Boycott, clashes mark election in Venezuela
Delegates picked for charter rewrite
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans boycotted the polls in large numbers Sunday in protest against a vote to appoint members of a constituent assembly that’s tasked with rewriting the constitution.
The chief prosecutor’s office reported 10 deaths Sunday in clashes between protesters and police across the country. Seven police officers were wounded when an explosion went off as they drove past piles of trash that had been used to blockade a street in an opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas.
The election — decried as illegitimate by a growing number of nations, including the U.S. — will create a constituent assembly with vast powers to rewrite the constitution and supplant the opposition-controlled National Assembly, leaving all branches of government under the control of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist party.
The nationwide vote took place under the gaze of 326,000 troops. Maduro’s government, which for months has clashed with
pro-democracy protesters, insisted by midday that “99 percent and more” of the nation was turning out for the ballot.
But at least 10 polling stations in the relatively pro-government western swath of Caracas were virtually empty with only a few hours of voting left. The opposition declared that turnout was remarkably low and said 14 people in its ranks had died in the streets, including a 13-year-old boy. The discrepancy in the death toll could not immediately be reconciled.
“Venezuela has screamed with its silence,” said Julio Borges, head of the National Assembly.
“It’s very clear to us that the government has suffered a defeat today,” he said. “This vote brings us closer to the government leaving power.”
Members of the opposition set up barricades in parts of the capital and beyond to stage protests. But the government responded with force.
In a scene repeated at various spots in the capital, a cluster of demonstrators were chanting for democracy and waving the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag in the city’s Plaza Francia when riot troops arrived.
They fired 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 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.
Officials and journalists from the pro-government Telesur television channel tweeted photos of lines at voting centers. Early Sunday, reports surfaced of violent confrontations between government forces and residents in western Caracas and the suburbs. On Saturday night, public security forces conducted raids in the center of the city. Elsewhere, forces shot two young men in the state of Merida.
Prosecutors said Sunday that they were investigating the death of Jose Felix Pineda, a 39-year-old lawyer running for a seat on the constituent assembly. An armed group broke into his home in the city of Ciudad Bolivar and shot him dead, prosecutors said.
While the motive for the killing had not been determined, the news added to the anxiety in Venezuela.
In Caracas, voting began at 6 a.m. amid the squawk of macaws. Voters could not reject the assembly’s creation. All they could do was choose the assembly’s delegates from a list of candidates who are stalwarts of Maduro’s political movement.
The list of delegates includes the president’s wife, Cilia Flores, and Diosdado Cabello, a leader in the ruling party who was part of a failed coup attempt in the 1990s.
The nation’s 2.8 million state workers risked losing their jobs if they did not turn out. Poor residents were warned that they could lose access to food baskets and government housing for failing to vote in the election.
“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 scared 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, just a few blocks from the presidential palace in Caracas, there were a few people voting at a public school, with 10 waiting in line. Some wore pro-government T-shirts.
Around 3:45 p.m., the opposition claimed that only 1.5 million eligible voters — less than 7 percent of the electorate — had turned out. An unofficial, opposition-held ballot on July 16 drew nearly 7.6 million voters in rejection of Sunday’s election.
Ramon Reyes works for the public TV station Televen. Many supporters of former President Hugo Chavez — known as Chavistas — have turned against Maduro, but others turned out Sunday in support.
“As a citizen and Chavista, this is my responsibility,” Reyes said. “I always voted for Chavez and the ruling party.”
Other Chavistas said they have had enough.
“Everything has changed, everything,” said Angely Verde, a 28-year-old former state worker who attended a protest. “This is not where I grew up. I can’t recognize anything I’m seeing. It’s so sad. Seeing other people who still have faith is what gives you energy and strength to go on.”
Maduro has pitched the new legislative body as the cornerstone of a socialist dream. Some candidates are former government officials, but many are government supporters from poor neighborhoods. The 545-seat body, he says, will shift power away from traditional politicians and institutions toward socialist activists and slums — a move that critics say will sideline the opposition, benefit those who rely on government patronage, and increase official control.
Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday that he intends to use the assembly not just to rewrite the country’s charter but to govern without limitation. Describing the vote as “the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other,” Maduro said he wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers and governors of constitutional immunity from prosecution — one of the few remaining checks on ruling party power.
Maduro cast his ballot Sunday in front of national TV cameras with his so-called fatherland card — which voters were required to use to prove their participation and ensure future government benefits. Suggesting systemic errors, the screen read: “This person doesn’t exist or was annulled,” before the camera immediately changed focus.
Later, Maduro claimed a success.
“It was and still is a successful day with great popular participation,” he insisted on TV. “The oligarchy doesn’t have its eyes or ears on the people, and it never has. We don’t care about the opinion of the oligarchy.”
Maduro called the vote in May after a month of protests against his government. As a result of plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela’s inflation and homicide rates are among the world’s highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine have left citizens to die of preventable illnesses and root through trash to feed themselves.
The government, meanwhile, is bracing for further international isolation. Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru and the United States said they would not recognize Sunday’s vote, and Canada and Mexico also issued statements repudiating the election.
President Donald Trump’s administration has already targeted the assets of top Venezuelan officials. The administration’s options now range from more individual sanctions to an oil embargo that could further cripple Venezuela’s economy and at least temporarily increase the price of gas in the United States.
Mexico and Panama said they would collaborate with U.S. sanctions. In Europe, Spain urged the European Union to explore “individual and selective sanctions.”
The crisis has left Venezuela with a dwindling roster of allies, mainly Cuba, Russia and China.
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines and Colombia’s Avianca suspended service last week to Venezuela, citing security concerns.
The opposition, after failing to muster large crowds in the streets in recent days, appeared increasingly reliant on international pressure to curb what it called a power grab by the Maduro government.
“Maduro is isolating us from the world and transforming our country into an island, like Cuba,” Borges said.
Venezuelan national police move away from the flames after an explosion at Altamira Square during clashes with anti-government demonstrators Sunday in Caracas, Venezuela.