CARACAS - Venezuelans, reeling under a devastating economic crisis, began voting Sunday in an election boycotted by the opposition and condemned by much of the international community but expected to hand deeply unpopular President Nicolas Maduro a new mandate.

Maduro, the political heir to the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has presided over an implosion of once wealthy oil producer Venezuela's economy since taking office in 2013.

Hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, rising crime and broken water, power and transportation networks have sparked violent unrest, and left Maduro with a 75-percent disapproval rating.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country in a mass exodus in recent years as the country descends into economic ruin.

Latest polls put Maduro neck-and-neck with his main rival Henri Falcon, a former army officer who failed to gain the endorsement of the main opposition, which is bitterly divided and has called for a boycott. A third candidate, evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, is further back. A low turnout, however, is expected the give Maduro, who has a tight grip on the electoral and military authorities, a comfortable victory.

Wearing a bright red shirt that identifies him as a "Chavista," the president arrived early at a Caracas polling station along with his wife, former prosecutor Cilia Flores.

"Your vote decides: ballots or bullets, motherland or colony, peace or violence, independence or subordination," said the 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader. The comments reflected previous statements by the socialist leader that Venezuela is the victim of an "economic war" waged by the conservative opposition and outside powers such as the United States aimed at toppling him. As the polls opened Sunday Washington denounced Venezuela's "so-called elections" as "not legitimate."

Maduro's campaign chief, Jorge Rodríguez, said that "more than 2.5 million" of the 20.5 million eligible voters had cast ballots Sunday morning, which he said augered well for the day's turnout. But AFP correspondents reported half-empty polling centers in several cities. "I am not taking part in this fraud," said Maria Barrantes, 62, a retired teacher. "What we are living through is a disaster."

US denounces vote

as illegitimate

The United States denounced the presidential elections in Venezuela Sunday as illegitimate, rejecting President Nicolas Maduro's bid for a new mandate amid the worst crisis in the country's history.

Polls opened early Sunday in Venezuela in elections boycotted by the main opposition parties, and heavily criticized by the United States, the European Union and many Latin American governments.

"Venezuela's so-called elections today are not legitimate," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter. "The United States stands with democratic nations around the world in support of the Venezuelan people and their sovereign right to elect their representatives through free and fair elections."

Washington had called on Maduro to cancel the elections.

On Friday, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Socialist Party boss Diosdado Cabello, Maduro's number two, accusing him of working with other sanctioned individuals to move drugs through Venezuela.

About 20 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's elections, which Maduro is favored to win despite 75 percent disapproval of his government by Venezuelans facing dire shortages of food and medicine, cuts in power and water, and soaring crime.




Maritza Palencia, 58, said she would vote for "change" as "my four sons fled to Colombia so they could send me money." Teresa Paredes, 56-year-old housewife, said that "for the first time in my life I am not going to vote because we are living a dog's life, without medicines, without food." But Rafael Manzanares, 53 and living on government handouts, said he believed Maduro's claim that "things are bad because of the economic war" against the country.

Aware of the popular mood, Maduro vowed an "economic revolution" if re-elected. Falcon promised to dollarize the economy, return companies expropriated by Chavez, and allow humanitarian aid, something the president rejects.

"There is no advantage when people are determined to change," he tweeted.

The single-round election will choose a president for a six-year term that begins in January 2019.Some 300,000 police and military have been deployed to protect polling stations, which opened at 6am (1000 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 6 pm.

Presidential elections are traditionally held in December, but they were moved up this year by the country's all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly, catching the divided and weakened opposition off-guard.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition has won support from the United States, the European Union and 14 countries of the Lima Group who have called for the vote to be postponed.

Maduro is accused of undermining democracy, usurping the power of the opposition-dominated legislature by replacing it with his Constituent Assembly, and cracking down hard on the opposition. Protests in 2017, still fresh in the collective memory, left around 125 dead.

The MUD's most popular leaders have been sidelined or detained, the boycott their only remaining weapon.

"The United States stands with democratic nations around the world in support of the Venezuelan people and their sovereign right to elect their representatives through free and fair elections," US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter Sunday.

Despite holding the world's largest oil reserves, the country faces ruin, with the IMF citing a drop of 45.0 percent in GDP since Maduro took over in 2013.

The crippled oil industry lacks investment and its assets are increasingly prey to debt settlements as the country defaults.

And worse, the US threatens an oil embargo on top of the sanctions that have hit Venezuela's efforts to renegotiate its debt.

"The crisis is so severe that it could provoke either friction within the ruling civilian-military alliance or social breakdown on a much greater scale," said Phil Gunson, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"It seems likely that the longer the government is unable or unwilling to tackle Venezuela's crisis, the more likely it is to provoke further instability, potentially even among civilian or military elites."