CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A growing roster of nations on Monday decried Venezuela’s presidential election as a farce, with the U.S. leading the charge in announcing new financial restrictions aimed at further isolating President Nicolas Maduro’s embattled government.
President Donald Trump signed an order restricting the Venezuelan government’s ability to liquidate assets, stopping short of delivering threatened and potentially crippling oil sanctions for the nation atop the world’s largest crude reserves.
“The U.S. will not sit idly by as Venezuela crumbles,” Vice President Mike Pence said.
The U.S. announcement came after a coalition of 14 nations from throughout the Americas, including heavyweights like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, pledged to scale back diplomatic relations with Venezuela and urge international organizations not to issue the Venezuelan government any new credit unless it pertains to humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, the nation’s fragmented opposition vowed to unify and push for a new presidential election in the last trimester of 2018. Leaders said the Venezuelan people had delivered a silent by powerful message by largely abstaining from Sunday’s vote. The election drew the lowest participation on record for a presidential contest in decades.
“It’s evident we are the resounding majority those who want a new Venezuela,” said Henrique Capriles, one of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leaders and who himself had been barred from running in the presidential election.
The pro-government National Election Council announced Monday that with 98 percent of polling stations reporting, Maduro had won more than 6.7 million votes — over 4 million more than his closest competitor, Henri Falcon. That makes his victory the biggest percentage-win over other candidates since Venezuela’s 1958 election after the overthrow of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
“It’s the biggest victory a presidential candidate has obtained in the history of Venezuela,” Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez proclaimed.
Analysts said the president managed to win by such a wide margin even as the country reels from an economic crisis worse than the U.S. Great Depression and millions go hungry as a result of both state and opposition tactics.
Opposition leaders urged Venezuelans to stay away from the polls and refused to back Falcon. Meanwhile, the government mobilized state workers to get to the polls and socialist party volunteers set up “Red Points” near voting centers where many hoped that by presenting their government-issued “Fatherland Card” they would get a cash bonus.
Falcon accused the government of buying the votes of poor Venezuelans hurt by widespread food shortages and hyperinflation in what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation, saying the election “without a doubt lacks legitimacy.”
He told supporters he’d fight on instead of joining a growing list of anti-government politicians choosing exile.
Falcon was joined in his demand for a new election by third-place finisher Javier Bertucci. A TV evangelist who handed out soup at his campaign rallies, Bertucci said he would accept the results, partly blaming what he called a mistaken opposition boycott that led to a turnout of about 46 percent — the lowest in a presidential race in two decades of revolution.
Turnout in the three previous presidential elections averaged 79 percent.
But Falcon said he nonetheless favors a new election soon and urged Maduro to do the courageous thing and desist from running. If Maduro presses forward, he warned, Venezuela will explode before his new six-year term is scheduled to begin in January.
Opposition leaders including National Assembly president Omar Barboza said if Maduro is sworn into office in early 2019 after his current term ends, he will have “seized power.”
A social crisis years in the making has worsened as Venezuela’s oil production — the source of almost all of its foreign income — has collapsed to the lowest level in decades and financial sanctions by the Trump administration have made it impossible for the government to renegotiate its debts. More than 1 million people have fled the country in the past two years and 14,000 percent inflation has crushed the minimum wage to less than $2 a month.
Maduro, 55, immediately called for dialogue with his opponents and put the best face on what analysts said were disappointing results underscoring how vulnerable his hold on power remains. Despite energetic campaigning, his overall vote haul slipped by nearly 1 million votes from 2013, when he was first elected after his mentor Hugo Chavez’s death from cancer.
But he showed no sign of replaying Sunday’s vote.
“We will be the most powerful and largest political force in Venezuela for a long time,” he told a festive crowd of supporters who poured into the grounds of the presidential palace to celebrate. “It doesn’t faze me when they say I’m a dictator.”
He promised to spend the next two years before scheduled congressional elections repairing an economy he says has been badly damaged by mafias backed by Colombia and the U.S.
Both of Maduro’s opponents accused electoral authorities of ignoring blatant violations before the vote and on election day, like allowing the “Red Points” within 656 feet (200 meters) of voting centers. Maduro accused his opponents of trying to “demonize” a program intended to address the social crisis and not assert political control.
Luis Emilio Rondon, the sole opposition voice on the electoral council, backed Falcon and Bertucci’s claims of irregularities and said he too refused to recognize the results.
National Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena acknowledged a handful of complaints, but insisted they were minor compared to past elections.
“The people of Venezuela have made their pronouncement and we ask everyone, nationally and international, to respect the results,” she said.
Opinion polls say the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans distrust the electoral council. Official turnout figures in last year’s elections for a constitutional assembly, which the opposition also boycotted, were inflated by at least 1 million votes, according to the company that provided technology for Venezuela’s electronic voting machines for more than a decade.
But despite the unlevel playing field and concerns of fraud, some government critics nonetheless questioned the wisdom of not participating in an election that looked to be its best chance in years to defeat Chavismo.
“If you’re sick and the doctor gives you few days to live, you don’t lie in bed waiting to die. You seek treatment,” said Nayra Martinez, a city employee in the wealthy Caracas district of Chacao who decided to buck her party’s call to abstain. “That’s what we need to do with our country. Venezuela is very sick and we the people are the medicine.”
Signs that the opposition remained divided over the next steps forward were apparent Monday. Even while the two main coalitions vowed to press for a new election, others questioned whether a fair vote with Maduro in power is possible.
“There is only one path,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said in a fiery press conference. “And that’s the route of total disobedience.”
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