CARACAS • Venezuela is preparing for the biggest military exercises in its history today and is on high alert as the opposition pushes for a recall referendum on President Nicolas Maduro.
"Venezuela is threatened," Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on state television on Thursday. "This is the first time we are carrying out an exercise of this nature in the country. In terms of national reach, it's going to be in every strategic region."
Mr Maduro announced the exercises last weekend, a day after pledging to prolong his government's special emergency powers.
In a rambling news conference on Tuesday, he said American spy planes, including a Boeing 707 E-3 Sentry early warning and control jet, had entered the country's airspace illegally this month.
The nation is already on an elevated state of alert after the US renewed a presidential decree that said the South American country is a threat to its national security, Mr Padrino Lopez said.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Tuesday said the "moment of truth" had arrived for the country's armed forces - to decide whether they are with the Constitution or with Mr Maduro - a day before security forces used tear gas to turn back anti-government protesters in central Caracas.
The opposition has pledged more demonstrations across the country to pressure the electoral board to process a petition to activate a recall referendum. Opposition leaders accuse the government of stalling the process to avoid early elections.
Rising political and economic tensions are gripping a country beset by record inflation, shortages of basic goods, and currency controls. Discontent over a sinking economy and rampant crime sparked months of anti-government protests that left dozens dead and hundreds injured two years ago.
Mr Maduro, speaking on state TV, said Unasur regional bloc head Ernesto Samper, former Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez, former Panama president Martin Torrijos and former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero will support a process of dialogue with the opposition.
The former leaders will help the opposition "respect the Constitution", he said. He said he hoped the opposition would "give way" and cooperate in a process of peace.
"The government is looking to victimise itself to both the international community and its own followers," said Mr Rocio San Miguel, director of Caracas-based non-profit security research firm Citizens' Control, in an interview.
"They're looking for a distraction to buy time, and there's no better distraction than the military one."