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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

'Assassination attempt' exposes vulnerability of Venezuela's Maduro

Six held hours after drone carrying explosives detonated near Venezuelan president

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaking in Caracas, Venezuela, 04 August 2018. Miraflores Press Office
President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaking in Caracas, Venezuela, 04 August 2018. Miraflores Press Office

Just three hours after a drone carrying explosives detonated over Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during a parade on Saturday, the first suspects were already in questioning. By Sunday evening, six had been whisked away.

All of which has led President Maduro’s critics to fret publicly that his authoritarian regime is just using the incident as a convenient excuse to further repress the long-suffering people of Venezuela. And they may be right.

But the episode also serves to underscore just how tenuous President Maduro’s grip on power is as the country sinks ever deeper into economic disarray. A largely unheard of group named Soldados de Franela (“T-Shirt Soldiers” for the shirts they use to cover their faces) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group’s emergence adds to the pressure Mr Maduro is already facing from within his armed forces. As recently as May, scores of highly-decorated servicemen and women unsuccessfully conspired to launch a palace coup and put the socialist president on trial for trampling over the constitution and destroying the oil-based economy. What’s more, President Maduro faces growing pressure from neighbouring countries trying to deal with the thousands of Venezuelans pouring over the borders to escape hyperinflation and hunger.

‘Terrible Optics’

President Maduro, 55, has maintained that he has complete loyalty of his party and the armed forces. But the images of personal guards and soldiers scattering on state television raised doubts for many Venezuelans. Saturday’s attack could lead others to take similar actions, says David Smilde, a sociologist at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Authoritarian leaders like Maduro need to make people think they are invulnerable,” said Mr Smilde. “But the optics were terrible. I think it could definitely spark other people’s imaginations.”

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Throughout Sunday, authorities took to the airwaves to inform of raids taking place across Caracas. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said that six people had been arrested and more detentions were expected in the coming hours. Life in the capital though was largely back to normal, with traffic flowing freely as pedestrians calmly carried grocery bags and performed their morning exercises.

The attack was broadcast live on state television on Saturday as President Maduro spoke, flanked by his wife and defence minister. An explosion was heard and the president was led offstage. Military personnel broke ranks and ran. Then, the broadcast abruptly ended. Photographs from the scene showed at least one soldier with blood pouring down his face.

Love Shield

“They tried to assassinate me,” President Maduro said in a speech later the same day. He said a flying object exploded in front him, and seconds later he felt another blast to his right. “That drone was coming for me but there was a shield of love,” Mr Maduro said.

Witnesses described a “missile-like” detonation. One resident, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, told Bloomberg News that a floating device exploded in the Santa Rosalia neighbourhood where the president was speaking, setting a residential building ablaze and injuring several civilians.

Mr Maduro immediately accused the political opposition of participating in the attack. He said the culprits were aided by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and international financiers based in Florida.

The Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (C) offers statements in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, 05 August 208. EPA
The Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez (C) offers statements in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, 05 August 208. EPA

The Colombian Foreign Relations Ministry rejected that suggestion as “absurd” in a statement late on Saturday night. “We’re used to the Venezuelan leader constantly accusing Colombia for any sort of situation,” the ministry said. Ivan Duque, a close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe who frequently clashed with President Maduro’s mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez, will take office on Tuesday.

‘Excellent Distraction’

Regardless of the authenticity of Saturday’s attack, Rocio San Miguel, president of watchdog group Control Ciudadano, said the incident was likely to be a precursor to a crackdown of dissidents both inside and outside the military.

“This is going to be sold however the government wants to spin it,” said Mr San Miguel. “It’s an excellent distraction to the grave political and social crisis that Venezuelans are living through.”

US President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident, the White House said. On Sunday, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said on Fox News that “unequivocally, there is no US government involvement in this at all”.

President Maduro, who was re-elected in May in a highly questioned election to serve a second six-year term, has led the formerly wealthy petrostate into a limbo of corruption and sanctions. The increasingly isolated Opec member is running low on foreign currency as crude output sinks, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing to neighbouring countries to escape hardship. The political opposition has been jailed or intimidated into silence.

Previous Plots

Investors have largely given up hope of getting paid any time soon on Venezuela’s billions of dollars in defaulted bonds, and multinational companies have either pulled out during the past decade, been nationalised or reduced their operations to a minimum amid inflation expected to hit 1 million per cent this year.

The currency is so worthless that Mr Maduro will cut off five zeros on August 20 in order to simplify daily transactions, some of which have too many numbers for cash registers, banking card machines and calculators.

Last year, Mr Maduro survived months of furious and deadly protests but opposition parties have been unable to topple him in the streets or at the ballot box. His power is increasingly dependent on the armed forces, which have been taking an ever-more-prominent role in the nation’s economy and institutions.

Rumours of plots against the leader are constant, and the government often says it has uncovered threats. In January, a renegade police officer, Oscar Perez, who took up arms against the socialist government and hijacked a helicopter, was killed in a raid by security forces.

Soldados de Franela, which claimed responsibility on social media for the weekend attack, said the group had demonstrated the president's vulnerability, and that success was a matter of time. The authenticity of the claim couldn’t be verified, and the group had been previously unknown.

According to its website, the group was formed in 2014, when Venezuela was engulfed in another wave of anti-government demonstrations.

The website is filled with recent news highlighting the leftist government’s alleged abuses and economic follies as well as tributes to Mr Perez, the special forces policeman who called on Venezuelans to rise up against the Maduro government.

The latest incident is unlikely to faze common citizens, many of whom doubt the government’s credibility and mostly busy themselves in the daily struggle to make ends meet, said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

“The only thing that Saturday made clear is the government’s own problems in security,” Mr Romero said. “It’s laughable.”

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