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Venezuela opposition calls for escalation of street protests

Opposition members shout slogans against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro as they waits for the results of a of a symbolic referendum in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 16, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans lined up across the country and in expatriate communities around the world Sunday to vote in a symbolic rejection of President Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that's raising tensions in a nation battered by shortages and anti-government protests. (AP Photo/Jesus Hernandez)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leaders called Monday for supporters to escalate street protests after more than 7.1 million people rejected a government plan to rewrite the constitution and consolidate its power over a country stricken by shortages and inflation and riven by more than 100 days of clashes between protesters and police.

The opposition said 7,186,170 Venezuelans participated in a symbolic referendum rejecting President Nicolas Maduro's plans for the July 30 election of an assembly that would remake the country's political system. Maduro's allies have called on the assembly to impose executive branch authority over the few remaining institutions outside the control of Venezuela's socialist ruling party.

A coalition of some 20 opposition parties assembled in its headquarters Monday to call for a "zero hour" campaign of civil disobedience in the two weeks leading to the government vote. More than three months of opposition protests have left at least 93 people dead and 1,500 wounded. More than 500 protesters and government opponents have been jailed.

"Right now we have to escalate and deepen this street movement," National Assembly President Julio Borges told local radio station Exitos Monday morning ahead of the opposition announcement.

Sunday's opposition vote was a strong but not overwhelming showing that fell short of the opposition's 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought Maduro to power in 2013. Opposition leaders said that was because they were able to set up only 2,000 polling places in a symbolic exercise the government labeled as illegitimate.

Still, some supporters said they were disappointed.

"I thought it was going to be more," said Mariela Arana, a 56-year-old school counselor. "But these seven million people spoke and it was plenty."

The day was marred by violence when a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in a church in western Caracas.

David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela, said the result would likely rally the international community even more strongly against the July 30 vote.

"Overall, this vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned," Smilde said. "I think it's going to embolden the international community to reject it."

Canada and Mexico were among the countries that issued statements Sunday evening lauding the opposition exercise.

Late Sunday, Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on Twitter that he was declaring former Mexican President Vicente Fox persona non grata and banning him from the country for conspiring to promote violence and foreign intervention. Fox traveled to Venezuela Saturday with a group of Latin American former presidents to show support for the referendum. Moncada offered no evidence to support his accusations.

The opposition released only turnout numbers Sunday night, not tallies of responses to those questions, although virtually all who voted were believed to have answered "yes" to the central rejection of the constitutional rewrite.

In smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters went to polling stations in a rehearsal for the July 30 vote.

"Our president Chavez supported the poor, the people," said Yveth Melendez, a 41-year-old homemaker waiting outside a school in the south Caracas neighborhood of El Valle, a stronghold of government support that has been weakening in recent years. "Today we're following his legacy, with President Nicolas Maduro ... The constitutional assembly is something that benefits the people."

But Isabel Santander, a 67-year-old retired auditor, said she was voting against the constitutional assembly as a protest against the country's economic collapse.

"I signed because there's no medicine, no food, no security," she said. "There's no separation of powers, no freedom of expression."

Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the congress and holds three of 23 governorships. The country's chief prosecutor has recently broken with the ruling party.

Opponents of Venezuela's government blame it for turning one of the region's most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.


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