Local Venezuelans filed into Copley Square throughout the day on Sunday, many draped in their nation’s flag, and waited patiently beneath a sign labeled “consulta popular’’ — popular vote.
They had come to participate in an act of civil disobedience: to send a ballot back to Venezuela denouncing the policies of President Nicolas Maduro.
A spiraling economic crisis and increasingly bitter criticism of Maduro have led to a surge of antigovernment sentiment that has culminated in more than 100 days of protest that have left more than 90 people dead.
Opponents have charged Maduro’s administration with a number of human rights violations, including detaining and killing dissenters and stripping power from independent agencies, according to news reports.
In an act of escalation, Venezuela’s opposition party organized Sunday’s symbolic referendum to allow citizens to voice their discontent, in particular with the president’s controversial plan to rewrite the constitution.
Polling stations were established in dozens of cities so citizens around the world could participate.
David Bonyuet, 50, of Watertown, one of the organizers of the vote in Boston, said that more than 70 volunteers worked over the past week to prepare the vote. The ballots will be counted, reported to the government, and then destroyed in an effort to protect the dissenters from backlash — Venzuelan law requires voters to sign a registry and stamp their fingerprint.
As of 6 p.m. Sunday, Boston organizers said more than 2,500 Venezuelans had voted.
“This is historic, we’re using democratic means to try to get out of a dictatorship,” Bonyuet said. “We are asking the people whether we want to come back to a democracy. We want to end the craziness.”
Luisa De Páez, 86, moved from Margarita Island, Venezuela, to Boston almost four months ago.
She hopes to return to her country one day, but said she could no longer obtain food or the medicine she needed in Venezuela. Her village received potable water just twice a week, she said.
But De Páez said that she is hopeful for the future of the country.
“I want my children and grandchildren to have the country they deserve, that’s why I’m here voting,” she said. “I want the Venezuela we had before, the beautiful, good, and united Venezuela, with food and medicine and everything we need.”
Many people who came to vote also described the economic hardships the country is facing, reporting stories from relatives who still live in Venezuela who could not access food or medicine. Elena Raffensperger of Boston said her nephew had been kidnapped for ransom money.
For Ana Jatar, also of Boston, the vote is personal as well as political. Her brother, Braulio Jatar, a prominent Venezuelan journalist, was imprisoned by the government for months after publishing videos of anti-Maduro protests.
Her husband, Ricardo Hausmann, 60, the former Venezuelan minister of planning and a professor of economics at Harvard, served as an observer to the referendum. He said he was moved by the sense of civic duty displayed on Sunday.
“This is an amazing show to the world,” said Hausmann. “It’s an attempt to confront Maduro’s government, who has been killing and torturing protestors, and answering that government not with arms, but with votes.”Catie Edmondson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.