After almost three months of daily anti-government demonstrations, what Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro needed most was an excuse to impose martial law, or at least to use major violence and mass arrests to close the protests down.
World View with Gwynne Dyer
On June 27, Maduro got his excuse. A stolen police helicopter flew over the Supreme Court building in Caracas – and dropped a couple of hand grenades near it.
As “terrorist” incidents go, it was so incompetent and downright silly that you begin to suspect that it wasn’t a “false flag” operation sponsored by the government after all. If Maduro’s people were aiming to give themselves an excuse for a crackdown, surely they would have come up with something more impressive than a guy in a helicopter dropping a couple of hand-grenades at random onto the Supreme Court lawn.
The man behind this attack was Oscar Perez, a police officer who announced in a video posted on Instagram that he was launching an armed struggle against tyranny.
“We are a coalition of military employees, policemen and civilians who are looking for balance and are against this criminal government,” Pérez said, and the four armed men standing behind him in the video tried to look fierce. The ski-masks helped a bit, but it was hard not to giggle. They really didn’t look very dangerous.
But you have to work with the material at hand, and Maduro did his best to inflate the incident into a major terrorist attack.
“I have activated the entire armed forces to defend the peace,” he said. “Sooner or later, we are going to capture that helicopter and those who carried out this terror attack.” (And while we are at it, we will round up a lot of other people who support the opposition.)
Maduro can no longer stay in power by democratic means. There is no doubt that he won the presidency by a narrow but genuine majority (1,5%) in the 2013 election that followed the death of Hugo Chavez, the hero-founder of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But there is also no doubt that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election of 2015.
What made the difference between those two elections was the price of oil. In 2013, it was around US$100 per barrel. By 2015 it was in the low US$40s and it is still there today.
Venezuela is not a rich country, although most Venezuelans believe it is. It has a lot of oil, but it produces almost nothing else and imports practically everything it consumes. So it is rich when oil is at US$100 – but it is very poor when it is below US$50. The country is therefore now broke.
For reasons having nothing to do with alleged plots by the United States or the wicked local elites, per capita income in Venezuela has fallen by more than half in the past two years. So people are angry, including many of the poor people who benefitted from Chavez’s generosity with the oil revenues back in the Good Old Days. There is a presidential election due next year, and as things stand now, Maduro would probably lose by two-to-one.
The National Assembly has had a two-thirds majority of opposition members since the 2015 election and it has been pressing hard to bring the presidential election forward to this year. Maduro had to stop that and his first step was to have the Supreme Court, which is packed with Chavez and Maduro appointees, strip the National Assembly of all its powers and take them for itself.
This is what triggered the daily anti-government demonstrations that began in early April. The Supreme Court’s action was clearly unconstitutional and after three days that also saw protests from members of his own party, Maduro ordered the judges to backtrack on their decree. But the protesters, with the bit between their teeth, stayed out in the street. Despite 70 dead in the past three months, they are still there today.
So Maduro, desperate to sideline the National Assembly, then came up with the idea of rewriting the constitution.
There was no referendum to test popular support for this idea and the people in the “constituent assembly” are being chosen according to rules set by the Maduro government.
The new constitution will presumably prevent any further unfortunate accidents like the opposition parliamentary victory in 2015 — and by a happy coincidence (for Maduro), it also provides an excuse for not holding the scheduled presidential election in 2018. After all, new rules are coming. Why do it under the old rules?
Nobody is fooled by all this flim-flam and it is no surprise that Perez, whether he is a deluded revolutionary or a secret government stooge flying false colours, chose to drop his little hand-grenades on the Supreme Court. It has become a symbol of the illicit manipulation by which Maduro clings to power and therefore a natural target for those who oppose the government (or pretend to).
In either case, Maduro has his pretext, and will now clamp down harder and try to terrify the opposition into submission. It is probably going to get much nastier yet in Venezuela.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.