International criticism is widespread after Venezuela announces Maduro won re-election

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2018-05-21T140811Z_8_LYNXNPEE4K0AF_RTROPTP_4_VENEZUELA-ELECTION.JPG

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018.

Credit:

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced widespread international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a weekend vote his critics denounced as a farce cementing autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil producer.

The 55-year-old successor to late leftist leader Hugo Chavez hailed his win as a victory against "imperialism." But his main challengers alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela's mainstream opposition boycotted Sunday's vote, given two of its most popular leaders were barred, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists.

The president took 68 percent of votes — more than three times as many as his main challenger, Henri Falcon. However, potentially undermining his legitimacy, turnout was a low 46 percent, compared with 80 percent at the last presidential election in 2013.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced past midnight outside the Miraflores presidential palace in the capital, Caracas, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

"The revolution is here to stay!" a jubilant Maduro told the crowd. He promised to prioritize economic recovery after five years of crippling recession that has seen many in the OPEC nation of 30 million people struggle with chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities.

"We mustn't cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did," said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro's mentor, Chavez.

US denounces 'sham' vote

The US State Department declared Sunday's vote a "sham" and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela's all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain led European Union criticism of Maduro. "Venezuela's electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans' suffering," tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation "Lima Group" of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela's "grave humanitarian situation" behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars' funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed Venezuela's government and people could handle their own affairs and the choice of the people should be respected.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would "handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention," but did not elaborate.

Moribund economy

As well as its big institutional advantages, the government used ample state resources to get voters out and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government's placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called "red spots" close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued "fatherland cards" at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a "prize" promised by Maduro.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the 'Chavismo' movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared more united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

"I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We're in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it," tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

Maduro, a former bus driver whose second term in office starts in January, faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela's moribund economy but has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies.

The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela's multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Trading of Venezuelan government and PDVSA debt appeared thin in early New York trade on Monday with election results considered a formality and offering little to change investor viewpoints.

Tagged: North AmericaVenezuela.