CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro defiantly followed through Sunday with his pledge to hold an internationally condemned election, creating a critical new stage in a long-simmering crisis that could mint the Western Hemisphere’s newest dictatorship.

Stinging tear gas filled the capital and beyond on a deadly day of voting that took place under the gaze of 326,000 troops. The Maduro government, which showed zero tolerance toward pro-democracy protests and stormed squares with armed forces, insisted by midday that “99 percent and more” of the nation was turning out for the deeply unpopular ballot.

But at least 10 polling stations in the relatively more pro-government western swath of Caracas were virtually empty with only a few hours of voting left. The opposition, which boycotted the vote, declared that turnout was remarkably low and said 14 in its ranks died in the streets, including a 13-year-old boy.

The election, decried as illegitimate by a growing number of nations, will create what critics call a puppet congress with vast powers to rewrite the constitution and supplant the opposition-controlled National Assembly, leaving all branches of government under firm socialist control.

“Venezuela has screamed with its silence,” said Julio Borges, head of the National Assembly.

The election represents a direct challenge to the Trump administration – which called on Maduro, the anointed successor of late leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, to cancel the vote.


Washington has already targeted the assets of top Venezuelan officials. The administration’s options now range from more individual sanctions to an oil embargo that could further cripple Venezuela’s devastated economy and at least temporarily increase the price of gas in the United States.

On Sunday, members of the opposition set up barricades in parts of the capital and beyond and attempted to stage protests. But the government responded with extraordinary force.

In a scene repeated at various spots in the capital, a cluster of peaceful demonstrators were chanting for democracy and waving the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag in the city’s Plaza Francia when riot troops suddenly materialized.

They fired tear gas, sending demonstrators fleeing for cover.

According to polling from the Datanalisis firm, 72 percent of the population is against a new constituent assembly.

The nation’s 2.8 million state workers risked losing their jobs if they did not turn out.

Maduro has pitched the new legislature as the cornerstone of a socialist dream.

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