CARACAS (Reuters) - The United States "dreams of dividing" a "Chavista" military fiercely loyal to Venezuela's socialist government, president Nicolas Maduro said on Saturday, as the military comes under scrutiny in the crisis-gripped OPEC nation.
Maduro and the opposition are at loggerheads over a referendum to recall him. Authorities say the vote will not happen this year, while the opposition says an unpopular Maduro must be removed to keep a brutal recession from worsening.
Some opposition supporters hope factions of Venezuela's opaque but powerful military will nudge the former bus driver and union leader to allow the vote.
But to the tune of "Fatherland, Socialism, or Death," the armed forces so far praise late leader Hugo Chavez and his self-described son "Maduro," who lacks his predecessor's army background.
During military exercises to prepare Venezuela against what authorities say are threats of foreign invasion, Maduro reiterated he has the military's backing.
"These armed forces are wholly 'Chavista'" he said, flanked by top commanders as state television showed images of rifle-totting soldiers and civilians trekking through the lush jungle or guarding oil service stations.
"From the empire, they dream of dividing our armed forces... fragmenting them, weakening them," he said of the U.S. government, his ideological foe.
The opposition has called the military's top brass the corrupt, repressive wing of an illegitimate government, so commanders are at risk if the Socialist Party leaves power.
Lower-ranking soldiers, however, are suffering rampant food shortages and dizzying inflation as the rest of Venezuela's roughly 30 million people.
The opposition scoffed at the military maneuvers and the claim Washington wants to foment unrest.
"There is no war here," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles. "In Venezuela we should be declaring war against hunger, against medicine shortages, against violence, against this crisis."
As Venezuela's political confrontation grows, fellow Latin American countries, the United States, and the United Nations have called for dialogue. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on Friday offered to mediate, though a breakthrough appears elusive.
Venezuela's opposition has warned the country is a "time bomb" and said nixing a referendum makes it more likely that angry citizens will take to the streets. Many poor Venezuelans are skipping meals or getting by on yucca and plantains.
More protests are planned to push for the referendum, Capriles added on Saturday.
"What are you scared of?" he said of the government. "We're going to ask the people and let them decide."
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by David Gregorio