Venezuela’s government kicked off 10 days of military exercises Saturday in what President Nicolas Maduro called a defensive measure against an “unusual threat” against national security. The exercises come as tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. have escalated rapidly in recent weeks.
Around 100,000 people -- 80,000 military and 200,000 civilian volunteers -- participated in Saturday’s drill, dubbed “Bolivarian Shield,” the defense ministry said.
President Maduro called for the military exercises Wednesday, two days after President Obama signed an executive order issuing travel bans and U.S. asset freezes against seven high-ranking Venezuelan officials. The sanctions targeted individuals Washington accused of committing human rights abuses in the government’s crackdown on protesters in Venezuela’s mass protests last spring.
Obama’s executive order labeled Venezuela a “threat to national security.” White House officials specified the language was a standard requirement for issuing sanctions, but the description provoked anger from Maduro.
The exercises would ensure “nobody touches our fatherland” and “the Yankee boat would never touch it,” Maduro said in an address to the National Assembly Wednesday.
“Venezuela needs to be prepared because Venezuela is not, and cannot ever be Libya or Iraq,” he added, alluding to U.S. military campaigns in those countries. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez also described the exercises as a measure against “imperial aggression,” the state-run news network Telesur reported.
The move comes weeks after Maduro first accused the U.S. of working with members of the air force and the political opposition to foment a coup against his administration. In February he announced U.S. tourists would be required to apply for visas to visit the country and required the U.S. embassy in Caracas to reduce its staff from more than 100 employees to 17.
The U.S. has denied the accusations. But domestic tensions have risen within Venezuela since the government arrested the mayor of Caracas, accusing him of participating in alleged plot, and the U.S. Defense Department condemned the move. The U.S. Senate is due to hold a hearing, chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Tuesday to discuss the U.S. response to Venezuela’s simmering political tensions.