Army de­clares loy­alty to leader Maduro

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

CARACAS: Venezuela’s de­fence min­is­ter on Mon­day de­clared the army’s loy­alty to Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, who or­dered troops into the streets ahead of a ma­jor protest by op­po­nents try­ing to oust him.

Venezuela is brac­ing for what Mr Maduro’s op­po­nents vow will be the “mother of all protests” to­day af­ter two weeks of clashes be­tween po­lice and demon­stra­tors protest­ing against moves by the left­ist leader and his al­lies to tighten their grip on power.

The cen­tre-right op­po­si­tion has called on the mil­i­tary — a pil­lar of Mr Maduro’s power — to turn on the pres­i­dent amid an eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that has trig­gered se­vere food short­ages, ri­ots and loot­ing.

But De­fence Min­is­ter Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the army “con­firms its un­con­di­tional loy­alty to the pres­i­dent”.

He made the com­ment be­fore thou­sands of ri­fle-car­ry­ing mem­bers of the proMaduro “Bo­li­var­ian mili­tia”, who cheered with fists raised at a rally out­side the pres­i­den­tial palace.

Mr Maduro thanked the army and the mili­tia for their sup­port and an­nounced he planned to ex­pand the lat­ter civil­ian force to half a mil­lion armed mem­bers. “Loy­alty is re­paid with loy­alty,” he said. The rally came hours af­ter Mr Maduro or­dered the mil­i­tary into the streets to de­fend the left­ist “Bo­li­var­ian rev­o­lu­tion” launched by his late men­tor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

“From the first reveille [on Mon­day morn­ing], from the first rooster crow, the Bo­li­var­ian Na­tional Armed Forces will be in the streets ... say­ing, ‘Long live the Bo­li­var­ian rev­o­lu­tion’,” he said on Sun­day night in a tele­vised ad­dress.

He called for the mili­tia to be in “per­ma­nent train­ing” and “per­ma­nent de­ploy­ment” to de­fend Venezuela against “any im­pe­ri­al­ist ag­gres­sion” — a thinly veiled ref­er­ence to the United States.

Se­nior op­po­si­tion leader Hen­rique Capriles dis­missed Mr Maduro’s an­nounce­ment.

“The old fo­gey has an­nounced one ri­fle for ev­ery mili­tia mem­ber. He is more des­per­ate than ever,” Mr Capriles wrote on Twit­ter.

“Venezuela does not want ri­fles. It wants food and medicine.”

Venezuela has been rocked by un­rest since March 30, when Mr Maduro’s camp moved to con­sol­i­date its con­trol with a Supreme Court decision quash­ing the power of the op­po­si­tion-ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture.

The court partly back­tracked af­ter an in­ter­na­tional out­cry, but ten­sion only rose fur­ther when au­thor­i­ties slapped a po­lit­i­cal ban on Mr Capriles.

Five peo­ple have been killed and hun­dreds wounded in the en­su­ing protests as demon­stra­tors clashed with riot po­lice fir­ing tear gas, wa­ter can­non and rub­ber bul­lets.

Non-gov­ern­ment groups have ac­cused the au­thor­i­ties of re­pres­sion of protesters and of us­ing firearms to put down the ral­lies.

Mr Padrino Lopez on Mon­day blamed the vi­o­lence on crim­i­nals, re­tort­ing that “ac­tion by the state to re­store pub­lic or­der can­not be called re­pres­sion”.

Mr Maduro’s op­po­nents have called for a mas­sive protest to­day, a na­tional hol­i­day that marks the start of Venezuela’s independen­ce strug­gle in 1810.

The pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers have called a counter-demon­stra­tion the same day.

It is a touchy date in Venezuela, where Chavez and Mr Maduro have built a pol­i­tics of pop­ulist, left-wing na­tion­al­ism around the fight for independen­ce from colo­nial Spain and around the hero of the strug­gle, Si­mon Bo­li­var.

Eleven Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries on Mon­day asked Venezuela to guarantee the “right to peace­ful demon­stra­tion”, lament­ing deaths that have al­ready oc­curred dur­ing the protests.

Mr Maduro’s For­eign Min­is­ter Delcy Ro­driguez on Twit­ter called the state­ment from the 11 coun­tries “po­lit­i­cal se­lec­tiv­ity”, ac­cus­ing the group of en­dors­ing “the vi­o­lent van­dal­ism of the op­po­si­tion”.

Mr Maduro is fight­ing ef­forts to force him from power as Venezuela floun­ders through a crip­pling three-year re­ces­sion and con­fronts the world’s high­est in­fla­tion rate.

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil re­serves, but the fall in global crude prices since 2014 has laid bare its over­whelm­ing de­pen­dence on its chief ex­port.

Lack­ing the oil dol­lars it once used to im­port nearly ev­ery­thing else, the coun­try has been hit by se­vere short­ages of food, medicine and other ba­sic goods such as de­odor­ant and toi­let pa­per.

With some 165,000 troops and 25,000 re­serves, the army con­trols pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of ba­sic foods.

Eleven of Mr Maduro’s 32 gov­ern­ment min­is­ters are cur­rent or re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cers.

AFP

Mem­bers of the Bo­li­var­ian Mili­tia pass the time in front of the Mi­raflo­res pres­i­den­tial palace in Cara­cas on Mon­day.

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