CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, VENEZUELA – Deadly protests rocked Venezuela on Sunday as voters broadly boycotted an election for a constitutional superbody that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a “new era of combat” in the crisis-stricken nation.
Opposition parties are sitting out what they call a rigged election aimed at consolidating Maduro’s power, leaving streets deserted and polling stations largely empty and dealing a blow to the legitimacy of the vote.
Anti-Maduro activists wearing hoods or masks erected barricades on roads and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse the demonstrators. Authorities said seven people were killed in the unrest and the opposition said the true death toll was around a dozen people, which would make Sunday one of the deadliest days since massive and sustained protests kicked off in early April.
Maduro, widely reviled for overseeing an economic collapse during four years in office, has pressed ahead with the vote to create the all-powerful assembly despite the threat of U.S. sanctions and months of opposition protests in which around 120 people have been killed.
Critics say the assembly will allow Maduro to dissolve the opposition-run Congress, delay future elections and rewrite electoral rules to prevent the socialists from being voted out of power in the once-thriving OPEC nation.
In what could be the spread of more aggressive tactics, a bomb exploded in Caracas and injured seven police officers.
The opposition has vowed to redouble its resistance and U.S. President Donald Trump has promised broader economic sanctions against Venezuela after the vote, suggesting the oil-rich nation’s crisis is set to escalate further.
“Even if they win today, this won’t last long,” said opposition supporter Berta Hernandez, a 60-year-old doctor, in a wealthier Caracas district. “I’ll continue on the streets because, not long from now, this will come to an end.”
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader narrowly elected in 2013, has accused right-wing governments of trying to sabotage “21st century Socialism” created by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
“The ’emperor’ Donald Trump wanted to halt the Venezuelan people’s right to vote,” said Maduro, as he rapidly voted at 6 a.m. in a low-income area of the capital Caracas that has turned on the government.
“A new era of combat will begin. We’re going all out with this constituent assembly.”
But with polls showing some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the vote, the country’s 2.8 million state employees are under huge pressure to participate — with some two dozen sources telling Reuters they were being threatened with dismissal. Workers were being blasted with text messages and phone calls asking them to vote and report back after doing so.
The opposition estimated participation was at around a paltry 7 percent by midafternoon, but warned the government was gearing up to announce some 8.5 million people had voted.
Fueling anger against Maduro is an unprecedented economic meltdown in the country of some 30 million people, which was once a magnet for European migrants thanks to an oil boom that was the envy of Latin America.
But after nearly two decades of Socialist Party rule, currency and price controls have asphyxiated businesses.
Millions of Venezuelans now struggle to eat three times a day due to product shortages and runaway inflation that has put basics like rice or flour out of reach.
“Sometimes I take bread from my mouth and give it to my two kids,” said pharmacy employee Trina Sanchez, 28, as she waited for a bus to work. “This is a farce. I want to slap Maduro.”
To show the massive scale of public anger, the opposition earlier this month organized an unofficial referendum over Maduro’s plan.
More than 7 million voters overwhelmingly rejected the constituent assembly and voted in favor of early elections.
But democratic pathways to political change have been systematically blocked. The opposition’s bid last year to hold a recall referendum against Maduro was nixed, regional elections have been postponed and the president has repeatedly ignored Congress.
As global condemnation mounted, the United States last week sanctioned 13 Socialist Party leaders, in part as a response to the election. Neighboring Colombia, as well as Argentina, Panama and Peru, have said they will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.
In Sunday’s gravest incident, a bomb went off as a group of police officers on motorbikes sped past Caracas’ Altamira Plaza, an opposition stronghold. The state prosecutor’s office said seven officers were injured and four motorbikes incinerated.
Clashes were also reported in the volatile Andean state of Tachira, whose capital is San Cristobal, where witnesses told Reuters an unidentified group of men had showed up at two separate street protests and shot at demonstrators.
Authorities confirmed nine deaths over the weekend, including two teenagers and a candidate to the assembly killed during a robbery in the jungle state of Bolivar. The state’s Socialist Party governor, Francisco Rangel, said the death was a “political hit job” and blamed it on the opposition.
Supporters of “Chavismo,” the movement founded by Chavez, Maduro’s more charismatic predecessor who enjoyed high oil prices for much of his mandate, said they wanted to halt the unrest.
“The (opposition) wants deaths and roadblocks and the government wants peace,” said Olga Blanco, 50, voting for candidates to the assembly at a school in Caracas.
The assembly is due to sit within 72 hours of results being certified, with government loyalists such as powerful Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello and Maduro’s wife and son expected to win seats.
“We have decided to be free, nothing else matters,” said Cabello, who could be the next assembly president amid rumors of power struggles within the ruling party.