Venezuela vote draws con­dem­na­tions

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was contributed by Michael Weissenstein, Fabi­ola Sanchez, Matthew Lee and Chris­tine Ar­mario of The Associated Press; and by An­thony Faiola, Rachelle Kry­gier and Mar­i­ana Zuñiga of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment Mon­day claimed a pop­u­lar man­date to dra­mat­i­cally re­cast the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem even as con­dem­na­tions poured in from gov­ern­ments around the world and from op­po­si­tion lead­ers at home.

The United States on Mon­day added Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to a steadily grow­ing list of high-ranking Venezue­lan of­fi­cials tar­geted by fi­nan­cial sanc­tions — es­ca­lat­ing a tac­tic that so far has failed to al­ter Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment lead­ers’ be­hav­ior.

Elec­toral author­i­ties said more than 8 mil­lion Venezue­lans voted Sun­day to cre­ate a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly en­dow­ing Maduro’s rul­ing party with vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited pow­ers. How­ever, that fig­ure is widely dis­puted by in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion backed away from ear­lier threats to sanc­tion Venezuela’s oil in­dus­try, which could un­der­mine Maduro’s gov­ern­ment but also raise U.S. gas prices and deepen Venezuela’s hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

Mon­day’s an­nounced U.S. sanc­tions freeze any as­sets Maduro may have in U.S. ju­ris­dic­tions and bar Amer­i­cans from do­ing busi­ness with him. The sanc­tions were out­lined in a brief no­tice by the Trea­sury Depart­ment’s Of­fice of For­eign As­sets Con­trol ahead of the White House an­nounce­ment.

The mon­e­tary im­pact of the sanc­tions wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear be­cause Maduro’s hold­ings in U.S. ju­ris­dic­tions, if he has any, weren’t pub­li­cized.

Mon­day’s move fol­lows through on a U.S. threat last week of ac­tion against Maduro and his so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment if they went ahead with Sun­day’s elec­tion. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers in Venezuela called the elec­tion a power grab.

“Yes­ter­day’s il­le­git­i­mate elec­tions con­firm that Maduro is a dic­ta­tor who dis­re­gards the will of the Venezue­lan peo­ple,” U.S. Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin said. “By sanc­tion­ing Maduro, the United States makes clear our op­po­si­tion to the poli­cies of his regime and our sup­port for the peo­ple of Venezuela who seek to re­turn their coun­try to a full and pros­per­ous democ­racy.”

He warned of fur­ther U.S. penal­ties against Maduro’s al­lies.

“Any­one who par­tic­i­pates in this il­le­git­i­mate [con­stituent assem­bly] could be ex­posed to fu­ture U.S. sanc­tions for their role in un­der­min­ing demo­cratic pro­cesses and in­sti­tu­tions in Venezuela,” Mnuchin said.

Venezuela’s of­fi­cial elec­tion re­sults would mean that the rul­ing party won more sup­port than it had in any na­tional elec­tion since 2013. The coun­try is suf­fer­ing from a cra­ter­ing econ­omy, spi­ral­ing in­fla­tion, short­ages of medicines and mal­nu­tri­tion among its pop­u­la­tion.

In­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts and op­po­si­tion lead­ers es­ti­mated that the ac­tual voter turnout Sun­day was less than half the gov­ern­ment’s claim. The elec­tion was mon­i­tored by gov­ern­ment-al­lied ob­servers but no in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized poll mon­i­tors.

Op­po­si­tion leader Hen­rique Capriles, the gov­er­nor of the cen­tral Mi­randa state, urged Venezue­lans on Mon­day to protest against an assem­bly that crit­ics fear will ef­fec­tively cre­ate a sin­gle-party coun­try.

Maduro has said the new assem­bly will be­gin to gov­ern within a week. He said he would use the assem­bly’s pow­ers to bar op­po­si­tion can­di­dates from run­ning in De­cem­ber’s gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tions un­less they sit down with his party to ne­go­ti­ate an end to hos­til­i­ties that have gen­er­ated four months of protests, and have left at least 120 peo­ple dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.

Maduro says a new con­sti­tu­tion is the only way to end such con­flicts.

“The peo­ple have de­liv­ered the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly,” Maduro said on na­tional tele­vi­sion. “More than 8 mil­lion in the mid­dle of threats … it’s when im­pe­ri­al­ism chal­lenges us that we prove our­selves wor­thy of the blood of the lib­er­a­tors that runs through the veins of men, women, chil­dren and young peo­ple,” he said.

As early as to­day, the new Con­stituent Assem­bly made up en­tirely of gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers — in­clud­ing Maduro’s wife and son — is to re­place the demo­crat­i­cally elected leg­is­la­tors in Venezuela’s Na­tional Assem­bly build­ing.

On Mon­day, some op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers de­fi­antly went to that build­ing and vowed to con­tinue car­ry­ing out their du­ties.

“Noth­ing and no­body will pre­vent us from ful­fill­ing the man­date that the peo­ple have given us,” op­po­si­tion law­maker Delsa Solorzano said in a video that she shot out­side the assem­bly build­ing Mon­day morn­ing. “That’s why an im­por­tant num­ber of law­mak­ers came to­day, to pro­tect our space and to pro­tect the will of the peo­ple.”

VOTE TO­TALS CHAL­LENGED

Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Tibisay Lu­cena an­nounced just be­fore mid­night Sun­day that turnout in that day’s elec­tion was 41.53 percent, or 8,089,320 peo­ple.

The elec­toral coun­cil’s vote counts in the past have been seen as re­li­able and gen­er­ally ac­cu­rate, but this time the an­nounce­ment was widely mocked.

“If it wasn’t a tragedy … if it didn’t mean more cri­sis, the elec­toral coun­cil’s num­ber would al­most make you laugh,” op­po­si­tion leader Freddy Gue­vara said on Twit­ter.

Maduro has threat­ened that one of the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly’s first acts will be to jail Gue­vara for in­cit­ing vi­o­lence.

An exit poll based on sur­veys at 110 vot­ing cen­ters and con­ducted by New York in­vest­ment bank Torino Cap­i­tal and a Venezuela pub­lic opin­ion com­pany es­ti­mated that 3.6 mil­lion peo­ple had cast bal­lots, or about 18.5 percent of reg­is­tered vot­ers.

The same poll­sters noted that Venezuela has an es­ti­mated 2.6 mil­lion gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, “sug­gest­ing that a large frac­tion of the votes” could have been cast by them.

The Euro­pean Union and other na­tions — in­clud­ing Ar­gentina, Canada, Colom­bia, Mex­ico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, Bri­tain and the United States — crit­i­cized Sun­day’s vote.

Maduro said he had re­ceived con­grat­u­la­tions from the gov­ern­ments of Cuba, Bo­livia and Nicaragua, among oth­ers.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers had called for a boy­cott of the vote, declar­ing it rigged for the rul­ing party. Ahead of the vote, the op­po­si­tion or­ga­nized a se­ries of work stop­pages, as well as a July 16 protest ref­er­en­dum that it said drew more than 7.5 mil­lion sym­bolic votes against the con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly.

OP­PO­SI­TION WOES

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers are fac­ing their own test of pub­lic con­fi­dence af­ter Sun­day’s vote.

“To­day I feel crushed, but not be­cause of the re­sults, be­cause we knew that the gov­ern­ment would cheat,” said Vic­to­ria Daboin, a 25-year-old who has been protest­ing since April. “I feel de­pressed be­cause to­day ev­ery­thing looks nor­mal, as if noth­ing had hap­pened. The streets are empty, and peo­ple went to work as if noth­ing ever hap­pened. I per­son­ally ex­pected more force­ful ac­tions from op­po­si­tion lead­ers.”

Many credit the op­po­si­tion with bravely chal­leng­ing a re­pres­sive regime. But at a time when the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment is sig­nal­ing a more rad­i­cal stage of rule, some Venezue­lans ex­press con­cern that no sin­gle op­po­si­tion leader has man­aged to emerge as Maduro’s ob­vi­ous chal­lenger.

A top con­tender, op­po­si­tion leader Leopoldo Lopez, re­mains un­der house ar­rest and side­lined from pub­lic ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Where’s the leader who has mo­bi­lized peo­ple in the slums be­cause they be­lieve in him?” said Luis Vi­cente Leon, di­rec­tor of the Cara­cas-based poll­ster Datanal­i­sis. “Peo­ple in the slums are scared, but when you have a leader you love, that bar­rier can be over­come. That leader doesn’t ex­ist. And there’s in­ter­nal di­vi­sions within the coali­tion on how to con­front this sit­u­a­tion now.”

For the op­po­si­tion, there ap­pears to be no agree­ment on how best to go for­ward.

Some dis­si­dent voices are press­ing the op­po­si­tion to ac­cel­er­ate the setup of an es­sen­tially par­al­lel gov­ern­ment.

On July 16, the op­po­si­tion held an in­for­mal elec­tion in which it re­ported 7.6 mil­lion peo­ple re­jected the cre­ation of the new con­stituent assem­bly. Af­ter that vote, the op­po­si­tion an­nounced a move to cre­ate its own “gov­ern­ment of na­tional unity.”

But the op­po­si­tion’s most sub­stan­tial move in that di­rec­tion — the se­lec­tion of new mag­is­trates to chal­lenge the au­thor­ity of the cur­rent pro-gov­ern­ment supreme court — has re­sulted in three judges be­ing ar­rested and sev­eral oth­ers go­ing into hid­ing.

The pres­i­dent of the op­po­si­tion-led Na­tional Assem­bly, Julio Borges, told Venezue­lan news chan­nel Globo­vi­sion on Mon­day that Maduro’s foes would con­tinue protest­ing un­til they get free elec­tions and a change of gov­ern­ment.

AP/ARI­ANA CU­BIL­LOS

Luisa Ortega Diaz (left), Venezuela’s chief prose­cu­tor, speaks Mon­day dur­ing a news con­fer­ence at her of­fice in Cara­cas, Venezuela, in op­po­si­tion to a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly that en­dows Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s rul­ing party with vast pow­ers.

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