CARACAS - Venezuela on Saturday staged a military exercise to counter an alleged US threat, deploying soldiers and partisans across the country to march, man shoulder-fired missiles and defend an oil refinery from a simulated attack.
Socialist President Nicolas Maduro has framed recent US sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials as a bid to topple him, and on Saturday his government mobilized 80,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians as part of a 10-day military drill.
"The United States has declared Venezuela a threat," said General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela's defense minister.
"And that means an imminent danger for us, so we have to use the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) as part of our constitutional mission to guarantee independence and sovereignty."
Opposition leaders labeled the exercise a farce and accused Maduro, increasingly unpopular as a result of an economic crisis, of seeking to distract Venezuelans from long queues for scarce products, sky-high inflation and rampant crime.
Some also voiced disquiet over the growing role of the military amid a larger crackdown on opposition. Last month, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was jailed and a 14 year-old boy was shot and killed by a police officer during a protest.
Washington's move on Monday to declare Venezuela a "national security threat" is proving a godsend for the Venezuelan leader.
The former bus driver and union leader has given fiery, hours-long speeches nearly every day this week as he seeks to rally his base around deep-seated distrust of the superpower.