- Maduro critics say exercises waste money amid economic crisis
- Images of troops, guns and tanks fill state-run media
Venezuela is holding the biggest military exercise in its history this weekend, citing threats to national security, as the opposition pushes for a recall referendum on President Nicolas Maduro.
While the streets of Caracas were mostly calm Saturday morning, state television and government news websites showed images of deployments across the country, with tanks being unloaded from landing craft, troops setting up tents and armored vehicles on the move.
Maduro announced the drills a week ago, a day after pledging to prolong his government’s special emergency powers as the country battles its worst recession in decades. He sought to deflect blame for those ills on Saturday, saying high crime and crippling economic woes are part of an “unconventional war” being waged against Venezuela.
“We’re warriors of peace,” Maduro said on state television from a stadium in coastal Vargas state, where he watched the distribution of uniforms to hundreds of militia members before he sang and clapped his hands as a crowd cheered. “Our armed forces are anti-colonial, anti-imperial.”
The opposition, which blames the 53-year-old Maduro for widespread shortages of food and basic necessities, criticized the maneuvers.
“How much are these exercises costing the country?” opposition governor and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles wrote on his Twitter account. “The soldiers are themselves suffering from the economic crisis. While there is a rich and privileged military leadership, the troops are fighting, without food and medicine, and with a salary that isn’t sufficient.”
Maduro said the exercises included mobilizations of anti-aircraft, armored, amphibious, and aerial weapons systems. He ended his speech surrounded by troops with guns raised in the air.
Military officials from “brother countries” including Vietnam, China, Russia, Argentina, Cuba, Spain, Uruguay, Germany, France and Trinidad and Tobago attended the event, state news agency AVN reported on its website.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on state television this week that the nation was “threatened,” and Maduro told reporters Tuesday in a rambling press conference that U.S. spy planes including a Boeing E-3 Sentry had entered Venezuelan airspace illegally this month.
The opposition has pledged further demonstrations nationwide to pressure Venezuela’s electoral board to process a petition to activate a recall referendum. Maduro’s critics accuse the government of stalling to avoid early elections.
Rising political and economic tensions are gripping the country beset by the world’s highest inflation, currency controls and a lack of basic goods. Discontent over a sinking economy and rampant crime sparked months of anti-government demonstrations that left dozens dead and hundreds injured two years ago.
While former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he was willing to help promote a “national dialogue” with the South American regional bloc known as Unasur, Venezuela’s opposition has said that any talks should have a clear agenda and result in a referendum.
The opposition alliance “ratifies its willingness to participate in any dialogue initiative that is useful to the country and not simply a distraction the government can use to buy time,” according to a statement on Thursday. “If what is wanted is an authentic national dialogue, and not just an institutional or partisan debate, the nation needs to speak and be heard. And the mechanism that the constitution of the republic provides for that is the recall referendum.”