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reflections

Jun 28, 2017 | 20:23 GMT

4 mins read

What Inspired the Helicopter Attack in Caracas?

Venezuela Supreme Court grenade attack Caracas Nicolas Maduro unrest coup rumors
(FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Summary

The day after an apparently rogue police helicopter flew over government buildings, dropping hand grenades on the Supreme Court, theories abound about what the incident means for Venezuela's future. It is clear that the attack was not part of a coordinated effort, but it could have been intended to spur broader action by the armed forces and by the dissatisfied Venezuelan public. Therefore, it should be judged not by its short-term ineffectiveness, but by its place in the broader crisis.

There are three possible explanations for the events of June 27. First, the attack may have been conducted by the dissident faction of the ruling party to inspire wider reaction by the Venezuelan public and by the armed forces, which are both becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The most prominent members of that faction include former Attorney General Luisa Ortega and former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres. Second, it is plausible that it was conducted by a small group from the national police, which may be associated with the dissident faction of the government. Third, and least likely, is the notion that the incident was a "false flag" attack carried out by the government to justify a broader crackdown.

The dissident faction of the Chavista government has for weeks been pushing to end Maduro's push to rewrite the country's constitution and to oppose his bids to centralize political power. The constitutional rewrite is gaining traction, and drafters are scheduled to be elected by July 30. The looming constitutional assembly process places pressure on Ortega and Rodriguez Torres' faction to take steps to slow it. Rodriguez Torres publicly rejected Maduro's accusation that he was responsible for the attack, however, and Ortega has remained silent on the issue. Cliver Alcala, a dissident retired general, has denied any involvement in the attack, saying instead that it was a ploy by the government. Opposition figures who have welcomed Ortega's defiance of the government have remained silent as well, possibly because they are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on.

The reluctance of any political figures to show solidarity for the pilot who carried out the attack raises the possibility of another explanation: That he was acting alone, without any official support. The pilot, identified as police inspector Oscar Perez, may have been involved with the dissident Chavista faction and acted without its consent, or he simply may have carried out the attack alone in hopes of inspiring the armed forces and the Venezuelan public to rise up. Perez remains at large, and the helicopter he piloted was abandoned in Vargas state.

A third theory circulating on Venezuelan social media is that the government staged the event to justify a broader crackdown on its political opponents. It is tempting to jump to this conclusion because of the limited damage the attack caused. The government's reaction on the night of the attack and in its aftermath, however, suggests that prematurely jumping to such conclusions would be a mistake. On June 27, military forces rushed to the defense of the presidential palace and to the air base in Caracas where the helicopter departed from.

Moreover, the event provided iconic images against the government, including the helicopter crew waving a banner inciting the public to rebel while flying around the capital unopposed by military forces. Such weakness is hardly the image the central government wishes to convey at such a precarious time. In addition, security forces did not immediately carry out heavy raids on Chavista dissidents, weakening the argument that they were looking for justification to do so. With time, as more details emerge, it will become more clear whether this third theory is plausible.

The incident will not immediately break the political stalemate in Venezuela between the government and its opponents.

Regardless, the incident will not immediately break the political stalemate in Venezuela between the government and its opponents. It may, however, cause opposition protesters to intensify demonstrations against what they perceive as a weak government split by internal strife. Protests are key for both the opposition and the dissident Chavistas to advance their goals.

Without frequent and large demonstrations, it would be more difficult for civilian members of the government and the military to pressure the government and the president to resign or to make concessions. After all, the protests serve as visual reminders that the government is deeply unpopular and that it may lose the 2018 election. (The government could cancel that election, but that would only increase protests and the chance of insurrection.) In much the same way, the helicopter incident represented a powerful form of protest that could provoke more police, government officials and military members to abandon support for the government.

Over the next few months, we expect the government to push forward with constitutional reform and for opposition and dissident ruling party members to continue pressuring the Maduro government. As they do, the government could arrest more dissidents, though it has been reluctant to directly target Ortega and Rodriguez Torres. For the short-term, the two factions of Venezuela's government will continue their unsteady coexistence. But that state of affairs cannot last.

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