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Venezuela's Maduro Arms Supporters In Preparation for 'Mother of All Protests'

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced plans to arm supporters in preparation for the "mother of all protests" which Venezuela's opposition party planned for Wednesday.

"A gun for every militiaman!" Maduro declared Tuesday, addressing thousands of militia members dressed in beige uniforms in front of the presidential palace, Fox News reported. The president said he will expand the number of civilians in the armed militias, providing guns to as many as 400,000 of his supporters.

This arming of Maduro's supporters comes five years after Venezuela's socialist regime outlawed the commercial sale and civilian ownership of firearms, according to the BBC. The 2012 firearms ban allowed only the military, police, and groups like security companies to purchase guns. Venezuela doubled down on this ban last summer, launching gun buyback and confiscation programs.

The government justified the gun bans and confiscations by arguing they were necessary to combat the country's violent crime and murder epidemic. But statistics from the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory show the murder rate increased from 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 to 91.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. By contrast, the FBI reports the U.S. murder rate at 5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.

Opposition leaders called protesters to the streets on Wednesday, a national holiday marking the beginning of the struggle for Venezuela to gain independence from Spain. Maduro called for a countermarch on the same day.

The opposition has accused Maduro of creating a dictatorship. The government has blocked their attempts to remove Maduro from power by a referendum vote, and it has also delayed local and state elections. The last election held in the country was the parliamentary election of 2015. That election gave the opposition a majority the legislative body. Opposition leaders accuse the government of delaying elections to protect Maduro.

On March 29, the  Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved the Parliament, taking all legislative power on itself. This effectively removed the only block on the ruling United Socialist Party. The opposition characterized this as a coup. Although the decision was reversed three days later, protests had already erupted.

According to CNN, the protests have been bloody. Six people have died, and countless others, including journalists, have been injured. The opposition was further enflamed, however, when on April 7, the government banned the main opposition leader Henrique Capriles from doing any political work for 15 years. A 44-year-old governor, Capriles has run for president twice.

Maduro has taken a confrontational tone against the protests, declaring members of the opposition "vandals and terrorists."