TAMPA — Venezuelan citizens living in the Tampa Bay area can cast votes here Sunday to send a signal about the direction their troubled homeland is heading.
An opposition party in Venezuela, Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, has scheduled a nonbinding international straw poll designed to show that Venezuelans oppose an effort to rewrite the constitution in a way that make it easier for the party of socialist President Nicolás Maduro to remain in power.
Voting will take place across Venezuela and in 108 cities outside the South American nation.
"Everybody from Venezuela needs to come out," said Ana Maria Tague, a leader of Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay, a local group organizing the effort here. "The Venezuelan regime wants to own the country. They want everything."
There will be five polling stations in the Tampa Bay area:
• Are Pitas restaurant, 2734 University Square Drive, Tampa
• Players School of Music, 923 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater
• Dollar to Go, 3248 Lithia Pinecrest Road, Valrico
• Early Childhood Learning Center, 3135 Airside Center Drive, Lakeland
• Los Chamos Latin Market, 3801 McIntosh Road, Sarasota
Voters must be 18 or older, and proof of Venezuelan citizenship is required, such as a government ID, passport or birth certificate.
U.S. citizenship won't keep people from voting as long as they have dual citizenship in Venezuela.
Voting is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay will keep polls open later if needed.
There will be three questions on the ballot: 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?
Opposition lawmakers in Venezuela back the unofficial balloting.
On July 30, Venezuelans are scheduled to 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.
Maduro's popularity is around 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.
Sunday's straw poll may be symbolic but Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay founder Norma Reno said, "This is important. We need to show the Venezuelan regime and the world that we do not want the constitution rewritten."
Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay will count the votes, make copies and fax the results to leaders of the Venezuelan opposition party.
The Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey says nearly 6,000 Venezuelans live in the Tampa Bay area — Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Statewide, Venezuelans number 102,116 — second only to Colombians among South Americans.
But those totals have likely risen since the last tally was taken, Reno said, as Venezuelans flee a nation spiraling out of control from violent protests and an economy that cannot supply sufficient food, medicine and other basic requirements.
"Look at what is going on in Venezuela," Reno said. "They don't respect the people."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.