Venezuela congress going ahead despite 'imperial' threat: Maduro

By Andrew Cawthorne CARACAS (Reuters) - Defying pressure from abroad and at home, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday that a controversial election would go ahead next weekend for a new congress his foes fear will institutionalize dictatorship. "The imperial right wing believes it can give orders to Venezuela, the only ones who give orders here are the people," Maduro said in reference to a threat from U.S. President Donald Trump to impose economic sanctions if the vote is not aborted. "This time next week Venezuelans will vote for a Constituent Assembly," the leftist leader added in his weekly TV program. Venezuela's opposition has been protesting in the streets since April against the unpopular Maduro whom they accuse of wrecking the OPEC nation's economy and crushing democracy. Opponents are boycotting the Constituent Assembly vote, which they see as a farce designed to ensure a majority for a government with minority popular support, and demanding instead conventional free elections including for a new president. The European Union and major Latin American nations have also stated their opposition to the constituent body, which will have power to rewrite Venezuela's 1999 constitution and override other institutions. "We need the support of other democracies to avoid turning into another Cuba," said Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-led National Assembly legislature that officials say will be replaced by Maduro's new constituent body. Opposition leaders are planning a week of protests, including a two-day national strike on Wednesday and Thursday, to try to force Maduro's hand. He says they are "terrorists" working for Washington to try to control Venezuela's oil. "THEY WON'T TOPPLE ME" More than 100 people have died in four months of anti-government unrest. Hundreds have also been injured and arrested. Venezuela's political showdown is playing out against the backdrop of a crippling economic crisis, with many going hungry and suffering shortages during a fourth year of deep recession. In his lengthy TV show, Maduro urged the opposition to let Venezuelans vote in peace next Sunday, but also said special election centers would be set up to accommodate those blocked by "fascists" at their local vote point. Transport would be provided free to maximize turnout, Maduro added, dressed in a red shirt and dancing with his wife to publicity jingles for the Constituent Assembly vote. "They have not toppled me nor will they topple me," he said. Maduro also vowed that members of a new alternative Supreme Court panel appointed by the opposition in defiance of the government would be imprisoned: "They are all going to jail, one by one. And all their property and accounts will be frozen." One of the 13 opposition appointees, lawyer Angel Zerpa, was arrested by the state intelligence service on Saturday. Venezuela's state prosecutor's office, whose chief Luisa Ortega has broken with the Maduro government in protest at rights abuses and erosion of democracy, said Zerpa's whereabouts were unknown and filed for habeas corpus to have him freed. Earlier on Sunday, Ortega said the Constituent Assembly should have been preceded by a referendum and that 90 percent of Venezuelans opposed it, according to a statement from her office. (Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Andrea Ricci)