Violence marks Venezuelan election as opposition warns of fraud

Deadly violence marked a lightly attended vote Sunday to elect an all-powerful new legislative body in Venezuela as government forces blocked opponents from protesting across the South American country in turmoil.

President Nicolás Maduro carried out the election in defiance of the U.S. and the wider international community, which characterized the new national constituent assembly as an illegitimate end to Venezuelan democracy. At least 16 people were reported dead in a 24-hour period, though not all of the deaths had been confirmed by the government. Still, the day was one of the bloodiest in four months of street unrest. One of the victims was 13 years old.

Leaders of Maduro’s ruling socialist party claimed historic participation levels.

“I guarantee you record turnout,” Diosdado Cabello, a powerful socialist congressman, declared.

But Maduro opponents, who boycotted the vote, denounced what they said was a massive electoral fraud. They pointed to largely deserted streets and sparsely populated polling places in Venezuela’s biggest cities, especially compared with recent past elections, including ones won by the government.

“Rarely does a country have the opportunity to witness, live, an electoral fraud,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-held National Assembly whose power would be usurped by the new constituent assembly. “Hits you in the heart.”

The U.S. is expected to impose steeper economic sanctions against Venezuela as early as Monday. Penalties may not be geared at banning imports from the oil-producing South American country, as President Donald Trump’s administration had contemplated, but at restricting financial transactions to starve Maduro’s cash-strapped government of U.S. dollars. Individual constituent assembly members are also almost certain sanction targets.

As Maduro backers trickled into the polls Sunday, demonstrators gathered in Caracas, the nation’s capital, to march in protest. But they were repeatedly repelled by armed police and national guard officers who used tear gas, pellets and, in several cases, bullets against them. Most of the dead were in the western states of Mérida and Táchira, home to dedicated anti-Maduro factions.

“Not one death” was related to the electoral process, boasted Jorge Rodríguez, a Caracas mayor who headed the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s campaign. Shortly after, opposition leader María Corina Machado rattled off the names and ages of the dead, one by one.

Even before results were announced, Machado urged the Bolivarian Armed Forces to defend the Venezuelan constitution, which requires a referendum — skipped by Maduro — before a constituent assembly election. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López promptly appeared on state-run television defending the election and announcing the death of a member of the Bolivarian National Guard.

Throughout the day, state-run TV aired videos of what in many cases were unidentified polling places where voters lined up to cast ballots. An upbeat electoral jingle played on loop in the background as government leaders praised the process. They made no mention of protests or any dead or injured; the government’s social-media hashtag was “Venezuela Elections in Peace.” The government did not allow any international election observers, and reporters were forced to remain at least 500 meters — about 550 yards — from the polls.

On Sunday evening, the government extended voting by an hour, citing delays at crowded polls. The opposition countered it was a ruse to boost paltry turnout.

Borges predicted the government would try to claim at least 8.5 million votes, to surpass the 7.5 million votes cast two weeks ago in a symbolic election organized by the opposition to reject the constituent assembly. Citing internal figures from the Maduro-controlled National Electoral Council, opposition leaders said about 2.4 million of Venezuela’s electorate of about 19 million had cast ballots.

Just before midnight, the National Electoral Council claimed more than 8 million people had voted, a turnout higher than 41 percent. Such a total would mean more than half a million more voters backed the constituent assembly Sunday than voted for Maduro in 2013, when his popularity in opinion polls was higher.

Before Sunday, pollsters had pegged turnout at about 3 million voters, or 15 percent. More than 7 out of 10 poll respondents said they opposed the election. Four years of Maduro’s government have left the oil-rich country racked by hyperinflation, bloody violence and food shortages. Protests began after the Maduro-stacked Supreme Court tried to strip the National Assembly’s power. Since then, more than 100 people have died.

“The only thing the government is doing is digging its own grave,” Borges said Sunday. “Today has been characterized by abstention and repression.”

The governments of a slew of countries, including Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Peru and Spain, said they would not recognize the new constituent assembly, whose election has been repudiated by Canada, Mexico and the European Union, and criticized by the United Nations and even famously neutral Switzerland. On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said the U.S. would also disavow the election results. The State Department condemned the results late Sunday, extended condolences “to all Venezuelans who have lost loved ones,” and encouraged other countries to “take strong action” against Venezuela.

Miami Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen endorsed steeper sanctions — at the very least aimed at state-run oil producer PDVSA, Ros-Lehtinen said.

“I am confident that President Trump will respond swiftly and decisively,” said Rubio, who has worked on Venezuela sanctions with the White House. A gaggle of Venezuelans protested the vote Sunday in Doral and Weston.

The 545-member constituent assembly, tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution, would convene within 72 hours and begin to “govern” the country, Maduro said Saturday. He threatened opposition lawmakers with prosecution and said Attorney General Luisa Ortega, the chief federal prosecutor and a government loyalist-turned-critic, would face dismissal.

All 5,500 candidates on the ballot — with a disproportional amount of seats assigned to rural areas where the government is most popular — were registered with Maduro’s ruling socialist party. The government threatened state workers’ jobs and subsidized benefits if they didn’t vote.

In downtown Caracas, a traditional government stronghold, some voters said they had started gathering at 4 a.m. in spite of a tense atmosphere. Bolivarian National Guard troops stood watch and shut down some streets.

Voters at the Liceo Andrés Bello, which saw steady attendance throughout the morning, characterized the constituent assembly as a way for Maduro backers to have a say in legislating again.

“I am one of the many people who fell in love with Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías’ socialist project,” said María Canelas, 47, of Maduro’s predecessor. “The legislature has been logjammed. … They locked the doors and the people couldn’t speak anymore. Now they’re reopening them.”

Chávez successfully pushed to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution in 1999. But that constituent assembly was formed after voters approved it in a referendum — a constitutionally required step that Maduro’s government skipped.

Nevertheless, voter Jimmy Maguida, 58, said the new constituent assembly was “the continuation of the revolution.”

“People who don’t wish to participate in the dialogue, well, so be it,” he said. “Most of the people, we want peace. We will impose our empire. They will have to get in line.”

Both Canelas and Maguida said they are members of their local socialist communal councils.

As protesters started to gather in Plaza Altamira, in eastern Caracas, earlier in the day, Bolivarian National Police officers pulled up on motorcycles, threw tear gas canisters and ransacked the car of a man selling protest merchandise. When the officers, their faces covered, saw a TV crew recording, they aimed tear gas at reporters — themselves clad in bulletproof vests, helmets and masks.

“They’re armed, they’re shooting at the people,” said Francesca Zumvo, a 43-year-old protester who said officers were armed with tear gas, pellets and long guns. “We knew everything we would do today would be repressed. This is an illegitimate process. It’s not in our constitution. It’s not legal.”

A motorcycle taxi driver’s bike was set on fire. One young man appeared to be shot, by a bullet, in the ribs. Later, a major explosion of other motorcycles reportedly injured several police officers.

Scuffles in the capital began before dawn, with residents of the El Paraíso neighborhood reporting the presence of government tanks and residents of the Montalbán neighborhood calling on reporters to show apartment buildings they said were ransacked overnight by masked men. More confrontations and roadblocks were later reported in the Caurimare and Santa Fe neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the country, including in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city. Intermittent rain showers in Caracas, Valencia and other cities also seemed to depress turnout among both voters and protesters.

Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who voted in his hometown of Maracay, in Aragua state, compared Sunday to Dec. 6, 1998 — the day the late Chávez was first elected. Sunday, he said, was a “democratic fiesta.”

The U.S. has sanctioned El Aissami as a drug kingpin. The Trump administration said last week they have tied him to “hundreds of millions of dollars” in foreign assets. Thirteen other current and former leaders of the Venezuelan government, military and state agencies also had their assets frozen and travel banned by the U.S. last week for undemocratic, violent and corrupt actions.

At dawn, President Maduro cast one of Sunday’s first ballots, insisting the new assembly would stabilize the country’s collapsed economy and soothe its political crisis and imploring other countries to accept the election results.

“I wanted to be the first to vote for peace, for sovereignty and the independence of Venezuela,” he said. “Today is a historic day.”

Maduro’s vote took place with little public fanfare and unusually early in the morning. Two weeks ago, he was unable to take part in an election drill because his polling place in the western Caracas neighborhood of Catia was overtaken by protesters.

On Sunday, Maduro boasted of registering his vote using his national “patriot” ID, a card to determine which socialist party members and government workers cast ballots. On live national television, a poll worker used a cellphone to scan Maduro’s card.

The state TV camera zoomed into the cellphone screen. “The person doesn’t exist, or the ID was annulled,” it read.

Maduro carried on as if nothing had happened.

Mazzei reported from Miami.