CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela held nationwide armed forces exercises on Saturday, calling on civilians to join reserve units to defend against a possible attack after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of a “military option” for the crisis-hit country.
Trump made the threat of military action against Venezuela two weeks ago and on Friday he signed an order prohibiting dealings in new debt from the Venezuelan government or its oil company, a move to hobble financing that Trump says is fueling President Nicolas Maduro’s “dictatorship.”
“Against the belligerent threats of the United States, all Venezuelans between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to contribute to the integral defense of the nation,” said an announcement broadcast on state television.
The government said it expected 700,000 civilian militia members and 200,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen to participate.
State TV images showed Venezuelans young and old entering military reserve registration centers. But there was no evidence of registration beyond the most ardent supporters of Maduro’s Socialist Party.
Live broadcasts were aired of camouflaged sharp-shooters at target practice while military commanders gave fiery speeches at “anti-imperialist” rallies. Air force, infantry and naval exercises were expected later on Saturday and Sunday.
Diplomatic tensions increased last month when a legislative superbody called the constituent assembly was elected at Maduro’s behest. It has the power to legislate, bypassing the opposition-controlled congress.
Maduro says the new assembly is Venezuela’s only hope of restoring peace after months of deadly anti-government protests.
Governments around the world denounced the election of the 545-member super-assembly as a farcical power grab by Maduro.
Leaders of the fractious opposition coalition boycotted the July 30 election of the assembly. They called instead for an early presidential election, which Maduro would likely lose as his popularity sinks along with an economy blighted by triple-digit inflation and acute shortages of food and medicine.
Trump’s threat of military action played into Maduro’s hands by supporting his oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. “empire” has been waging economic war on Venezuela and wants to invade the country to steal its vast oil reserves.
The idea had been laughed off as absurd by opposition and U.S. officials before Aug. 11, when Trump said that “a military operation, a military option is certainly something we could pursue” as a way of ending Venezuela’s crisis.
Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Johnny Carvajal; Editing by Andrew Hay