Venezuela braces for further clashes
Caracas, 19 April (Argus) — Venezuelans awoke to a heavy military presence on the streets today ahead of potentially violent clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and government supporters whose ranks are likely to feature thousands of red-clad oil workers summoned to march.
Six people have died, over 200 have been injured and some 500 have been detained since opposition-led protests started on 4 April in response to the supreme court's nullification of the legislature's constitutional powers on 29 March.
Increasingly unpopular Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro this week ordered the immediate deployment of thousands of civilian militia in Caracas and across the country, publicly calling on the faltering Bolivarian revolution's loyalists to defend his government with arms and bloodshed if necessary.
"This is not a time for traitors, treason or vacillaters," Maduro thundered in a 17 April televised speech to a formation of Bolivarian civilian militia in military uniforms.
"If someday you awaken to news that treason and the ultra-right have sought to impose some form of coup d'etat, you must take total power of the republic, insurrection by all of the nation's popular and military forces. Do not doubt even for one second," he said.
Opposition leaders hope today's demonstrations, held on the anniversary of the 1810 Caracas uprising that sparked the independence wars Simon Bolivar led against Spain, will force the government to hold general elections this year.
The government suppressed a 2016 effort to conduct a presidential recall referendum and has all but canceled this year's local elections.
Maduro's deployment of armed Bolivarian militia has alarmed neighboring countries. "We are seriously concerned about the militarization of Venezuelan society," Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday. Colombia is the first stop abroad for many Venezuelans, including desperate migrants seeking food and medicine. Venezuelans have similarly poured across the porous border into northern Brazil.
"The recent actions of the regime to hand out weapons to civilians and urge them toward confrontation are a murderous repressive action that incites violence," Organization of American States secretary general Luis Almagro said yesterday.
Opposition leaders tell Argus that today's anti-government protests could be the largest in years, despite the regime's efforts at intimidation, military roadblocks and the shutdown of metro service into Caracas.
"We know where every opposition leader lives, and where they go and who they meet with," ruling United Socialist Party first vice president Diosdado Cabello said menacingly.
The regime is preparing a massive pro-government rally today in the old downtown district of western Caracas where the presidential palace and national assembly complex are located. In a speech late yesterday, Maduro said the opposition was free to march on the eastern side of the capital. But the two sides are unlikely to elude confrontation.
Attendance at today's rally is mandatory for all government workers, including more than 100,000 employees of state-owned oil company PdV, an oil union official said.
"Bolivarian militia officials in PdV have been assigned the task of telling all their co-workers that attendance will be taken, and that anyone who does not participate will be blacklisted and fired from the company," the union official said.
PdV "will provide maximum support to the 19 April mobilization, to all oil workers, I'll see you in Caracas!" PdV chief executive Eulogio Del Pino said on Twitter yesterday.
It is not clear if upstream and downstream oil operations, already in a deteriorated state because of a lack of investment and maintenance, will be affected. Crude exports account for nearly all government revenue.