Maduro holds Venezuela vote, defying protests, international scorn

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela planned a vote Sunday to elect a controversial new legislative body whose creation has triggered international alarm and deadly street protests against the nation's beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who is struggling to shore up his regime, predicted a "big victory" in the election of the 545-member citizens' Constituent Assembly empowered to dissolve the opposition-controlled parliament and rewrite the constitution.

But the opposition has urged a boycott, saying the vote was a move towards "dictatorship" by an unpopular president desperate to cling to power with the backing of a loyal military.

The US, the EU and Latin American powers, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have come out against the election, saying it would destroy Venezuelan democracy.

Surveys by the Datanalisis polling firm show more than 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly -- and 80 percent reject Maduro's leadership.

Four months of street protests against Maduro have left more than 100 people dead, and exposed deep political divisions in this oil-rich nation reduced to economic calamity.

Demonstrations tapered off just before Sunday's vote after Maduro decreed a ban threatening prison terms of up to 10 years for protesters.

But fear of the violence worsening has rippled across the region, and beyond.

- US sanctions -

Several foreign airlines, including Air France, Delta, Avianca and Iberia have suspended flights to the country.

Families of US diplomats there have been ordered to leave following the imposition of American sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials.

Maduro -- who described the Constituent Assembly as a "card that will win this game" -- on Saturday said the vote was "the most important election held in Venezuela's political system."

Authorities on the eve of the vote said all was ready for the nationwide balloting, although the head of the electoral council acknowledged some voting machines had been burned in attacks on polling stations.

Freddy Guevara, an opposition lawmaker, said further demonstrations would take place on Sunday.

"There will not be calm as long as the people don't have peace," he said.

- 'Nervous' Venezuelans -

Colombia and Panama -- refuges for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home -- have said they will not recognize the results of Sunday's election in Venezuela.

At an overnight protest in Villa del Rosario, a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border, hundreds of Venezuelans taking shelter there decried the election.

"We don't know what's going to happen in this situation created by this president," said one of them, Bella Buitrago, 48. "We're all extremely nervous."

"We don't want Mr. Maduro... he should leave the country," said another, Sindry Borges.

Some in Maduro's administration have broken ranks with him, most prominently his attorney general. Two diplomats resigned this week in dissent: one at the United Nations and another at the embassy in Panama.

The Venezuelan leader has blamed the mounting unrest against him and his policies on the United States, working hand-in-hand with the Venezuelan opposition to wage an "economic war."