RICHMOND, Va. -- More than 700 Venezuelans came out in Richmond on Sunday to vote in an unofficial referendum on President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution.
Organizers of the plebiscite in Richmond say they didn’t expect such a big turnout.
Venezuelans from all over Central Virginia showed up the polling location on Grace Street.
"We are against the dictator, we want a change. We want a democratic and free country,” said Armando Napoles, who came out to vote.
"Reminder that I am Venezuelan, I am a part of it. I want what's best for my country,” said Lipso Nava, a Venezuelan who’s living in Richmond while working as a hitting coach for the Flying Squirrels.
Maduro has plans to have a vote on July 30 to elect members of a special assembly to change the 1999 constitution. The opposition is boycotting the National Constituent Assembly, which many fear will be composed of government supporters who will allow Maduro to get rid of the few remaining checks on his power.
Voters on Sunday answered three yes or no questions: Do they reject the constituent assembly? Do they want the armed forces to defend the 1999 constitution? Do they support the formation of a unity government and free elections?
The socialist revolution in Venezuela led by the late Hugo Chavez 18 years ago, is in shambles. Maduro replaced Chavez in 2013 and has led the country into a deep economic and political crisis.
"I know people came here for the American dream. But Venezuelans are coming here to escape the Venezuelan nightmare,” said Manuel Gago, one of the organizers of the Richmond plebiscite. "Almost all my family is in Venezuela. People that are dying from lack of medicine, a lack of food."
"They all tell me the same story -- they don't have food, they don't have basic things to survive. Sometimes I feel guilty because I live in a country where I can go to the supermarket and get whatever I want, and that's how it was in Venezuela before. We want to go back to those freedoms--security, food and our rights,” said Napoles.
The government has jailed hundreds of opponents and canceled or postponed elections that could’ve removed Maduro and the ruling socialist party from power. It’s led to three months of protests, in which more than 90 people—including teenagers—have been killed.
"It's not only Richmond, it's the world,” said Napoles.
The symbolic referendum has no legal impact, but supporters say turnout Sunday would be a signal to the world that Maduro’s government is ignoring the will of the people.
"You are a dictator, you are against the constitution. We are right. We have the right to vote and tell you, you need to go,” said Napoles.
“It doesn't matter that the Venezuelan government says this isn't official. The Venezuelan people think this is official and this as a first step for a change in Venezuela,” said Gago.
Maduro has said he will not accept the results from Sunday. He said the voting process is unconstitutional and illegal.