By Esteban ROJAS – Agence France-Presse
Venezuelan troops taught civilians how to shoot rifles, fire missiles and engage in hand-to-hand combat during drills held Saturday in defiance of US sanctions and President Donald Trump’s threat of military action.
War planes, tanks and 200,000 troops of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) deployed along with 700,000 reservists and civilians as socialist President Nicolas Maduro launched two days of military exercises.
In a Caracas military academy, soldiers taught civilians how to use their fists, rifles, bazookas and anti-aircraft guns and supervised them on obstacle courses.
“Yankees out!” 60-year-old Erica Avendano yelled as she bashed a rag dummy with her rifle on an assault course.
“I hope nothing will happen, but we are ready for anything,” she told AFP.
– ‘Possible military option’ –
Trump warned earlier this month that the United States was mulling a range of options against Venezuela, “including a possible military option if necessary.”
Top US officials later played down the threat. “No military actions are anticipated in the near future,” said US national security advisor HR McMaster.
But Trump’s tough talk bolstered Maduro’s oft-repeated claim that Washington is plotting to topple him and wants to grab control of Venezuela’s oil — the largest proven reserves in the world.
Gregorio Valderrama, a 23-year-old father of three, received a shooting lesson from soldiers on Saturday.
Valderrama said he was there to learn “to defend my country and my family.”
“We may not know how to handle a rifle and when to shoot, but here we are learning,” he added.
– Military loyalty –
Elected in 2013, Maduro, the political heir to the late Hugo Chavez, has hung onto power despite food shortages and social upheaval.
His grip is largely thanks to the support of the military, which holds vast powers in his government, including over food distribution.
The opposition has repeatedly called on the army to abandon Maduro but so far he has faced only low-level dissent.
Military analyst Rocio San Miguel judged the weekend’s exercises to be “mere propaganda” rather than a meaningful challenge to Trump.
She said they aimed to discourage “any disloyalty in the ranks of the FANB, which is a worry for the intelligence services,” and “to reinforce the anti-imperialist line.”
On Thursday, the president warned the armed forces not to break ranks.
“This is no time for any fissures,” he said in a speech to the top military brass.
“Never before has Venezuela been threatened in such a way.”
– ‘Financial blockade’ –
Tension surged again however when the White House on Friday unveiled its first-ever sanctions to target Venezuela as a whole, rather than just Maduro and his inner circle.
The measures ban trade in new bonds issued by the Venezuelan government or its cash-cow oil company, PDVSA.
That could choke off access to New York debt markets and raise the risk of Venezuela being forced into default.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the armed forces support “all measures being implemented to counter the financial blockade.”
– International pressure –
Venezuela’s center right-led opposition and international powers including Washington say Maduro is turning Venezuela into a dictatorship.
Maduro’s opponents accuse military police and pro-Maduro militia of beating and killing anti-government protesters who are demanding elections to replace him.
Protest clashes have left 125 people dead so far this year, according to prosecutors.
Maduro says the violence and the economic crisis are a US-backed conspiracy.
On Friday, he accused opposition leaders in his country of pushing for the US sanctions and called for legislative speaker Julio Borges to be tried for treason.
Also on Friday, Maduro called an “urgent” meeting of American companies that buy Venezuelan oil and hold Venezuelan bonds to discuss the sanctions. (AFP)