Venezuela vote draws condemnations
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 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.
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.