By Alexander MARTINEZ
Caracas (AFP) July 19, 2017
Venezuela's military reaffirmed its loyalty to President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday by saying its forces would protect a controversial vote he has called for next week to elect a body to rewrite the constitution.
The declaration, read out by Maduro's defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, marked another official rejection of a threat by President Donald Trump to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela if the vote proceeds.
Padrino Lopez said Venezuela's armed forces, which he controls as operational commander, recognize the "legitimate nature" of Maduro's plan to have a body called a constituent assembly elected.
"As such, soldiers will deploy on July 30 across all the national territory... to guarantee the complete exercise of the right to vote by all Venezuelans," he said.
Venezuela's opposition, which held a symbolic election last weekend in which more than a third of the country's voters rejected Maduro's plan, says the constituent assembly is a way for the president to hold on to power through "Cuba-like" dictatorial measures.
- Nationwide strike -
Trump on Monday warned of unspecified "strong and swift economic actions" if the vote goes ahead, calling Maduro "a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator."
The UN, EU, the Organization of American States and major Latin American nations have also condemned the constituent assembly initiative.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told Argentina's daily La Nacion she feared the showdown between Maduro's government and the opposition "could lead to even greater instability... there is always a risk of arriving at a more violent path."
Negotiations were needed to avoid that, she said.
But Maduro on Tuesday said the controversial step would go ahead -- "now more than ever" after Trump's threat -- and that "conspirators" in the country trying to stop it would be punished.
His labor minister, Nestor Ovalles, warned that companies in Venezuela that joined a 24-hour, nationwide strike on Thursday called by the opposition would be "sanctioned."
There is a risk that the unyielding campaigns by Maduro and the opposition could worsen the bloodshed Venezuela has suffered since April, when anti-government protests turned violent, with nearly 100 people killed.
Demonstrations continue, and on Tuesday a truck was set ablaze in a Caracas avenue during a protest.
Government prosecutors also said on Twitter that a man died in the northeastern state of Anzoategui when he was "burned during a demonstration," but gave no details or date of the alleged incident.
- 'Firm' military -
Maduro chaired a meeting of his Defense Council on Tuesday to prepare responses to the threatened US action.
Venezuela is deep in the grip of an economic crisis brought on in part by low global prices for oil -- its main export and pillar of its finances.
Around a third of the country's crude production is exported to the US, and a White House official on Tuesday said "all options are on the table" to punish Maduro if the election goes ahead.
While Maduro is widely unpopular -- 70 percent of Venezuelans reject his leadership, according to the polling firm Datanalisis -- and the congress is controlled by the opposition, he holds onto power in large part because of the military's support.
The opposition has tried to split military chiefs away to their side. But those efforts have been in vain, possibly because the military enjoys control over vast swaths of the economy.
Padrino Lopez, who has more power than any other minister in Maduro's cabinet, stressed that "we are going to remain firm."
He was especially scathing of the EU's top diplomatic official, Federica Mogherini, who has urged Maduro to drop his constituent assembly plan.
"The obvious bias and dark threats from this official are outrageous," the general said, accusing Mogherini of bowing down to the "extremist elite" in charge in the United States and of accepting opposition "propaganda" concerning its vote.
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 18, 2017
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