CARACAS/MARACAIBO (Dispatches) -- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered an expansion of civilian militia by nearly one million members as opposition leader Juan Guaido toured western Zulia state, which has been hard hit by electricity blackouts.
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 U.S. puppet, said he aimed to raise the number of militia members to three 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 three 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 told thousands of militia members gathered in the capital Caracas, wearing khaki camouflaged uniforms.
The military top brass has remained loyal to Maduro despite Guaido’s offer of amnesty to military members who switch sides.
While electricity has largely been restored in Caracas, Maduro’s administration is rationing power to the rest of Venezuela.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a tour of four Latin American countries, on Saturday called for maintaining regional pressure on Maduro and his government.
On the third leg of his four-nation tour, Pompeo arrived in the Peruvian capital of Lima and met with the country’s President Martin Vizcarra to gather support for President Donald Trump's hardline stance against Maduro.
Washington has been pressuring Maduro to step down and urging more countries to support Guaido who declared himself "interim president” in January.
The Trump administration has imposed a raft of sanctions against Maduro’s government and even threatened to use military force in an attempt to remove him from power.
U.S.-imposed sanctions have hurt the Venezuelan economy as well as ordinary people, who are already suffering from hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages, triggering mass migration to neighboring countries, such as Peru and Colombia.
After a private meeting with Vizcarra, the U.S. secretary of state attended a joint news conference with Peruvian Foreign Minister Nestor Popolisio and discussed the status of Venezuelan migrants in neighboring countries.
However, he got irate when a reporter asked if that contradicted Trump's harsh immigration policy at home.
"Our objective is to allow people to stay in their home countries, this is President Trump's desire, we want to create conditions in these countries where they can stay in their own country," he said.