By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and FABIOLA SANCHEZ
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro asked for global acceptance on Sunday as he cast an unusual pre-dawn vote for an all-powerful constitutional assembly that his opponents fear he’ll use to replace his country’s democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.
Accompanied by close advisers and state media, Maduro voted at 6:05 a.m. local time, far earlier and less publicly than in previous elections. The run-up to the vote has been marked by months of clashes between protesters and the government, including the fatal shooting of a 61-year-old nurse by men accused of being pro-government paramilitaries during a protest at a church a few hundred feet from the school where Maduro voted.
Maduro and his socialist administration deny links to violent paramilitaries and say the political opposition is responsible for the violence that has left at least 113 dead and nearly 2000 wounded in four months of protests.
“We’ve stoically withstood the terrorist, criminal violence,” Maduro said. “Hopefully the world will respectfully extend its arms toward our country.”
The Trump administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on high-ranking members of Maduro’s administration, with the support of countries including Mexico, Colombia and Panama. Vice President Mike Pence promised on Friday that the U.S. would take “strong and swift economic actions” if the vote went ahead. He didn’t say whether the U.S. would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to undermine Maduro but cause an even deeper humanitarian crisis here.
The special assembly being selected Sunday will have powers to rewrite the country’s 1999 constitution but will also have powers above and beyond other state institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.
While opinion polls say a vast majority oppose him, Maduro made clear in a televised address Saturday evening that he intends to use the assembly to govern without limitation, describing the vote as “the election of a power that’s above and beyond every other. It’s the super power!”
He said he wants the assembly to strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution and jail at least one — Freddy Guevara, a hard-line opposition leader and one the highest-profile organizers of four months of protests against the government.
“This little Hitler has his cell guaranteed!” Maduro…