At least nine people were killed as protesters attacked polling stations and barricaded streets around Venezuela on Sunday — drawing a bloody response from security forces, who opened fire with live ammunition in some cases.
The protests were against elections to choose the members of a powerful assembly that President Nicolas Maduro has tasked with writing a new constitution.
The socialist president is gambling his four-year rule on the 545-member citizens’ body that will be empowered to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress and rewrite the constitution.
Nine people were killed overnight and into Sunday, according to prosecutors, bringing the death toll in four months of violence to some 120 people.
Among those killed was a 39-year-old lawyer in the southeastern town of Ciudad Bolivar who was a candidate for the new assembly. He was shot by assailants in his home late Saturday. Prosecutors said the motive was unknown.
Children killed too
Shootings at protests on Sunday killed a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old in the western state of Tachira. A soldier was also shot dead there.
The death toll also included a 30-year-old regional leader of a youth opposition party in the northeast town of Cumana and two protesters in the western state of Merida.
In eastern Caracas, seven police were wounded when an improvised explosive targeted their motorcycle convoy.
National guard troops used armored vehicles, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters blocking roads in the west of the city.
Soldiers also violently moved against protesters in the second city of Maracaibo, in the west, and Puerto Ordaz in the east.
Boycott and mass demonstrations
The opposition had called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it called a bid by Maduro to install a dictatorship.
“This constituent assembly is being born in a bloodbath. It is born illegitimate,” said Nicmer Evans, a prominent socialist turned Maduro critic, alleging widespread irregularities.
Maduro kicked off voting by casting his ballot in a west Caracas polling station.
“I’m the first voter in the country. I ask God for his blessings so the people can freely exercise their democratic right to vote,” the president said. He was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, a candidate for the new assembly.
He was snubbed by the voting devices when he scanned his ID card at the polling station and the screen spit out the words, “This person does not exist or the ID was canceled.”
Turn out is key
Turnout will be key to determining the legitimacy of the election.
But that will be difficult to ascertain as most voters will be able to vote twice: once by region and once by social or industrial sector.
Voting was extended by an hour, to 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT), to accommodate what officials described as long lines, despite reports to the contrary.
According to polling firm Datanalisis, more than 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly — and 80 percent reject Maduro’s leadership.
Maduro decreed a ban on protests during and after the vote, threatening prison terms of up to 10 years. But protesters flooded the streets in defiance.
“The people are not going to give up the streets until this awful government goes,” protester Carlos Zambrano, 54, told AFP in western Caracas.
Fear of the violence worsening has rippled across the region, and beyond.
The US, the EU and Latin American powers, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have condemned the election.
“Maduro’s sham election is another step toward dictatorship,” tweeted US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
“The vote means the end of any trace of democratic rule. Maduro’s blatant power grab removes any ambiguity about whether Venezuela is a democracy,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue research center.
Several foreign airlines, including Air France, Delta, Avianca and Iberia have suspended flights to Venezuela over security concerns.
The US has ordered the families of its diplomats to leave after imposing sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials.
Maduro, whose term is meant to end in 2019, describes the election as the most important in Venezuelan history.
Colombia, Panama and Peru — which hosts refugees from Venezuela fleeing the chaos at home — have said they will not recognize the results of the election.
The US has suggested further sanctions could follow.