CARACAS, Venezuela—President Nicolás Maduro, fresh off his victory in an election derided as farce by the U.S. and other countries, moved up his inauguration by eight months and was sworn in Thursday for a second, six-year term.

Mr. Maduro won a snap election Sunday over a former member of his Socialist Party, after having barred two popular opposition leaders from running and forced others into exile. Inaugurated before the National Constituent Assembly, a body his allies created to supersede the opposition-controlled congress, Mr. Maduro defended his victory.

“Venezuela had free elections, legitimate ones,” he told followers at the ornate congressional compound where the inauguration was staged.

The ceremony was moved up in the face of sharp criticism of the election from opposition groups and many governments world-wide, including the Trump administration’s, which responded by broadening a ban on Americans buying Venezuelan debt.

“He thinks that swearing himself in early guarantees six more years,” said Jesus Torrealba, a former leader of the opposition coalition of political parties. “That’s why he urgently sought out this legal framework, to rescue governability in the future.”

Mr. Maduro’s foes noted that under the constitution, inaugurations must be scheduled for Jan. 10 and staged before congress, known as the National Assembly. That chamber’s president, Omar Barboza, said the National Constituent Assembly, the body created by Mr. Maduro’s allies, is illegal and was designed to usurp the powers granted to members of congress.

“By swearing in in front of the Constituent Assembly he’s sending the message that he’s taking power by force and that he doesn’t abide by the constitution,” Mr. Barboza said.

The government said a second inauguration would take place in January, without explaining why.

Mr. Maduro’s swearing-in came amid heightened tensions with the U.S. On Tuesday, Mr. Maduro ordered the top American diplomat in Caracas, chargé d’affaires Todd Robinson, and his deputy to leave the country. The U.S. State Department on Wednesday responded by ordering two Venezuelan diplomats out of the country.

“We will continue to pressure Venezuela’s illegitimate regime until democracy is restored,” Vice President Mike Pence said on his Twitter account.

American hostility is one of the many problems Mr. Maduro faces. His country is sliding deeper into crisis, hit by hyperinflation, an economy that is nearly 50% smaller than it was in 2013 and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Oil production is now 1.4 million barrels a day, down from more than three million barrels a day in the late 1990s.

In his swearing-in speech, Mr. Maduro sounded open to reforms. He said that his government would enter into “a process of dialogue and peace” and that some Venezuelans jailed for what rights groups call political crimes would be released if they hadn’t committed “serious crimes like homicide.”

“I want that those people be freed and that they be given an opportunity,” he said.

He also acknowledged that there were problems in Venezuela and that “we have to change the country.” His answer, he said, is to deepen the Socialism started by his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

“Venezuela has once more ratified its path, Socialism,” Mr. Maduro said. “You’ve elected a president to build Socialism, to resolve the problems, for dialogue and peace.”

—Maolis Castro in Caracas contributed to this article.

Write to Juan Forero at

Appeared in the May 25, 2018, print edition as ‘Maduro Quickly Sworn In After Contested Vote.’

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