Just days after antigovernment protesters clashed with police in multiple cities, Venezuela’s military took part in a two-day exercise that was the largest such military drill in the country’s history.
The drills come not long after President Nicolas Maduro declared a state of emergency, granting himself and security forces broader power to deal with public unrest and economic distress.
Maduro’s emphasis on the military’s role in quelling the country’s turmoil, and opposition members’ comments on the same, may indicate that Venezuela’s armed forces could soon be forced to pick a side in the country’s ongoing political strife.
As tensions in Venezuela intensified in recent weeks — social unrest driven largely by deep economic distortions and the contentious political environment — the military and other security forces have been thrust into a more prominent role.
“Venezuela is threatened,” Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said of the military exercises on state television on Thursday, according to Bloomberg.
“This is the first time we are carrying out an exercise of this nature in the country,” Padrino added. “In terms of national reach, it’s going to be in every strategic region.”
Maduro has denounced domestic “coup-plotters” and external interference, primarily from the US, which he says sent spy planes into the country’s airspace illegally this month. The Venezuelan president has also posed the military as a bulwark in his government’s fight against foreign interference.
“From the empire, they dream of dividing our armed forces … fragmenting them, weakening them,” Maduro said of the US, according to Reuters.
Domestically, the military was heavily involved in a new phase of Operation Liberation and Protection of the People, which was meant to crack down on crime but said by some to be an effort to reassert political control.
The opposition, too, has called on the military to take a stand.
Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader and governor of Miranda state, said on May 18 that Maduro was “putting himself above the constitution” by issuing the emergency decree.
“And I tell the armed forces: The hour of truth is coming, to decide whether you are with the constitution or with Maduro,” Capriles said, according to the BBC.
Capriles stressed that he was not calling for a coup, but a “legal and constitutional way of ousting” Maduro.
The military ‘king-maker’
A half-million soldiers and militia members took part in the exercises over the weekend, which, according to AFP, were meant to show that the armed forces could deal with internal or external conflict.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) May 22, 2016