In a show of force, embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has met members of the armed forces and overseen the display of military hardware as opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is challenging his leadership, called for a new round of street protests.
Maduro is confronting an unprecedented challenge to his authority after Guaido on Wednesday declared himself interim president before cheering supporters in the capital, Caracas, citing a fraudulent election last year.
In a live broadcast on Sunday, Guaido urged all Venezuelans to take the streets in “peaceful protest” at midday (16:30 GMT) on Wednesday to ask for humanitarian aid to be allowed in the country amid an economic and political crisis that has led millions to flee in recent years, according to the United Nations.
The 35-year-old leader of the opposition-dominated National Assembly also called on people from across Venezuela and from all over the world to hold mass demonstrations on Saturday to coincide with a European Union ultimatum for fresh elections, which has been rejected by Maduro.
At the same time, Maduro – flanked by his top brass – watched military exercises in a display that, he said, showed the world he had the backing of the armed forces which were ready to defend the country.
Addressing soldiers in an appearance on state TV, Maduro asked whether they were plotting with the “imperialist” United States, which he accused of openly leading a coup against him.
“No, my commander-in-chief,” they shouted in unison, and Maduro responded: “We’re ready to defend our homeland – under any circumstance.”
Wearing tan fatigues, Maduro watched a platoon of soldiers release volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun anti-aircraft fire and tank rounds at hillside targets at Fort Paramacay, an armoured vehicle base.
“Nobody respects the weak, cowards, traitors. In this world, what’s respected is the brave, the courageous, power,” Maduro said.
“Nobody should even think of stepping on this sacred soil. Venezuela wants peace,” he said. “To guarantee peace, we have to be prepared.”
From February 10 to 15, the military is planning larger exercises that Maduro described as the “most important in the history of Venezuela”.
He denounced an alleged conspiracy aimed at spreading rebellion in the army, saying thousands of messages were being sent to soldiers every day over WhatsApp and other social media platforms from neighbouring Colombia. He later jogged with soldiers and boarded an amphibious vehicle at a navy base.
Meanwhile, Guaido also sent a message to the military on Sunday, asking for support and ordering it not to repress civilians during an event in which supporters handed out copies of a proposed amnesty for people accused of crimes in the Maduro government.
“I order you not to shoot,” he said. “I order you not to repress the people.”
‘European leaders are sycophants’
Maduro started a second term on January 10 following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a sham.
On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined the countries backing Guaido, while in Washington President Donald Trump’s administration said it had accepted opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as the country’s diplomatic representative in the US.
At a United Nations Security Council debate on Saturday, Russia and China strongly backed Maduro and rejected calls by the US, Canada, Latin American countries and European powers for early elections.
Both Russia and China are major creditors of Venezuela. Since the government of Maduro’s late mentor, Hugo Chavez, the OPEC nation has invested heavily in Russian weaponry, including Sukhoi fighter jets and heavy armour.
The strategic alliance was in evidence last year when two Russian nuclear-capable bombers landed in Venezuela. Reuters news agency reported on Friday that private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela to beef up security for Maduro.
In an interview that aired on Sunday, Maduro rejected a European ultimatum to call elections within eight days and said Guaido violated the constitution by declaring himself the interim leader. He said European nations should leave Venezuela if they so wanted.
“Fortunately, we don’t depend on Europe. And those arrogant, overbearing attitudes, looking down on us, because we are ‘sudacas’, inferior to them,” he told CNN Turk.
“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said, adding he was open to dialogue and that meeting Trump was improbable but not impossible.
Washington urged the world on Saturday to “pick a side” on Venezuela and financially disconnect from Maduro’s government.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan voiced his support for Maduro in a phone call on Thursday.