CARACAS  -Venezuela’s defense minister on Monday declared the army’s loyalty to President Nicolas Maduro, who ordered troops into the streets ahead of a major protest by opponents trying to oust him.

Venezuela is bracing for what Maduro’s opponents vow will be the “mother of all protests” Wednesday, after two weeks of violent demos against moves by the leftist leader and his allies to tighten their grip on power.

The center-right opposition has called on the military - a pillar of Maduro’s power - to turn on the president amid an economic and political crisis that has triggered severe food shortages, riots and looting.

But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the army “confirms its unconditional loyalty to the president.”

He made the comment before thousands of pro-Maduro militia members at a rally outside the presidential palace, where the president thanked the army and the civilian militia for their support.

“Loyalty is repaid with loyalty,” the president said.

The rally came hours after Maduro ordered the military into the streets to defend the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

“From the first reveille (on Monday morning), from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets... saying, ‘Long live the Bolivarian revolution,’” he said Sunday night in a televised address.

He denounced his opponents as “traitors” and praised the military’s “unity and revolutionary commitment.”

Despite his announcement, there was no sign of soldiers on patrol Monday morning in Caracas, though state TV showed images of army units marching in formation in the streets of the capital as the defense minister watched.

Venezuela has been rocked by unrest since March 30, when Maduro’s camp moved to consolidate its control with a Supreme Court decision quashing the power of the opposition-majority legislature.

The court partly backtracked after an international outcry, but tension only rose further when authorities slapped a political ban on opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Five people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the ensuing protests as riot police clashed with demonstrators.

Maduro’s opponents have called for a massive protest Wednesday, a national holiday that marks the start of Venezuela’s independence struggle in 1810.

The president’s supporters have called a counter-demonstration the same day.

It is a touchy date in Venezuela, where Chavez and Maduro have built a politics of populist, left-wing nationalism around the fight for independence from colonial Spain and around the hero of the struggle, Simon Bolivar.

Maduro is fighting efforts to force him from power as Venezuela flounders through a crippling three-year recession and the world’s highest inflation rate.

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, but the fall in global crude prices since 2014 has laid bare its overwhelming dependence on its chief export.

Lacking the oil dollars it once used to import nearly everything else, the country has been hit by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods like deodorant and toilet paper.