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Venezuelans Opposed To President Maduro Boycott Elections


We start the show today overseas. In just a moment, we'll go to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expelling hundreds of American diplomats. And we'll go to South Africa, where the decades-old death of anti-apartheid activist is being re-examined. But first, to Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has asked citizens to choose an assembly of delegates to rewrite the country's constitution. That assembly would likely give Maduro more control of the government and is viewed by many observers as a power grab. Today's vote was boycotted by opposition parties, and it's happening while Venezuela is in political and economic turmoil. Violent protests over food and medicine shortages have erupted in the streets in recent months. There have been clashes over today's vote as well. Here with the latest is Reuters reporter Girish Gupta. He's on the ground in Caracas. Girish, it's good to have you back with us.

GIRISH GUPTA: Thank you so much.

KING: What do we expect from this vote?

GUPTA: Who knows? It's really difficult to say because the opposition - the country's opposition - won the proper Congress a couple of years ago. So the government of Nicolas Maduro came up and decided to have this constituent assembly they're calling it. Now, the opposition has completely boycotted it. And, in itself, it's a very odd, odd idea. I mean, there's more than - there's thousands of people standing for it. No one really knows who they are. The candidates aren't really sure what's going on. So it doesn't really mean much in a way.

But, more than anything, it's just a show of force from the government. But what we're seeing is that the government doesn't have much force, doesn't have the same support that they had when Hugo Chavez was still around, for example. And the opposition is really coming to the fore now. And that's because this country is in absolute crisis. You've got everyone earning $10, $20 a month, shortages of everything and millions of people struggling with food.

KING: Why did Maduro keep on pressing this vote if Venezuelans didn't want it?

GUPTA: It's not only just Venezuelans who don't want it. International condemnation's been huge. Donald Trump said a couple of weeks ago that if this does go ahead - which it is - then you'd impose economic sanctions on Venezuela. Why is Maduro going forward with it? He's got to show some power and, frankly, he's got none. He's backed into a corner.

All of these forces are aligning against him - the economy, the opposition's finally uniting. They actually had a vote a couple of weeks ago, and where they - where 7 million people turned up. Completely unofficial - essentially, a glorified petition where 7 million turned out to say, hey, we don't want this constituent assembly. So it was a huge show of force from the opposition. Maduro wants to do the same.

KING: Girish, we've been reading today that turnout there is low. What have you been seeing?

GUPTA: Absolutely. It's incredibly low across - not just in Caracas but across the country. And I think the numbers could be quite embarrassing for Maduro. It could be the nail in the coffin. And a lot of people here - and actually across the world - are saying this is the nail in the coffin for democracy in Venezuela if this does go ahead and this assembly does sit later this week.

KING: Girish, just quickly, there were concerns that the voting might be marred by violence. Have you seen any of that today?

GUPTA: Absolutely. This - remember, Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world. Sixty people are killed there every day. That's according to government statistics. More than a hundred have been killed since this massive wave of unrest started four months ago. So we've become very used to violence in this country. So just going around the city today, all the streets are pretty much closed. There's trash burning on most of them, kids in balaclavas with slingshots and God knows what else. That's become quite normal.

We have - and this is something that's surprised even me today, and actually very close to where I am based here in Caracas, we saw a bomb go off. It was targeted towards police officers. And it wasn't huge. It didn't kill anybody. But it's not something - we don't see that sort of insurgent-type equipment being used. So that's interesting. And that might be an escalation we're seeing from the opposition or some parts of it.

KING: Reuters reporter Girish Gupta in Caracas. Thank you so much, Girish.

GUPTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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