Con­tentious elec­tion sparks protests

CAN­DI­DATE, PRO­TEST­ERS KILLED AS DE­FI­ANT MADURO GOES AHEAD WITH ELEC­TION

Windsor Star - - FRONT PAGE - AN­THONY FAIOLA

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro de­fi­antly fol­lowed through Sun­day with his pledge to hold an in­ter­na­tion­ally con­demned elec­tion, cre­at­ing a crit­i­cal new stage in a long-sim­mer­ing cri­sis that could mint the West­ern Hemi­sphere’s new­est dic­ta­tor­ship.

The vote be­gan un­fold­ing Sun­day at dawn un­der the watch­ful eye of 326,000 troops. Gov­ern­ment forces took a zero-tol­er­ance stance with protests, hurl­ing vol­leys of sting­ing tear gas and storm­ing squares in what amounted to a dark turn­ing point for this oil-rich na­tion after four months of in­ten­si­fy­ing re­pres­sion.

The elec­tion will cre­ate what crit­ics call a pup­pet congress with vast pow­ers to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion and sup­plant the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Na­tional Assem­bly, leav­ing all branches of gov­ern­ment un­der firm so­cial­ist con­trol.

Ar­gentina, Colom­bia, Peru, Panama, Peru and the United States said they would not rec­og­nize Sun­day’s vote. Canada and Mex­ico also is­sued state­ments re­pu­di­at­ing the elec­tion.

The move rep­re­sents a di­rect chal­lenge to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — which called on Maduro, the anointed suc­ces­sor of late left­ist fire­brand Hugo Chávez, to can­cel the vote. Thir­teen na­tions from the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States had urged Maduro to can­cel the vote.

On Sun­day, mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion, which boy­cotted the vote, set up bar­ri­cades in parts of the cap­i­tal and be­yond, and pledged protests. But the gov­ern­ment was de­ploy­ing force in the streets. In a scene re­peated at var­i­ous spots in the cap­i­tal, a clus­ter of peace­ful de­mon­stra­tors were chant­ing for democ­racy and wav­ing the yel­low, blue and red Venezue­lan flag in the city’s Plaza Fran­cia when riot troops sud­denly ma­te­ri­al­ized.

They fired vol­leys of tear gas, send­ing de­mon­stra­tors flee­ing for cover.

“To­day we protest for the free­dom of the coun­try, for the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, for the fallen, for the peo­ple who’ve died look­ing for a bet­ter fu­ture … There are not enough peo­ple here be­cause of fear,” said a thin young man who broke away and ran as gov­ern­ment forces took the square. Later, clus­ters of de­mon­stra­tors re­turned, only to be chased again by troops.

Op­po­si­tion leader Freddy Gue­vara said at least eight pro­test­ers were killed na­tion­wide, adding to a death toll that al­ready tops 100.

A pro-gov­ern­ment can­di­date was killed in the in­te­rior state of Bo­li­var, ac­cord­ing to the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice.

A radical fac­tion of gov­ern­ment op­po­nents — known as the Re­sis­tance — also used force. Around noon in the city’s east, a pro­tester in his 20s placed what ap­peared to be ex­plo­sives in­side a bag ly­ing on the street. Five min­utes later, as troops passed by in a mo­tor­cade, the bag det­o­nated, throw­ing at least two of the men to the floor.

The na­tion’s 2.8 mil­lion state work­ers risked los­ing their jobs for not turn­ing out to cast bal­lots. Poor res­i­dents were warned they could lose ac­cess to food bas­kets and gov­ern­ment hous­ing for fail­ure to vote in the elec­tion, in which the can­di­dates — including Maduro’s wife and son — are all gov­ern­ment back­ers.

The As­so­ci­ated Press said Venezue­lans ap­peared to be ab­stain­ing in mas­sive num­bers Sun­day. It said its jour­nal­ists toured more than two dozen polling places in neigh­bour­hoods across the cap­i­tal, including many tra­di­tional strongholds of the rul­ing so­cial­ist party in south­ern and west­ern Caracas. Vir­tu­ally all the polling places saw hours­long lines of thou­sands of peo­ple in past elec­tions over the last two decades of so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to polling from the Datanal­i­sis firm, 72 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is against a new con­stituent assem­bly. How­ever, Tibisay Lu­cena, pres­i­dent of the gov­ern­ment’s elec­toral coun­cil, claimed around noon that “99 per cent and more of the Venezue­lan pop­u­la­tion is vot­ing at this in­stant.”

In Caracas, where vot­ing be­gan at 6 a.m., cit­i­zens lined up at polling sta­tions un­der a veil of fear.

“To be hon­est, I’m vot­ing be­cause I’m afraid of los­ing my ben­e­fits,” said Betty, a 60-year-old woman who lives in pub­lic hous­ing and was too afraid to give her last name. “The gov­ern­ment gave me my house and I don’t want to lose it. I’m sur­viv­ing be­cause of gov­ern­ment pro­grams.”

On San Martin Av­enue, a few blocks from the pres­i­den­tial palace, there were few peo­ple vot­ing at a pub­lic school with 10 wait­ing in line. Some wore pro-gov­ern­ment T-shirts. Op­po­si­tion politi­cians claimed that early turnout was ex­ceed­ingly low.

Ramón Reyes works for the pub­lic TV sta­tion Televen. Many Chávez sup­port­ers — known as Chávis­tas — have turned against Maduro, but others turned out Sun­day in sup­port.

“As a cit­i­zen and Chávista, this is my re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Reyes. “I al­ways voted for Chávez and the rul­ing party.”

Other Chávis­tas said they have had enough.

“Ev­ery­thing has changed, ev­ery­thing,” said Angely Verde, a 28-year-old for­mer state worker who turned out to a protest. “This is not where I grew up.”

JUAN BAR­RETO / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Two po­lice mo­tor­bikes burn after be­ing hit by an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice placed by anti-gov­ern­ment ac­tivists dur­ing a protest in Caracas against the Venezue­lan elec­tion on Sun­day. Deadly vi­o­lence erupted na­tion­wide in the wake of the con­tro­ver­sial vote.

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