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Venezuelan diaspora flocks to vote against Maduro

MIAMI, July 17, 2017 (BSS/AFP) - In Miami, Madrid and across Latin America Venezuelans living abroad enthusiastically cast ballots in a vote organized Sunday by the opposition that sought to undermine unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

"I feel like a liberator!" exclaimed Monica Rodriguez in Miami, the city with the biggest expatriate Venezuelan population and one of 500 worldwide to host a poll.

The 44-year-old, pushing her baby in a carriage, was one of thousands lined up to cast a ballot.

"This isn't an election, it's a declaration" against Maduro and his policies, said another, Rosa Tejeiro de Reyna, aged over 60.

The vote was designed to gauge electoral acceptance of a plan by Maduro to rewrite his country's constitution.

But, with Venezuelan officials dismissing the vote as "illegal" and electorally irrelevant, defiance was high among those frustrated with the drawn-out crisis rocking Venezuela.

Jose Hernandez, a representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Miami, said: "Venezuelans are much more than what the government represents. And when we pull together democratically we can do so much more than everybody believes possible."

He estimated there were more than 100,000 voters in southern Florida.

According to 2015 census data, 273,000 Venezuelans live in the United States -- half of them in Florida, especially in and around Miami.

In Los Angeles, a Venezuelan actor, Edgar Ramirez, said the vote was a chance to stand up for "all those people who died from neglect, insecurity, and the lack of leadership and transparency in Venezuela."

- Under Spain's sun -

Polling stations were set up across Latin America, from Brazil to Argentina, Panama, Chile, Mexico and Colombia, which has experienced a mass influx of Venezuelans from across the border, and where as many as 50,000 people were estimated to have voted on Sunday.

In Spain, hundreds of Venezuelans queued in the blazing heat in Madrid to cast their ballots.

"I want the entire world to see that there are millions of Venezuelans who do not agree with the Maduro regime and that want to live in democracy and peace," 60-year-old Maria del Perez, clutching a Venezuelan flag, told AFP.

People held up their passports or newspapers to shield themselves from the sun as they waited to cast their ballots in one of the 40 cardboard urns decorated with stickers that read "The People Decide!"

Volunteers, many wearing yellow vests, manned tables and guided people to the outdoor voting stations.

Voting was also underway in Barcelona and several other Spanish cities.

The number of Venezuelans who live in Spain soared by a quarter in 2016 over the previous year to almost 69,000 according to government data.

Venezuelans account for the largest number of asylum requests in Spain, ahead of Syrians, says the Spanish Commission for Help to Refugees.

Carlos Alfano, 25, who moved to Spain last month, said rampant crime and lack of medicines were the biggest problems for Venezuela under Maduro.

"It is a silent genocide," he said.