Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro oversaw a display of the army’s Russian hardware on Sunday, with anti-aircraft flak and tank rounds pounding a hillside to show military force and loyalty in the face of an international ultimatum to call fresh elections.
Mr. Maduro, 56, is confronting an unprecedented challenge to his authority after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, citing a fraudulent election. Mr. Guaido has won wide international support and offers amnesty to soldiers who join him. On Sunday, Israel joined the countries backing the 35-year-old leader.
Early on Sunday, flanked by Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, Mr. Maduro watched a platoon of soldiers release volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, machine gun anti-aircraft fire and tank rounds at hillside targets, the Russian ordnance kicking up clouds of dust at the Fort of Paramacay, an armoured vehicle base.
Mr. Maduro said the display showed the world he has the backing of the military, and that Venezuela’s armed forces are ready to defend the country. Mr. Maduro said Mr. Guaido is taking part in a coup directed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s hardline policy advisers, who include Cold War veterans John Bolton and Elliott Abrams.
“Nobody respects the weak, cowards, traitors. In this world what’s respected is the brave, the courageous, power,” Mr. Maduro said as the dust settled on the base.
“Nobody should even think of stepping on this sacred soil. Venezuela wants peace ... and to guarantee peace, we have to be prepared,” he said. The military is planning larger military exercises from Feb. 10 to 15 that Mr. Maduro described as the “most important in the history of Venezuela.”
The show of force on Sunday was accompanied by a government publicity campaign online based on the slogan “Always Loyal, Never a Traitor,” and followed a high-profile defection by the country’s top military diplomat in the United States on Saturday.
The Fort of Paramacay, about 150 kilometres west of Caracas, was itself the site of an uprising in 2017, when a group of about 20 soldiers and armed civilians attacked the base. The leader of the attack, which was quickly subdued, said he was calling for a transition government.
Mr. Maduro on Sunday denounced an alleged conspiracy aimed at spreading rebellion in the army, saying thousands of messages were being sent to soldiers every day over Whatsapp and other social media platforms from neighbouring Colombia. He later jogged with soldiers and visited a naval base.
Mr. Guaido also sent a message to the military on Sunday, asking for their support and ordering them not to repress civilians during an event in which supporters handed out copies of a proposed amnesty for people accused of crimes in the Maduro government.
“I order you not to shoot,” he said. “I order you not to repress the people.”
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Saturday, Russia and China strongly backed Mr. Maduro and rejected calls by the United States, Canada, Latin American nations and European powers for early elections.
Both Russia and China are major creditors to Venezuela. Since the government of Mr. Maduro’s late mentor Hugo Chávez, the OPEC nation has invested heavily in Russian weaponry, including Sukhoi fighter jets and heavy armour.
The strategic alliance was in evidence last year, when two Russian nuclear-capable bombers landed in Venezuela. Reuters reported on Friday that private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela to beef up security for Mr. Maduro.
In an interview that aired on Sunday, Mr. Maduro rejected a European ultimatum to call elections within eight days and said Mr. Guaido violated the constitution by declaring himself interim leader.
“Fortunately, we don’t depend on Europe. And those arrogant, overbearing attitudes, looking down on us, because we are ‘sudacas,’ inferior to them. That European elite is finished with, that European elite doesn’t represent the European people,” he told CNN Turk.
“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said, adding that he was open to dialogue and that meeting Mr. Trump was improbable but not impossible.
Washington on Saturday urged the world to “pick a side” on Venezuela and financially disconnect from Mr. Maduro’s government.
White House national security adviser John Bolton warned on Sunday against violence or intimidation of American diplomats in Venezuela or of Mr. Guaido, saying such action would trigger a response from the United States.
Venezuela has sunk into turmoil under Mr. Maduro with food shortages and protests amid an economic and political crisis that has sparked mass emigration and inflation that is seen rising to 10 million per cent this year.
Britain, Germany, France and Spain all said they would recognize Mr. Guaido if Mr. Maduro failed to call fresh elections within eight days, an ultimatum Russia said was “absurd” and the Venezuelan Foreign Minister called “childlike.”
The United States, Canada, most Latin American countries and many European states say Mr. Maduro stole his second-term election win last May. The former bus driver and union leader cruised to victory after blocking the main opposition candidates from running. Turnout was low.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had voiced his support for Mr. Maduro in a phone call on Thursday.