Violence and Claims of Fraud in Venezuela's Controversial Vote

President Maduro hailed Sunday’s election as a “vote for the revolution.” The U.S. responded with sanctions against him.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Rueters

Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET

The White House imposed sanctions Monday on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a day after he claimed victory in his attempt to rewrite the Constitution. The sanctions would freeze all Maduro’s assets “subject to U.S. jurisdiction” and prohibit any U.S. citizen from doing business with him. In its decision, the U.S. Department of Treasury said Maduro had “deliberately and repeatedly abused the rights of citizens through the use of violence, repression, and criminalization of demonstrations.”

Venezuela held a vote Sunday to elect members of a constituent assembly with broad powers that will likely dissolve the opposition’s last bastion of strength, the National Assembly. There was no option to vote against the process—even though 85 percent of the country is reportedly against it—and the opposition boycotted the vote; instead, they filled the streets in protest in what became one of the most violent days in three months.

In the lead up to the vote, the government banned public demonstrations and promised to punish those who tried to disrupt it. At least 10 people were killed Sunday (the opposition says 14),  including two teenagers, and a police officer. The night before, an armed group broke into the home of opposition candidate José Félix Pineda and shot him dead. An explosion also injured seven officers as they rode motorcycles through east Caracas, and a video of the blast was widely shared on social media. In it, protesters cheer as the officers regroup and hurl tear gas at them. In all, more than 120 people have died in the protests in the past few months.

Opposition supporters called Sunday Zero Hour because it was their last chance to preserve their power in government. What happens next is largely unknown, except that the constituent assembly will likely help Maduro consolidate power, transforming the country from a democracy into a dictatorship. For its part, the opposition has promised to continue mass demonstrations.

The rewriting of the constitution was widely condemned by the international community. Even countries that had supported the leftist Venezuelan regime in the past, or remained quiet during its controversies, spoke out against the vote, including Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico. A group of Latin American leaders, including former-president of Mexico Vicente Fox, had even traveled to the country weeks earlier to act as observers in a non-binding referendum held by the opposition. That vote was a dramatic rebuke of the assembly, with more than 7 million Venezuelans voting against it.

Beating that turnout was important to the government Sunday so it could show the world it still has the support of the people. True figures are still unknown, with the opposition and the government providing vastly different estimates of the turnout. Maduro hailed the day as a “vote for the revolution,” and the National Electoral Council said more than 8 million people voted. This would be a little more than 40 percent of voters. But the opposition called the vote a failure, saying 88 percent of citizens joined the boycott, which would suggest that about 3 million Venezuelans voted. There were no independent observers, and the government banned many news organizations from interviewing people at the polls. Fraud safeguards, such as marking people’s fingers with indelible ink to prevent multiple votes, were also not used.

The U.S. State Department called the vote “flawed” and said it would take “strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela.” The sanctions against Maduro are some of the strongest measures the U.S. has taken, although several members of his regime, including his vice president, have already been sanctioned.

The results of the vote, announced shortly after 7 p.m. local time, stacked the assembly with leaders who’ve always backed Maduro. Among those who will now rewrite Venezuela’s constitution are Diosdado Cabello, who participated in the failed coup attempt of the 1990s that eventually brought former-President Hugo Chavez to power, and Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife.