Emboldened by a violence-marred vote to elect a new constitutional assembly, President Nicolas Maduro promised Monday to take punitive measures against protest leaders, the opposition-controlled congress, the news media and his own attorney general, including possible jail terms.
In response to the vote, which was widely denounced internationally as illegitimate, the United States announced sanctions against Maduro, making him just the fourth head of state being subject to such restrictions. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the government was freezing any assets Maduro held in the U.S.
“Maduro is not just a bad leader," national security advisor H.R. McMaster said at a White House news conference with Mnuchin. “He is a now a dictator.”
Earlier in the day, Maduro had delivered a celebratory speech in Bolivar Plaza in central Caracas, the capital.
“The constitutional assembly will do away with parliamentary immunity for whom it should be canceled. The assembly will allow [the imposition of] order,” he said. “Some will end up in a jail cell.”
Maduro spoke after the National Electoral Council claimed that a higher-than-expected 8.1 million voters, or 41.5% of eligible voters, turned out Sunday to elect 537 members to the new constituent assembly, which could convene as early as Thursday to draft a new constitution.
Those figures were sharply disputed by both the political opposition and by independent analysts. Opposition leaders, who urged protesters to boycott the vote as an illegal sham to perpetuate Maduro’s presidency, insisted that exit polls showed that no more than 3.6 million people cast ballots — about 18.5% of registered voters.
Critics also said that turnout was distorted by what they described as a forced vote by public employees, who otherwise risked losing their jobs.
There is fear that the new charter could hand Maduro dictatorial powers and abrogate the democratically elected National Assembly. The United States, Colombia, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and several other governments have said any new constitution to emerge from the assembly is in their eyes illegitimate.
The deeply unpopular president went ahead with the assembly vote despite repudiation from foreign leaders and opinion polls that showed nearly three quarters of Venezuelans thought a new constitution to be illegal or unnecessary. Recent polls have put Maduro’s approval rating as low as 20%.
The president’s threats of possible jail terms for opposition figures reinforced fears of increased repression in the aftermath of Sunday’s voting. Maduro has specifically threatened to jail opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, a prominent assemblyman and former student leader, who he accuses of inciting violence.
Maduro criticized the three private TV broadcasters, Televen, Globovision and Venevision, for their coverage of the election and the weekend’s violent events, as well as Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz, who declared the new assembly to be in violation of the 1999 constitution. “We are in communicational combat against the lies of the broadcasters,” Maduro said.
In his speech broadcast on national television, Maduro said he received congratulatory messages from the fellow leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
“It’s when imperialism challenges us that we prove worthy of the blood of our liberators,” Maduro said, referring to 19th century Venezuelan independence leaders.
At a news conference Monday, the attorney general, Ortega Diaz, whose office fulfills the function of public advocate, said the new assembly runs counter to the spirit of late President Hugo Chavez, who was Maduro’s mentor, and that it has isolated Venezuela in the international community.
"The object of the constitutional assembly is do away with whatever obstacles remain to absolute power," said Ortega Diaz. "We are confronting a crime against humanity."
The voting was marred with violence in several cities across Venezuela, with the attorney general’s office confirming at least 10 deaths from late Saturday through Sunday. Unofficial sources were reporting additional deaths. Among the dead was one constitutional assembly candidate, Jose Felix Pineda, who was shot to death Saturday night at his home in Bolivar state.
A bomb exploded Sunday in eastern Caracas, injuring seven national police officers on motorcycles. Many Caracas streets remained blocked Monday morning with trash, bricks and abandoned vehicles that protesters had placed there.
At least 120 people have died since late March in clashes with police and national guard members. Some 3,500 have been injured and 5,000 arrested through Sunday.
Protests, which are expected to continue this week, were provoked by a supreme court ruling in late March that deprived the National Assembly of its lawmaking powers and transferred them to Maduro’s discretion. Although the ruling was partially rescinded, protests have continued over continuing food and medicine shortages, rising crime and the president’s autocratic governing style.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denounced the election of the new body, which she said is “designed to replace the legitimately elected National Assembly and undermine the Venezuelan people’s right to self-determination.” Last week, the U.S. announced sanctions against 13 Venezuelan officials and warned more economic penalties soon could be announced.
U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, issued a statement calling the election a “sham,” and saying that by holding it, Maduro “took one of the final steps in making his country a full-blown dictatorship."
Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and a Maduro critic, urged Venezuelans to continue to protest Monday.
The new constitutional assembly may be presided over by Maduro’s wife, Celia Flores, or by Diosdado Cabello, the hard-line vice president of the socialist PSUV party, founded by the late president Hugo Chavez.
Julio Borges, who presides over the National Assembly, told reporters Monday that members of congress will not abandon the Legislative Palace, despite the specter of “clashes, force and violence…. The Assembly was elected by 14 million Venezuelans and is the only elected and legitimate authority.”
University of Miami international relations professor Bruce Bagley warned that Maduro may find the deeply polarized country to be ungovernable in the aftermath of four months of violent protests that show no sign of abating.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.
1:25 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, Maduro statements, U.S. sanctions.
This article was originally posted at 4:25 a.m.