In a televised speech in which he introduced a government programme to promote fertility, Nicolas Maduro he said people should have as many children as possible.
“God bless you for giving the country six little boys and girls,” he said.
“To give birth, then, to give birth, all women to have six children, all. Let the homeland grow.”
Mr Maduro assumed power following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013.
But since then, Venezuelans have watched as what was one of the strongest economies in Latin America sink into ruin amid a combination of corruption, falling oil prices, economic mismanagement and political violence.
Supporters of the president say his efforts have been undermined by the likes of the US, which has imposed stringent sanctions and recognised as the legitimate president Juan Guaidó. Critics of Mr Maduro say he has resorted to increasingly authoritarian tactics to hang on to power.
UN officials say as many as 4.5m people have fled since 2015. Many have gone to Europe, but the majority have entered nations such as Columbia and Brazil. Many have tried to enter the US.
Mr Maduro’s drew criticism from human rights activists and others who noted Venezuelans already were struggling to provide food, clothes and health care for their families.
“It is irresponsible, on the part of a president of the republic, to encourage women to have six children simply to make a homeland, when there is a homeland that does not guarantee children their lives,” said Oscar Misle, founder of CECODAP, a group that defends the rights of young people.
The UN World Food Programme recently said that 9.3m people – nearly one-third of Venezuela’s population – were unable to meet their basic dietary needs.
“You have to be very cynical to ask that we have six children,” said Magdalena de Machado, a housewife picking through scraggly vegetables at a street market in Caracas.
“Only two days a week we can serve some meat and chicken. For years we were late having children. We had them when we thought we were better off, but in the last year we’ve been buying less and less food.”
A report by Humans Rights Watch in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded last year the health system in Venezuela had “totally collapsed”.
Among other problems, it cited rising levels of maternal and child mortality as well as the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Washington has previously said it is seeking regime change in Venezuela and in 2017, Mike Pompeo, then head of he CIA, suggested the agency was working with nations such as Columbia to oversee such an operation.
He said in a Q&A session at a security forum organised by the Aspen Institute think tank: “I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press
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