Venezuela braced for rival demonstrations Wednesday for and against President Nicolas Maduro, whose push to tighten his grip on power has triggered waves of deadly unrest that have escalated the country's political and economic crisis.
Maduro's opponents are vowing to stage the "mother of all protests" calling for his ouster, after two weeks of violent demonstrations that have left five people dead and dozens wounded. Sowing fears of more violence, Maduro has in turn urged his supporters, along with the military and civilian militias, to defend the leftist "revolution" launched by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999.
Venezuela's defense 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.
The center-right opposition has called on the military -- a pillar of Maduro's power -- to turn on the president amid an economic and political crisis that has triggered severe food shortages, riots and looting. But Defense 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 pro-Maduro "Bolivarian militia," who cheered with fists raised at a rally outside the presidential palace. 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.
Maduro on Tuesday activated the "Zamora Plan" -- a military, police and civilian operation aimed at combatting a supposed coup attempt -- which the president says is being orchestrated by Venezuela's opposition and the United States.
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 basic goods like deodorant and toilet paper. With some 165,000 troops and 25,000 reserves, the army controls production and distribution of basic foods. Eleven of Maduro's 32 government ministers are current or retired military officers.
In Latin America, where other governments are increasingly alarmed by Venezuela's instability, 11 countries including Brazil, Mexico and Chile issued a statement Monday condemning the deaths of protesters and urging the security forces to show restraint. Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department spokesman, echoed that call in a statement Tuesday, pressing for calm and accountability during the protests. "We again urge demonstrators to express themselves non-violently," Toner said.
"We also again remind the public forces -- members of the police, the army and the national guard -- as well as members of the judiciary, of their legal and constitutional responsibilities to protect, not prevent, peaceful demonstrations." Maduro, speaking at a meeting with high-ranking political and military officials, denounced the US statement as a "green light and approval of a coup process."