CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro oversaw a grand military parade to mark the country’s independence day Friday, reveling in his might as commander-in-chief as the embattled socialist leader 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 Guaidó, who is trying to oust Maduro and has the backing of more than 50 nations, including the United States.
Guaidó 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 4 million Venezuelans have left the country amid food and medicine shortages and crushing inflation.
As head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Guaidó claims that Maduro’s election in 2018 to a second, six-year term is illegitimate because the most popular political figures and parties were banned from running.
Maduro refuses to step aside, and Guaidó has not been able to lure a critical mass of soldiers to back him and overcome Maduro’s rule.
Guaidó 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,” Guaidó said, urging the military to join his movement.
In a sign of international repudiation of Maduro, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michele Bachelet, issued a scathing report Thursday accusing Venezuela’s security forces of nearly 5,300 killings last year.
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 U.N. reported.
“These measures are aimed at neutralizing, repressing and criminalizing 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.
Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.