In an incident that is oddly reminiscent to the "failed coup" in Turkey from last June, late on Tuesday a rogue Venezuelan police helicopter strafed the Supreme Court and the interior ministry on Tuesday, in what President Nicolas Maduro called an attack by "terrorists seeking a coup" and which major news agencies said was an escalation of the OPEC nation's political crisis, although to some local Venezuelans this was a staged attempt to justify ongoing repression at Venezuela's National Assembly.
According to Reuters, the helicopter fired 15 shots at the Interior Ministry, where dozens of people were gathered at a social event, after dropping four grenades on the Supreme court during a meeting of judges, although there were no reports of injuries. Opponents to Maduro view the symbolic Interior Ministry as a bastion of repression and also hate the Supreme Court for its string of rulings bolstering the president's power and undermining the opposition-controlled legislature.
President Nicolas Maduro, speaking on state television after the incident, said people flying a helicopter conducted an “armed terrorist attack against the country’s institutions” and added that "this is the kind of armed escalation I have been denouncing.”
Maduro said one of the helicopter pilots served as pilot for former Interior Minister Migue Rodriguez Torres, a critic of Maduro, and said that an air defense plan was immediately activated while calling on the pPblic Prosecutor’s office to take action against “terrorist attack.”
"Sooner rather than later, we are going to capture the helicopter and those behind this armed terrorist attack against the institutions of the country," Maduro said. "They could have caused dozens of deaths."
After Maduro's speech, Venezuela's government confirmed the helicopter was stolen by "investigative police pilot" Oscar Perez, who declared himself in rebellion against Maduro. Images posted on social and local media show Perez waving a banner from the helicopter reading "Liberty", and the number "350" in large letters. The number refers to the constitutional article allowing people the right to oppose an undemocratic government.
A video posted on Perez' Instagram account around the same time showed him standing in front of several hooded armed men, saying an operation was underway to restore democracy.
Perez said in the video he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian officials opposed to the "criminal" government, urged Maduro's resignation and called for general elections. "This fight is ... against the vile government. Against tyranny," he said. Local media also linked Perez to a 2015 action film, Suspended Death, which he co-produced and starred in as an intelligence agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.
Additionally, on Tuesday, witnesses reported hearing several detonations in downtown Caracas, where the pro-Maduro Supreme Court, the presidential palace and other key government buildings are located. Roughly at the same time, Venezuela National Guard shut down major roads concerned about potential coup, with various small clashes reported breaking out.
The alleged "terrorist coup" caps a volatile period of three months of often violent protests from opposition leaders who decry the 54-year-old socialist leader as a dictator who has wrecked a once-prosperous economy. More troubling for Maduro, in recent weeks there has also been growing dissent too from within government and the security forces, which have traditionally been aligned with the regime. At least 75 people have died, and hundreds more been injured and arrested, in the anti-government unrest since April according to Reuters.
While demonstrators have been demanding general elections, as well as measures to alleviate a brutal economic crisis, freedom for hundreds of jailed opposition activists, and independence for the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature, Maduro has responded that the locals are seeking a coup against him with the encouragement of a U.S. government eager to gain control of Venezuela's oil reserves, the largest in the world.
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And yet this is where the comparisons emerge with the "failed Turkish coup" to "remove" Erdogan last summer, which most admit was a staged attempt meant to further entrench the despotic president.
While Venezuela opposition leaders have long been calling on Venezuela's security forces to stop obeying Maduro, following yesyerday's event, there was speculation among opposition supporters on social media that the attack could have been staged to justify repression or cover up drama at Venezuela's National Assembly, where two dozen lawmakers said they were being besieged by pro-government gangs.
Earlier in the day, Bloomberg reported that pro-government “violent groups” shot fireworks into the National Assembly gardens under the watch of security forces, opposition lawmaker Henry Ramos Allup wrote on Twitter.
Allup wrote that National Guard officers had stored boxes belonging to the electoral council in their National Assembly offices.Opposition lawmaker Delsa Solorzano wrote on Twitter that National Guard officers assaulted lawmakers at National Assembly, while opposition lawmaker Amelia Belisario said lawmakers were assaulted for “demanding responses regarding electoral material” National Guard brought into National Assembly.
As Reuters adds, earlier on Tuesday, Maduro warned that he and supporters would take up arms if his socialist government was violently overthrown by opponents. "If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what couldn't be done with votes, we would do with arms, we would liberate the fatherland with arms," he said.
"If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat. We would never give up, and what couldn't be done with votes, we would do with arms, we would liberate the fatherland with arms," he said. And what better way - at least in his eyes - to generate some empathy ahead of the "great war" with the domestic and international community, than to be cast as the tragic victim of a "terrorist coup" attempt.
Additionally, Maduro is pushing a July 30 vote for a special super-body called a Constituent Assembly, which could rewrite the national charter and supersede other institutions such as the opposition-controlled congress. He has touted the assembly as the only way to bring peace to Venezuela. But opponents, who want to bring forward the next presidential election scheduled for late 2018, say it is a sham poll designed purely to keep the socialists in power. They have announced a boycott of the coming vote, and protesting daily on the streets to try and have it stopped.
Finally, for good measure, Maduro decided to threaten the US, which he has repeatedly accused of being behind the social turmoil and said the "destruction" of Venezuela would lead to a huge refugee wave dwarfing the Mediterranean migrant crisis.
"Listen, President Donald Trump," he said earlier on Tuesday. "You would have to build 20 walls in the sea, a wall from Mississippi to Florida, from Florida to New York, it would be crazy ... You have the responsibility: stop the madness of the violent Venezuelan right wing."
Opposition to the July 30 vote has come not just from Venezuelan opposition parties but also from the chief state prosecutor Luisa Ortega and one-time government heavyweights such as former intelligence service boss Miguel Rodriguez. As Reuters notes, Rodriguez criticized Maduro for not holding a referendum before the Constituent Assembly election, as his predecessor Chavez had done in 1999.
"This is a country without government, this is chaos," he told a news conference on Tuesday. "The people are left out ... They (the government) are seeking solutions outside the constitution."
While many are skeptical, if today's "coup" attempt was legitimate, and if opposition to Maduro is indeed at a tipping point among the security forces and military, then not only are Maduro's days numbered, but in the political and power vacuum that will result following the change in regime, the last thing Venezuela will be able to focus on is maintaining oil production (even if China were to paradrop a group of engineers to its oil vendor state). In which case, crude oil may once again become a barometer of geopolitical tensions; as such keep an eye on the price of oil for the best indication of how close Maduro is to vacating the Caracas presidential palace for the last time.