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Venezuelan Polls Open for Controversial Vote

  • VOA News

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro show his ballot as casts his vote at a polling station during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017.

Despite stern warnings against protests from Venezuela's government, violence broke out on the streets of Caracas Sunday as the country voted on a controversial measure for an all-powerful constitutional assembly.

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

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in one of many skirmishes around the capital Sunday.

Maduro cast the first ballot in a controversial vote early Sunday before polls opened throughout the country.

Calling for global acceptance of the vote, Maduro again denied links to violence surrounding months of protests against the vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly.

"We've stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence," Maduro said early Sunday, accompanied by close advisers and state media.

"Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country."

People wait in line next to the word "Vote" spray painted on a wall before voting during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017.
People wait in line next to the word "Vote" spray painted on a wall before voting during the Constituent Assembly election in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017.

Voters are casting ballots for a "Constituent Assembly" whose 545 members will be charged with rewriting the country's constitution.

Critics assert that only Maduro supporters are candidates, and that they could revise the constitution to keep him in office indefinitely.

The political opposition is urging a boycott of the vote, which leaves only supporters of the president to cast ballots. The opposition says the vote is "fraudulent" and has called for demonstrations.

Protests early in the week gave way to a tense calm on Friday and Saturday after Maduro banned public demonstrations through next Tuesday. Maduro said anyone defying the ban risks up to 10 years in prison.

A demonstrator rests near a burning truck during a protest on the Francisco Fajardo highway outside La Carlota Air Base in Caracas, Venezuela, June 23, 2017.
A demonstrator rests near a burning truck during a protest on the Francisco Fajardo highway outside La Carlota Air Base in Caracas, Venezuela, June 23, 2017.

But opposition leaders are urging their supporters to defy the order and make their voices heard in the streets.

Opposition Congressman Freddy Guevara told reporters on Saturday, "This is for elections, for the freeing of political prisoners, for change." He warned that election day would not be the last of the protests. "From Monday," he said, "this crisis will deepen."

Officials said Sunday that 39-year-old lawyer Jose Felix Pineda, a candidate to the all-powerful assembly, was shot in his home overnight. Pineda is the second candidate to be killed following the July 10 killing of Jose Luis Rivas.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence released a statement Friday after speaking by phone with a prominent Venezuelan dissident, Leopoldo Lopez, who recently has been moved from prison to house arrest.

Graffiti calling for the release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is seen on a building in Caracas, Venezuela, July 8, 2017. (A. Algarra/VOA Spanish)
Graffiti calling for the release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is seen on a building in Caracas, Venezuela, July 8, 2017. (A. Algarra/VOA Spanish)

Pence praised Lopez's courage and called for the "unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela."

The Trump administration has already enforced economic sanctions on a number of high-ranking members of Maduro's administration, and a number of American leaders, including Senator John McCain, have expressed their support for the citizens of Venezuela.

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

Runaway inflation has caused shortages of food, medicine, and staple products, resulting in long lines at grocery stores and hunger at home.

VOA's Lina Correa contributed to this report.

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