Violence and Death Overshadow Voting in Venezuela

Death, protests, and violence overshadowed voting in Venezuela Sunday for an unpopular measure to elect a 545-member constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

At least nine deaths have been reported since Friday, bringing the death toll over the last four months of protests to more than 120.

They include 39-year-old lawyer Jose Felix Pineda, a candidate for the constitutional assembly, who was shot in his home Saturday night.

On Sunday, four motorcycle policemen were hurt when someone threw explosives at a convoy in Caracas.

Protesters both for and against the assembly battled each other across Venezuela, with the opposition blocking roads and police reacting with tear gas and rubber bullets.

President Nicolas Maduro said anyone defying a ban on protests during the historic vote risks up to 10 years in prison.

Dozens of polling places deserted

The opposition said the vote was rigged and called for an election boycott. Reporters on the ground in Caracas said dozens of polling places were nearly deserted.

Maduro cast the first ballot Sunday, calling it “the first vote for peace, the first vote for the sovereignty and independence of Venezuela.”

The president urged the international community to accept the election.

“We’ve stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence. Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country,” he said.

The United States will not.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, tweeted Sunday that “Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship. We won’t accept an illegitimate government. The Venezuelan people and democracy will prevail.”

Details on what is likely to be included in a new constitution are unclear. Maduro has said it is the only way to pull Venezuela out of its severe economic and social crisis and stop the seemingly endless violence.

Critics assert that only Maduro supporters are candidates, including first lady Cilia Flores, and the first vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello.

Prelude to dictatorship?

Polls show more than 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the assembly.

The opposition contends the assembly would dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and turn Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship. Maduro opponents are demanding early presidential elections.

The Trump administration has already enforced economic sanctions on a number of high-ranking members of Maduro’s administration. A number of top U.S. lawmakers have expressed their support for the citizens of Venezuela.

The United Nations has also said it is deeply concerned about the situation in Venezuela.

The drop in global energy prices together with political corruption have destroyed oil-rich Venezuela’s economy.

Gasoline, medicine, and such basic staples as cooking oil, flour, and sugar are scarce. Many Venezuelans cross into neighboring Colombia and Brazil to buy food.

Maduro has blamed the country’s woes on what he calls U.S. imperialism and its supporters inside Venezuela. He has warned against intervention by the Organization of American States, saying that would surely lead to civil war.

VOA’s Álvaro Algarra, Carolina Mayor contributed to this report.

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