Maduro Waits for U.S. Response After Violent Venezuela Vote

  • Senator Marco Rubio said he expects Trump to impose sanctions
  • Colombia, Peru, Argentina say they won’t recognize vote

OAS Chief Says Venezuela Sanctions Are a Starting Point

It was political theater at its best when a smiling Nicolas Maduro arrived at a polling place just after dawn Sunday to be among the first to vote for members of a National Constituent Assembly that will rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, and likely aim to upend six decades of democracy.

For the president, the hand-picked successor to Hugo Chavez, the creation of the so-called constituyente was another step in a stubborn rise to autocratic power in the face of international condemnation, U.S. sanctions, a cratering economy and months of civil unrest that has claimed more than 110 lives. The slate of 545 chosen to staff the new assembly are mostly all Maduro supporters, his wife among the more than 6,000 on the ballot.

Once officially convened, this new assembly will have no set term. It will supersede the National Assembly, the legislative branch that has struggled to be an anti-Maduro bulwark. Maduro will be primed to be seize more power than Chavez ever held.

While the opposition has vowed to keep up the pace of near-daily protests, the bigger threat is a stepping up of sanctions by the U.S. -- the largest buyer of the crude oil whose international sales make up around 95 percent of Venezuela’s foreign currency earnings.

“The Trump administration set a red line by announcing sanctions if the vote went ahead, so if his administration wants to be taken seriously some form of sanctions would have to be announced,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

The election sought to "undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self determination," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Sunday in a statement. “We will continue to take strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela, including those who participate in the National Constituent Assembly as a result of today’s flawed election."

Sunday’s vote was denounced by the opposition as fraudulent, considering that practically all the candidates were from the Socialist Party or its allies. Two weeks ago, more than 7.5 million Venezuelans cast votes in an unofficial plebiscite against the president and his new assembly plan. 

Voter turnout reached 41.5 percent, the country’s oil ministry said on Twitter early Monday, citing Tibisay Lucena, president of the national electoral council.

Maduro’s opponents questioned how many people came to vote. Julio Borges, president of the congress, estimated about 1.5 million Venezuelans had voted by mid-afternoon but said the government was bound to announce a turnout of more than 8.5 million voters. Other estimates mentioned 2.4 million voters.

Empty Stations

Sandra Oblitas, a rector at the National Electoral Council, said that voting would be extended into the evening. The opposition alliance posted pictures of empty polling stations across the country on social media throughout the day.

The vote was not without violence as police clashed with demonstrators who blocked roads. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on his Twitter account that as many as 15 people lost their lives.

“Today was a monumental failure for government,” he said, stating that the opposition alliance would soon announce its next move. “The government is accelerating its own exit.”

Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Panama issued statements saying they wouldn’t recognize Sunday’s vote, while U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said she would not accept an illegitimate government.

"Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship,” she wrote in a post on her Twitter account.

Unlike during the unofficial referendum against the assembly earlier this month, when over seven million Venezuelans rejected Maduro’s assembly, entire districts and many of Caracas’ main thoroughfares were deserted on Sunday.

Read more: Is Venezuela Becoming a Cuba-Style Dictatorship?: QuickTake Q&A

“The line at the bakery near my house to buy bread was longer than the one here,” said Leonardo Martinez, 42, a motorcycle taxi driver, as he looked on at a polling station in central Caracas. “Why do we need another constitution? How is it going to solve our problems?”

The vote capped a week of tensions in Caracas, where many of the city’s 2 million residents stockpiled food and water amid a two-day national strike. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met with opposition leaders, and on July 26, the U.S. added 13 senior Venezuelan officials to its sanctions list as part of efforts to deter the constitution rewrite. President Donald Trump has warned of “strong” economic actions if Maduro proceeds with his plans.

“I am confident that President Trump will respond swiftly and decisively,” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said in a statement Sunday. “I urge him to impose economic sanctions on the Maduro regime that will not harm the people of Venezuela but will deprive the Maduro regime of the resources they need to remain in power.”

Economic Ties

Sector-wide sanctions could prove devastating given the two countries’ close economic ties and the dire state of Venezuela’s finances. The U.S. buys about a third of Venezuela’s crude production and is the main buyer that pays in cash.

For many, the effect of Sunday’s vote may depend more on Washington’s reaction than any potential changes to the constitution. It’s now a question of how far Trump is willing go.

“I still do not think the Trump administration is ready to impose biting sanctions that would ring fence the country and make it impossible for international oil companies to continue pumping oil in Venezuela,” Control Risks’ Gallegos said.

— With assistance by Fabiola Zerpa, Noris Soto, and Katharina Rosskopf

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