Contentious election sparks protests
CANDIDATE, PROTESTERS KILLED AS DEFIANT MADURO GOES AHEAD WITH ELECTION
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.”
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.