Protests mar Venezuela ballot as voters snub Maduro assembly

CARACAS/PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela, (Reuters) – Protestors blocked roads and clashed with security forces on Sunday as Venezuelans trickled to the polls to elect a constitutional super-body that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a “new era of combat” in the crisis-stricken nation.

Maduro, widely disliked 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 further U.S. sanctions and months of opposition protests in which more than 115 people have been killed.

Opposition parties are boycotting what they call a rigged election. Their sympathizers erected barricades across roads around the South American country and scuffles broke out with security forces who moved in quickly to disperse hooded demonstrators. An explosion injured a group of police officers during a protest in Caracas, according to a Reuters witness, leaving eight motorbikes smoldering on a main avenue.

Authorities confirmed three deaths over the weekend, including the killing of a candidate to the assembly during a robbery, although opposition lawmakers said the toll was much higher.

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.

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.

“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.”

Undeterred, Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader narrowly elected in 2013, has accused right-wing governments of trying to sabotage “21st century Socialism.

“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,” he added.

But with polls showing some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the vote, Maduro’s administration wants to avoid low turnout that would further undermine his…

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