Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: MIRAFLORES PALACE/via REUTERS
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: MIRAFLORES PALACE/via REUTERS

Caracas/Maracaibo — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered an expansion of civilian militia by nearly 1-million members as opposition leader Juan Guaido tours western Zulia state, which has been hard hit by electricity blackouts.

Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who in January invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, has called on the military to abandon Maduro amid a hyperinflationary economic collapse made worse by several nationwide blackouts in the past month.

Guaido has been recognised as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the US and most Western countries, who agree with his argument that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

The civilian militia, created in 2008 by the late former president and Maduro mentor Hugo Chavez, reports directly to the presidency and is intended to complement the armed forces.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a US puppet, said he aimed to raise the number of militia members to 3-million by year-end from what he said was more than 2-million currently. Maduro has encouraged them to become involved in agricultural production.

Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3-million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

“With your rifles on your shoulders, be ready to defend the fatherland and dig the furrow to plant the seeds to produce food for the community, for the people,” Maduro, a socialist, told thousands of militia members gathered in the capital Caracas, wearing khaki camouflaged uniforms.

Military support

So far, the military top brass has remained loyal to Maduro despite Guaido’s offer of amnesty to military members who switch sides. Hundreds of soldiers have sought asylum in neighbouring Colombia.

While electricity has largely been restored in Caracas, Maduro’s administration is rationing power to the rest of Venezuela.

Guaido is travelling in the interior to drum up support. In Zulia state, the site of the Opec member’s first oil well and home to Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, he said: “We are here to check on the situation, your suffering. But Zulia will rise up.”

Separately on Saturday, two employees of Venezuela’s central bank who were arrested after meeting Guaido last week were freed, rights group Penal Forum said. Rights groups say Venezuelan authorities have arrested 1,000 people after anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Guaido’s chief of staff was arrested in March.

Meanwhile, Germany’s state-funded public broadcaster Deutsche Welle has accused Venezuela’s broadcast authority of having blocked its Spanish-language channel from cable networks in the country.

DW’s general manager Peter Limbourg urged broadcast authority Donatel to “urgently resume distributing the signal of DW.” DW had launched a 15-minute daily special programme in response to the growing crisis in Venezuela, reporting on its Spanish language channel about developments there and interviewing key officials, including Guaido.

“We will, of course, do everything we can to keep our viewers and users in Venezuela informed,” Limbourg saidt, noting that DW’s programme “Noticias Extra Venezuela” would remain available on its website. The Venezuelan ministry of information, which controls Conatel, had no immediate comment. The German foreign ministry had no immediate comment.

DW cited a tweet from Venezuela’s journalists’ union explaining the order from Conatel, and lauding the work of the German broadcaster in reporting on all facets of the crisis in Venezuela. It carried the hashtag “censorship.”

DW reached 17-million viewers in Latin America each week with its 24-hour programming, the broadcaster said, noting that a video posted on Twitter in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for new elections was retrieved 112,000 times.