CARACAS, VENEZUELA - As Venezuela’s center-right opposition prepares to stage "the mother of all marches" Wednesday to protest President Nicolás Maduro’s efforts to consolidate power, the besieged leader has called for a countermarch and declared plans to expand the country’s civilian militias.
Maduro, speaking to thousands of uniformed militia members assembled Monday at the presidential palace in Caracas, said they must determine whether they are "with the homeland or with the betrayal of the homeland."
The president announced a goal to ramp up their ranks to half a million, from the current 100,000, and to arm each with a gun. On Sunday, he’d ordered military troops to fan out nationwide.
"We are going to mobilize, to fight, to continue fighting to prevent any intention of the right to subvert the constitutional order," added Diosdado Cabella, vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party.
The Maduro supporter, a lawmaker in the National Assembly, said he expected about 60,000 motorcyclists to ride in support of the government Wednesday.
At least five people have been killed in two weeks of protests, with security forces firing rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. The turbulence erupted after the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s March 30 announcement that it would strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its legislative powers. The court – stacked with appointees of Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez – reversed its position in the wake of domestic and international outcries about an attempted power grab.
Thousands of Maduro’s opponents are expected to turn out in the capital Wednesday at 10 a.m. local time to pressure his administration to respect the assembly’s autonomy, schedule long-delayed elections, free political prisoners and restore other democratic norms.
While the main march is planned for Caracas, Unidad Venezuela, a coalition of opposition parties, also is organizing marches in each of the country’s 24 states, according to the group’s Twitter account.
Demonstrations also are planned at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington starting at noon local time.
On Monday, Maduro called on his followers to defend the country against alleged plans to overthrow him. “Do not hesitate for a second,” he warned.
Venezuela’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, assured Maduro of professional soldiers’ loyalty. And the country’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodríguez, also expressed solidarity with her boss and against outside forces such as the “imperialist” United States.
"We will continue defeating them in the international field," Rodríguez tweeted late Monday. "There will be no imperial force on Earth that crushes the spirit of the sovereign people of Venezuela."
But the leftist government’s opponents also are appealing to military and civilian troops to back their cause.
"We know that behind those shields are Venezuelans who accompany us in this struggle for a change," the National Assembly’s president, Julio Borges, said in a tweet Tuesday.
The National Socialist Party has ruled Venezuela for 17 years. Economic pressures have mounted in recent years, especially since the price of oil – Venezuela’s chief export – began falling in 2014. Venezuelans face chronic, severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics in what once was Latin America’s wealthiest country.
Wednesday’s mass protest falls on a significant date for Venezuelans: On April 19, 1810, Venezuelans began their quest for independence from Spain.
Concern over bloodshed
Maduro faces intensifying pressure, from internal political foes and from international bodies such as the Organization of American States, to back off from violence.
On Monday, Latin American leaders counseled against further bloodshed.
"We view with serious concern the militarization of Venezuelan society. We call for good sense," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a tweet Tuesday, according to the AFP news service.
Colombia is among 11 Latin American countries – including Brazil, Argentina and Mexico – urging peaceful demonstrations Wednesday. They called upon Venezuela’s government to respect the constitutional right to peaceful protest.
On Tuesday, the Venezuelan Penal Forum, an NGO, said security forces in the country have carried out 538 arrests since early April. It said that as of Monday, 241 people were being detained. It also reported multiple instances of torture and cruelty to detainees.
VOA's Carol Guensburg and VOA Spanish service intern Goldy Fogel contributed to this report from Washington.