Venezuelans fear Maduro's controversial new congress

U.S. threat of sanctions isn't stopping Sunday vote

A protester pushes a refrigerator to make a barricade in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday. Photo by Ariana Cubillos/AP
A protester pushes a refrigerator to make a barricade in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday. Photo by Ariana Cubillos/AP

CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans who found refuge in South Florida and want President Nicolas Maduro out of office were concerned about a Sunday election that they say is a strategy to set up a Cuba-style socialist dictatorship in the oil-rich country. 

Venezuelan socialists say there is nothing to fear. Jorge Valero, Venezuela's representative to the United Nations, said the election would be transparent and democratic. But critics say it would put an end to the system of checks and balances. 

Maduro's propaganda machine included a woman in a bikini  and another showing cleavage. He was urging voters to stay loyal to former President Hugo Chavez's legacy although the elected members of the new legislative body were going to change the constitution created under Chavez. 

"It's a nightmare. It breaks my heart to watch this from Miami. I left my parents and my daughter in Caracas. I graduated from college but I clean apartments here now," Mariela Serrano said. "I never thought things could get worst, but I am afraid. I am very afraid ... things are going to get worst."

After a two-day strike, protesters were defying the Friday-Tuesday ban on street demonstrations. They were risking their lives setting barricades. The Associated Press estimates 113 have died and about 2,000 have been wounded in incidents linked to the nearly four months of protests.

The new 545-seat legislative body will have more power than the democratically elected parliament Maduro's opponents control. Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of Venezuela's socialist party, warned it will strip lawmakers and the office of the chief prosecutor of their immunity from prosecution. 

Reuters reported state workers were receiving frequent phone calls, pressure from bosses and threats of dismissal to ensure they favor Maduro's controversial new congress. 

Venezuelan authorities were issuing identifications to voters who were 18 and older from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday ahead of the election, The Universal reported. There was a heavy military presence around the country. And there was plenty of confusion about who the 6,000 loyalists running for office were. 

The Wall Street Journal reported many of the candidates were making improbable promises such as nationalizing all oil projects, giving away free food and a constitution that would guarantee every Venezuelan a full-time job. 

The ballots don't have the names of the candidates. Instead, they will have a list of numbers that only those who were watching the government television programming will be able to decipher. 

On social media, there were photos of protesters in Tachira who were burning ballots. A video reportedly shot in Maracaibo showed an armed man in the back of a motorcycle threatening to kill anyone who was out in the street. 

The international community is watching the election closely. Vice President Mike Pence talked to Leopoldo López, a political prisoner in house arrest and leader of the opposition, Friday on behalf of President Donald Trump, according to the White House. 

"Pence once again called for the full and 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 statement said. It also warned the U.S. "will respond with strong and swift economic actions."

The Associated Press' Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report. 

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