Venezuela's Armed Forces have declared their "absolute loyalty" to President Nicolás Maduro, days before the socialist leader is sworn in for a second term of office.
The Armed Forces issued a statement on Tuesday, read out to the press by Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino López, in which it declared "unrestricted support and absolute loyalty" to Maduro as president and "commander-in-chief for the period 2019-25."
Maduro will be sworn into office tomorrow by the Supreme Court despite the country's laws stating this is the job of the National Assembly. However, the opposition-controlled body has been rendered impotent ever since Maduro created a rival Constituent Assembly filled with regime loyalists last year to replace it.
Although parliament still meets, all its decisions are subsequently annulled by the Supreme Court, made up of Maduro allies.
Lawmakers have accused Maduro of being a "usurper" and announced plans to formulate a "political transition," but without the support of either the military, courts or other political institutions, lacks the means to do so.
Maduro will begin his second mandate on Thursday plagued by accusations of illegitimacy and increasing international isolation in a country crippled by an economic crisis.
The 56-year-old leader will be sworn in having been re-elected in May in a poll boycotted by the majority of the opposition and dismissed as a fraud by the United States, European Union and Organisation of American States (OAS). The EU even reiterated on Tuesday its call for new and "free" elections.
"We believe the (2018) presidential election was neither free nor credible. The EU demands a new election that is free and fair," said EU Spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.
With the exception of Mexico, the Lima Group – made up of 14 mostly Latin American countries – has urged Maduro to renounce his second term and deliver power to parliament, a demand Caracas blasted as incitement to stage a coup d'état.
Maduro's second term coincides with the assumption of power in Brazil of one of his greatest detractors, far-right former congressman Jair Bolsonaro who, backed by US President Donald Trump, is looking to form a regional coalition against the "dictatorship."
Increasingly shunned by its neighbors – the OAS plans to hold an extraordinary session Thursday to discuss Venezuela – Caracas has reached out ever more to its few remaining international allies: Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and North Korea.
"Those who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Venezuela's institutions will be given a reciprocal and opportune response, we'll act very firmly," said Maduro, who has the support of the military and the controversial Constitutional Assembly that he created last year to bypass parliament.
Worse to come
The former bus driver says he feels stronger and more legitimate than ever, but many blame him for Venezuela's economic woes that have left much of the population living in poverty with shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela's economy will shrink by five percent next year with inflation – which reached 1.35 million percent in 2018 – hitting a staggering 10 million percent.
"Some think we're facing the worst of it... but there will be much more critical levels to come," warned Asdrubal Oliveros, director at economic analysis group Ecoanalitica.
The country has been hard hit by a dramatic drop in oil production – upon which it is almost entirely dependent – in the last decade from 3.2 million barrels a day to just 1.13 million.
"Venezuela won't change with Maduro as president, we can't find medication, people are hungry," 23-year-old Gleidimir Peña told AFP before emigrating to Peru last week.
He's not alone. The United Nations says 2.3 million people have left the country since 2015 in one of the biggest ever migration movements in the region. It predicts that number will reach 5.3 million by the end of this year.
Maduro's answer has been to plead with his allies to invest in the country's crude, gold, diamond and coltan resources. He also insists that production will increase by one million barrels a day in 2019.
'Weak and disorganised'
But while the opposition has tried every means to dislodge Maduro, it remains fractured and protests left 200 people dead while a request for a referendum was rejected. The president, meanwhile, retains control of both the military and political institutions.
Many prominent opposition figures are either in jail or exile and various factions within continue to squabble over power while the National Assembly, the one institution it controls, has been left impotent.
It hasn't given up, though, and on Saturday declared itself the only legitimate institution. The National Assembly announced it would instill a "transitional government" ahead of new elections, although didn't divulge how it would hold those.
"Nothing will come out of parliament that could have the faintest impact on the policies, practices or members of government [because] they have neither power nor authority," said Peter Hakim, from the Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based think tank.
"No authoritarian and repressive government falls just because its opponents – weak and disorganised – demand it."
What's more, Maduro's supporters are organised, and armed. On Monday, a group of armed balaclava-clad loyalists vowed to defend the socialist leader with blood and fire.