Boy­cott, clashes mark elec­tion in Venezuela

Del­e­gates picked for char­ter re­write

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by An­thony Faiola, Mar­i­ana Zu­niga and Rachelle Kry­gier of The Wash­ing­ton Post; by Nicholas Casey, Ana Vanessa Her­rero and Pa­tri­cia Tor­res of The New York Times; and by Michael Weis­senstein and Fabi­ola Sanchez

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.

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