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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Maduro says he will radically overhaul Venezuela's system

President Nicolas Maduro said he had no intention of deviating from his plans to rewrite the constitution and go after a string of enemies

Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro (L) said on national television that he is not intimidated by threats or sanctions. Reuters / Miraflores Palace
Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro (L) said on national television that he is not intimidated by threats or sanctions. Reuters / Miraflores Palace

President Nicolas Maduro brushed off new US sanctions on him and condemnation at home and abroad of the newly chosen constitutional assembly, saying the vote has given him a popular mandate to radically overall Venezuela's political system.

Mr Maduro said on Monday evening he had no intention of deviating from his plans to rewrite the constitution and go after a string of enemies, from independent Venezuelan news channels to gunmen he claimed were sent by neighbouring Colombia to disrupt the vote as part of an international conspiracy led by the man he calls "Emperor Donald Trump".

"They don't intimidate me. The threats and sanctions of the empire don't intimidate me for a moment," Mr Maduro said on national television. "I don't listen to orders from the empire, not now or ever … Bring on more sanctions, Donald Trump."

A few hours earlier, Washington added Mr Maduro to a steadily growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials targeted by financial sanctions, escalating a tactic that has so far failed to alter his socialist government's behaviour. For now, the Trump administration did not deliver on threats to sanction Venezuela's oil industry, which could undermine Mr Maduro's government but raise US gas prices and deepen the humanitarian crisis here.

The sanctions came after electoral authorities said more than 8 million people voted on Sunday to create a constitutional assembly endowing Mr Maduro's ruling party with virtually unlimited powers — a turnout doubted by independent analysts while the election was labelled illegitimate by leaders across the Americas and Europe.

Venezuela's National Electoral Council said turnout in Sunday's vote was 41.53 per cent, or 8,089,320 people. The result would mean the ruling party won more support than it had in any national election since 2013, despite a cratering economy, spiralling inflation, shortages of medicine and malnutrition. Opinion polls had said some 85 per cent of Venezuelans disapproved of the constitutional assembly and similar numbers disapproved of Mr Maduro's overall performance.

Opposition leaders estimated the real turnout at less than half the government's claim in a vote watched by government-allied observers but no internationally recognised poll monitors.

An exit poll based on surveys from 110 voting centres by New York investment bank Torino Capital and a Venezuela public opinion company estimated 3.6 million people voted, or about 18.5 per cent of registered voters.

The electoral council's vote counts in the past had been seen as reliable and generally accurate, but the widely mocked announcement appeared certain to escalate the polarisation and political conflict paralysing the country.

"If it wasn't a tragedy … if it didn't mean more crisis, the electoral council's number would almost make you laugh," opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on Twitter. Mr Maduro has threatened that one of the constitutional assembly's first acts would be jailing Mr Guevara for inciting violence.

The constituent assembly will have the task of rewriting the country's constitution and will have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

Mr Maduro has said the new assembly will begin to govern within a week. Among other measures, he said he would use the assembly's powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they sit with his party to negotiate an end to hostilities that have generated four months of protests that have killed at least 120 and wounded nearly 2,000.

Along with the US, the EU and nations including Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain and Britain criticised Sunday's vote. Mr Maduro said he had received congratulations from the governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others.

The monetary impact of the new US sanctions was not immediately clear as Mr Maduro's holdings in US jurisdictions, if he has any, were not publicised. However, imposing sanctions on a head of state is rare and can be symbolically powerful, leading other countries to similarly shun such a leader. For example, the US has had sanctions against Syria's president Bashar Al Assad since 2011. Other heads of state currently subject to US sanctions include Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Mr Maduro called the constitutional assembly in May after a month of protests against his government, which has overseen Venezuela's descent into a devastating crisis during its four years in power. Due to plunging oil prices and widespread corruption and mismanagement, Venezuela's inflation and homicide rates are among the world's highest, and widespread shortages of food and medicine have citizens dying of preventable illnesses and rooting through trash to feed themselves.

The president of the opposition-led National Assembly, Julio Borges, told Venezuelan news channel Globovision on Monday that Mr Maduro's foes would continue protesting until they won free elections and a change of government.

He said Sunday's vote gave Mr Maduro "less legitimacy, less credibility, less popular support and less ability to govern".

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