Neither the hot morning sun nor an afternoon storm prevented Tampa area Venezuelans from participating on Sunday in an international nonbinding straw poll opposing what they perceive as an attempt by the South American nation's president, Nicolás Maduro, to create a dictatorship.
"I may not live there anymore, but Venezuela is still my country," Albertina Harvey, who left her native country 18 years ago, said while holding a large Venezuelan flag in the parking lot. "I want to help."
Harvey, 58, was among thousands of local Venezuelans to cast votes at Are Pitas restaurant, 2734 University Square Drive, which doubled as one of five polling places in the Tampa Bay area.
An early afternoon line to vote wrapped fully around the parking lot that is about the size of a full city block.
There, they waved Venezuelan flags, wore clothing marked in the nation's tricolors and chanted against Maduro.
Some brought babies in strollers. Others needed walkers for assistance.
All were Venezuelan citizens living here temporarily or with dual U.S. citizenship.
"We expect better things for Venezuela," said Dimas Pulgar, 42, who moved from Venezuela 18 years ago. "It is time to make good changes."
On July 30, at the behest of Maduro, Venezuelans will elect 500 people to a national Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country's 1999 constitution.
Opposition parties in Venezuela are abstaining from the vote because they consider the process illegitimate and any final tally questionable.
Despite the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela is in the midst of an economic recession so severe that basic necessities are scarce. Protests against the socialist government that most blame for the struggles have turned violent.
Maduro's popularity is about 20 percent in Venezuela, but a new constitution could help keep his party in office by changing election rules — for instance, by limiting who can run for office.
So, a Venezuela opposition party and supporting lawmakers called for this international plebiscite among Venezuelans around the world to pressure a cancellation of the constitutional rewrite.
There were about 2,000 polling stations in Venezuela.
More than 90 other nations and more than 120 U.S. cities also participated.
"We were not sure what to expect," said Norma Reno, founder of Casa de Venezuela Tampa Bay, which organized the local efforts. "I am very happy this many people came out. It feels like every Venezuelan in Tampa is here."
The questions on the ballot were: Does the voter reject or recognize the call for a new constitution, believe Venezuela's armed forces should protect the current constitution and favor free and transparent elections?
Voters privately filled out ballots in cubicles. After tabulating the results, Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay faxed them to leaders of the Venezuelan opposition party.
If anyone was in favor of Maduro at the Tampa poll, they certainly weren't making that allegiance publicly known, Reno said.
"No one likes him," she said. "He is a bad person."
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