By Alexandra Ulmer and Deisy Buitrago
(Reuters) – Venezuela on Saturday staged a military exercise to counter an alleged U.S. threat, deploying soldiers and partisans across the country to march, man shoulder-fired missiles and defend an oil refinery from a simulated attack.
Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has framed recent U.S. sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials as a bid to topple him, and on Saturday his government mobilized 80,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians as part of a 10-day military drill.
“The United States has declared Venezuela a threat,” said General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defense minister.
“And that means an imminent danger for us, so we have to use the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) as part of our constitutional mission to guarantee independence and sovereignty.”
Opposition leaders labeled the exercise a farce and accused Maduro, increasingly unpopular as a result of an economic crisis, of seeking to distract Venezuelans from long queues for scarce products, sky-high inflation and rampant crime.
Some also voiced disquiet over the growing role of the military amid a larger crackdown on opposition. Last month, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was jailed and a 14 year-old boy was shot and killed by a police officer during a protest.
Washington’s move on Monday to declare Venezuela a “national security threat” is proving a godsend for the Venezuelan leader.
The former bus driver and union leader has given fiery, hours-long speeches nearly every day this week as he seeks to rally his base around deep-seated distrust of the superpower.
During the so-called “Bolivarian shield” military exercise, parading red-shirted civilians pumped their fists in the air in a show of loyalty for the late Hugo Chavez, the firebrand leftist who governed Venezuela for 14 years before dying of cancer in 2013.
Venezuela’s navy performed exercises in the Caribbean Sea and state-controlled television broadcast footage of a simulated intrusion at the Amuay refinery, the OPEC country’s biggest.
With parliamentary elections looming, Maduro’s adversaries were quick to bring attention back to more basic issues.
“How many soldiers or their relatives have been victims of crime? And Nicolas tells them of an imperial war! War is what there is in the street,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in a tweet.
“They don’t have civilians to parade anymore so they’re forcing the military to do it and fill up political rallies! What an embarrassment, Nicolas,” added Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Paul Simao)