellent.”
Perhaps one of the most inspiring attributes of the Venezuelan people is their good spirits and their camaraderie. Despite the heat, lines, and lack of water, people joked and encouraged each other. Voters exiting promised those waiting, “You’re almost there, you’re almost there, just a little bit more,” while those stuck in the heat shouted “Polar, Polar, Polar!” pretending to be selling the country’s staple Pilsner beer.
Everyone laughed and calmly moved forward in line.