MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
People in Venezuela are voting in a referendum today. It's largely symbolic, yet it is about an issue of crucial importance to the country which has seen almost daily anti-government protests over the past three and a half months in which nearly 100 people have been killed. And at least one person has reportedly been killed during the voting today. We're joined on the line now by NPR's South America correspondent, Philip Reeves. Thanks for joining us, Philip.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.
MARTIN: So what is this referendum for, and does it have any actual legal force, any binding impact?
REEVES: No, it doesn't have any legal force. And indeed, the government is describing it as that. Illegal and irrelevant is the word they're using. It's been organized by Venezuela's opposition parties. And it's about President Nicolas Maduro's plan to establish a constituent assembly, to rewrite the constitution of the country. The opposition believes that it will be one further step towards a one-party state. It'll consolidate his moves to make Venezuela into a dictatorship.
They're worried that a new constitution might mean the abolition of Parliament, which they control, although the Supreme Court, which is controlled by the government, has rendered Parliament powerless for a very long time now. They're worried it could lead to the end of state governments and to the abolition of the office of the chief prosecutor, who's the strongest opponent of the government of Maduro at this time within the establishment.
MARTIN: So if it's largely symbolic, what is it meant to accomplish?
REEVES: Well, it puts a lot of pressure on Maduro. And it comes two weeks ahead of the elections for the constituent assembly. They believe that the elections are rigged in such a way as to ensure that that body will be a entirely pro-government body. And this has the effect of attempting to undermine the credibility of that constituent assembly and the elections for it and also drawing international attention to the cause in Venezuela of the opposition parties who have been fighting this issue for more than three months now on the streets almost every day with the loss of life and many injuries and hundreds of people winding up in jail.
MARTIN: What are you hearing about the turnout?
REEVES: I'm hearing from Caracas that it's good. The opposition printed 14 million ballot papers, but no one expects those all to be filled in. But I'm hearing that there is a high turnout. People are going out to vote in parks, in churches and hundreds of other places where they've set up these symbolic voting booths. And it's not just happening in Venezuela. It's also happening in nearly 80 other countries, including where I am, Brazil, where expatriate Venezuelans are being given the opportunity to take part in this process.
MARTIN: So what happens next?
REEVES: What happens next is that they will count the votes. And they are talking about having the numbers out by as soon as tonight. And then they will clearly present these to the world as an example that most Venezuelans do not want this new constituent assembly. And it's another step in their attempts to pressure the government and to stop it from going in what they portray as a march towards dictatorship and to try to preserve their democratic rights in that country.
MARTIN: That's NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves. We reached him in Rio. Thanks, Philip.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.