Sunday, 30 July 2017 15:53
(1 Vote)
People line up at a Caracas polling place to cast their ballots. People line up at a Caracas polling place to cast their ballots. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

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 as they pledged to carry out protests. The nation’s 2.8 million state workers, however, 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.

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.

Join our newsletter!

You may want to read from your inbox shall be delivered, do provide us your email.