Mérida, March 9, 2020 (venezuelanalysis.com) – An unknown militant group has claimed responsibility for a blaze which destroyed 99 percent of Venezuela’s electoral machines on Saturday.
In a video message published on Twitter on Sunday, seven masked men calling themselves the Venezuelan Patriotic Front stated that the attack formed part of “Operation Sodom,” a reference to the biblical tale of the city destroyed by “divine judgement” on the Jordan River.
The group goes on to justify the arson by alleging that electoral authorities have “violated the people’s rights through fraudulent elections.” In the same message, it also claimed responsibility for a fire last month at a state-run CANTV telecommunications center used in elections in Valencia, Carabobo State.
While the origins and connections of the group remain unclear, its video message pledged further actions against government supporters and leaders, which it defined as being “military targets,” as well as issuing warnings about “what may occur” at the upcoming opposition march on Tuesday.
Speaking Monday, National Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello condemned the fire as a “terrorist attack.” Opposition leaders are yet to comment.
Another hard-right militant opposition group called the T-Shirt Soldiers endorsed the Patriotic Front’s actions and claimed they “were not finished.” The T-Shirt Soldiers claimed responsibility for the August 2018 C4-carrying drone assassination attempt against President Maduro.
Esto aún no ha terminado. pic.twitter.com/nCogC0kwyv
— Soldados de Franelas (@soldadoDfranela) March 8, 2020
According to the National Electoral Council (CNE), a massive fire on Saturday at the storage facility in the Filas de Mariche district on the outskirts of Caracas destroyed 49,408 electronic voting machines, 582 computers, 400 electronic ballot cards, 49,232 fingerprint identification machines and 22,434 power inverters. Only 562 voting machines and 724 fingerprint identification machines could be saved. All voting machines and other instruments are kept at the warehouse under military and civilian supervision between electoral processes.
The blaze caused no human injuries, but devastated the 1500 m2 facility, according to the reports of the 570 firefighters who tackled the fire.
Addressing the press on Sunday, CNE President Tibisay Lucena told the country that two national prosecutors have been assigned to investigate the fire, and that “no hypotheses have been ruled out.”
#9Mar Mas de 500 efectivos de nuestros Organismos de Seguridad Ciudadana y del Cuerpo de @bomberos_dc y @PCivil_Ve se encuentran desplegados atendiendo el incendio en su fase libre de combustión en un galpón aproximadamente de 1500M2 perteneciente al Consejo Nacional Electoral. pic.twitter.com/Am0Goj9pVH
— Bomberos DC (@bomberos_dc) March 9, 2020
The voting machines were originally produced by the multinational company Smartmatic. The CNE ended a maintenance and repair contract with the company in 2017 following its “baseless” claims of fraud at the July 2017 National Constituent Assembly elections. The electoral body has not updated its machine stockpile since nor signed a new manufacturing contract, and a wide-reaching US embargo announced in 2018 threatens any foreign firm which engages with the organisation with sanctions.
The CNE has overseen 24 electoral contests since 1998, with National Assembly (AN) elections scheduled for 2020, with a date yet to be set. Lucena also took the opportunity to calm fears that this year’s elections would be affected.
“If there are small groups which think that this will end our constitutionally established electoral processes, they are very wrong,” she said. “We have the capacity, the legal know-how, the operative and logistical technology, 17 years of experience, and the human talent [to] guarantee the electoral processes in Venezuela as we know them: fast, transparent and trustworthy,” she went on.
Venezuela’s combined electronic and paper electoral system has been described as one of the most secure and transparent in the world by independent international observers. Nonetheless, discussions aimed at applying further consensual safeguards, as well as renovating the CNE leadership, have been part of a dialogue agenda between the government and a host of smaller opposition parties.
The efforts were boosted after a dissident opposition group wrested control of the National Assembly from former AN President Juan Guaido in January and backed the ongoing dialogue process as well as the renewal of electoral authorities.
Guaido has already ruled out taking his hard-right Popular Will party to the vote later this year, a position which has been backed by Washington. Other Guaido-aligned opposition parties, however, are still to announce whether they will participate, with Democratic Action party hinting that it will.