Venezuela’s president Nicola Maduro oversaw a grand military parade to mark the country’s independence day on Friday, revelling in his might as commander-in-chief as he comes under mounting criticism for using brutal tactics to crush his opponents.
Maduro applauded and pumped his fist as soldiers marched past, tanks rolled by and fighter jets streaked overhead at a Caracas military base.
A unit of camouflaged special forces, guns drawn, shouted their loyalty as they paraded by the presidential reviewing stand.
“We look to the heavens, asking for peace,” Maduro said. “All the while our military exercises play out. We plead to God with our missiles pointed.”
The parade demonstrated Maduro’s continuing support from the military amid a political standoff with opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is trying to oust Maduro and has the backing of more than 50 nations, including the United States.
Guaido claimed presidential powers in January, drawing masses of supporters into the streets for demonstrations against Maduro, who has overseen the oil-nation’s historic collapse.
More than four million Venezuelans have left the country amid food and medicine shortages and crushing inflation.
Maduro refuses to step aside, and Guaido has not been able to lure a critical mass of soldiers to back him and overcome Maduro’s rule.
Guaido called on Venezuelans to take to the streets Friday for huge demonstrations marking 208 years since Venezuela won its freedom from Spain.
Thousands had joined him by midday, and they marched toward the headquarters of a military intelligence agency in Caracas, where a day earlier a navy captain opposed to Maduro was tortured to death, according to his wife and attorney.
“Today in Venezuela, anyone who continues to support this dictatorship must know that he’s an accomplice to the violation of human rights,” Guaido said, urging the military to join his movement.
In a sign of international repudiation of Maduro, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michele Bachelet, issued a scathing report on Thursday accusing Venezuela’s security forces of nearly 5,300 killings last year.
🇻🇪 #Venezuela: @mbachelet presents the findings of serious #HumanRights violations being committed – “The situation is complex. I sincerely hope the authorities will take the recommendations in the constructive spirit in which they are made”: https://t.co/uEoVhL0eF5 pic.twitter.com/zuaG2QcOQQ
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) July 5, 2019
Venezuelans interviewed by the human rights workers referred to a particular security unit, FAES, as a “death squad” or “extermination group”.
Maduro’s government has also undermined the rule of law and dismantled democratic institutions, the UN reported.
“These measures are aimed at neutralising, repressing and criminalising political opponents and people critical of the government,” the report said.
Deputy foreign minister William Castillo blasted the report, saying it failed to reflect “the reality in our country”.
He demanded the report be corrected and said the government would heed “constructive” and “balanced” recommendations.