Bangkok Post

Army declares loyalty to leader Maduro


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

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