By Anthony Faiola,
CARACAS, Venezuela — 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 eyes of 326,000 troops and 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.
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.
Washington has already targeted the assets of top Venezuelan officials. The administration’s options now range from more individual sanctions to a massive oil embargo that could further cripple Venezuela’s devastated economy and at least temporarily increase the price of gas in the United States.
On Sunday, members of the opposition, which boycotted the vote, set up barricades in parts of the capital and beyond, and pledged protests. The government took a zero-tolerance stance toward protests, however. 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 the demonstrations 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.
The nation’s 2.8 million state workers risked losing their jobs for not turning out to cast ballots. Poor residents were warned that they could lose access to food baskets and government housing for failing to vote in the election, in which the candidates — including Maduro’s wife and son — are all government backers.
In Caracas, where voting began at 6 a.m. amid the squawk of macaws, citizens lined up at polling stations under a veil of fear. According to polling from the Datanalisis firm, 72 percent of the population is against a new constituent assembly.
“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, there were a 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,” Reyes said. “I always voted for Chávez and the ruling party.”
Maduro has pitched the new legislature 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, Maduro 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 government lackeys and increase official control.
In images carried live on national TV, Maduro cast his ballot shortly after polls opened.
“I already fulfilled the first vote for the peace and the homeland,” he later tweeted. “Now everyone has to comply with the homeland.”
Officials and journalists from the pro-government station Telesur 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 and shot two young men in the state of Merida.
The opposition said a student leader was killed early Sunday, adding to a death toll that already tops 100. A pro-government candidate also was killed in the interior state of Bolivar, according to the attorney general’s office.
The decision to hold the vote appeared set to prolong and deepen the suffering of the people of Venezuela, where hyperinflation and scarcities have sent poverty soaring, crippled medical care and increased hunger. A tube of toothpaste now costs more than one day’s salary at the minimum wage.
The government, meanwhile, was bracing for further international isolation. Delta Air Lines and Colombia’s Avianca suspended service last week to Venezuela, citing security concerns. Thirteen nations from the Organization of American States had urged Maduro to cancel the vote.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Friday that his country would not recognize Sunday’s vote. Mexico and Panama said they would collaborate with U.S. sanctions. In Europe, Spain urged the European Union to explore “individual and selective sanctions.”
It left Venezuela with a dwindling roster of allies, chiefly Cuba, Russia and China.
The opposition, after failing to muster massive crowds in the streets in recent days, appeared increasingly reliant on international pressure to curb what it called a power grab.
“Maduro is isolating us from the world and transforming our country into an island, like Cuba,” said Julio Borges, an opposition leader and head of the National Assembly.
He added, “It’s important that the international community help not only with condemnation, but also with actions, to combine our pressure with international pressure.”
Yet for the opposition, which has portrayed the vote as the “zero hour” for Venezuela’s democracy, the challenge is to find a way to reinvigorate an exhausted resistance. After four months of street protests in which thousands have been detained, the question is whether it can find new momentum.
In a sense, the new assembly also poses risks for Maduro. The body will be all-powerful; in theory, its authority will be even greater than the president’s. One scenario is that Maduro’s wife or son is installed as its head and that the assembly finds a way to protect his grip on power.
The socialist government already controls the Supreme Court, which in March nullified the authority of the democratically elected National Assembly.
But the new body could also serve as the battlefield for a game of thrones among Maduro’s inner circle. Speculation is particularly rife that one of his formidable lieutenants, Diosdado Cabello, may be gunning for the assembly’s top job, potentially using it as a perch to build his own power base.
“Inside the ruling party, different economic interests are at play, and they’re waiting to see how the fight will end,” said Félix Seijas Rodríguez, a Caracas-based pollster and political analyst.
“The internal fight has always existed,” he continued. “The U.S. is waiting to see who will have control over the Constituent Assembly, either Diosdado or Maduro through his wife or [former minister] Delcy Rodríguez.”
Mariana Zuñiga and Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.
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