STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Venezuela's opposition staged a vote yesterday. And one of the questions was, should President Nicolas Maduro convene an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution? In this informal vote, 98 percent of those who showed up said no. Maduro's party has also done badly in real elections lately amid protests over shortages of food and jobs. NPR's Philip Reeves has been covering this story. Hi, Philip.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: What's a symbolic vote like this show?
REEVES: Well, I think it clearly states that Maduro is as deeply unpopular as he's long been thought to be. And it shows that, as the polls have suggested - that Venezuelans are overwhelmingly against the idea of establishing a constitutional assembly that will rewrite the constitution. It's a large number. Seven million took part in this. That's nearly a third of the number actually registered to vote. About 10 percent of them voted overseas - expatriate Venezuelans. The rest did so in Venezuela, which, given the potential for violence yesterday, is a very large number, really. And violence did occur. A woman - a nurse aged 61 was shot dead when men on motorbikes opened fire on a crowd of people around a polling area outside a church.
INSKEEP: You mentioned expatriates voting, including people in the United States. We're going to hear more about them in a moment. First, I do want to ask, what is at stake here? When we hear about President Maduro wanting to rewrite the constitution, what exactly does he want?
REEVES: Well, that is the key question. The opposition would say that what he wants to do is to create a new constitution that would virtually destroy what remains of the democratic institutions of Venezuela. That would include the national legislature, which is in the hands of the opposition. It's opposition-controlled, although it's been sidelined for months now by the supreme court, which is pro-government. And it might - they argue that it might mean the removal of elections entirely, creating a one-party state and essentially a dictatorship in Venezuela, a direction which the opposition says that Maduro's been moving in for some time now.
INSKEEP: Does Maduro agree that that's where he wants to go?
REEVES: No, well, Maduro says that the creation of this constitutional assembly is all part of his efforts to bring peace and end the political crisis in Venezuela. And he's told the opposition that they should calm down. And he's characterized yesterday's vote, by the way, as what he calls a meaningless internal exercise. But, you know, the larger fear is out there. And it's not just the opposition that warns that this could lead to the destruction entirely of democracy. It's also the view of many people who are observing events in that country that this is the direction in which it is going.
INSKEEP: Can I ask where the security services stand in all this?
REEVES: That's a very good question. One of the questions asked in the referendum yesterday concerned the army. There were three questions in all. And one of them was, would you support the idea of the army defending the constitution? - in other words, the existing constitution. Now we both know - everyone knows that the army in Venezuela is very powerful. And it's long been thought that which way the army goes is decisive in all of this. So far, it's supported the government. But would it be willing to break with the government at some point as the crisis there over food, medicine and a completely collapsed economy continues to spiral out of control? And this is an attempt to pressure the army to do that.
INSKEEP: This is basically a call for military action, if necessary.
REEVES: For - yeah, for the army to leave - of supporting the government of President Maduro and to join the opposition party in trying to, as the opposition put it, defend the democracy of Venezuela and its democratic institutions.
INSKEEP: Philip Reeves, always a pleasure talking with you.
REEVES: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.