Venezuelan authorities are still on the hunt for a man who launched a stunning aerial assault on the Caracas Supreme Court building Tuesday evening ― the latest major escalation in a crisis-torn nation that has suffered months of violent, spiraling political chaos.
Gunshots were fired and grenades were dropped from a stolen helicopter ― believed to have been piloted by investigative police officer and movie actor Oscar Perez ― before it disappeared. No one was injured.
Social media posts show the chopper circling the building while displaying an anti-government poster. A video posted online before the attack shows a man who purports to be Perez condemning Venezuela’s “criminal government” and describing his fight against “tyranny” on behalf of a coalition of military, law enforcement and civilian officials.
“On this day, we are carrying out a deployment by air and land with the sole purpose to return the democratic power to the people and to ensure the laws to establish constitutional order,” the man in the video said.
Socialist President Nicolás Maduro swiftly denounced the incident as a thwarted “terrorist attack” that was intended to topple his regime. The embattled leader, who frequently accuses the U.S. of leading a plot to oust him from power, also suggested the CIA aided Perez. Maduro responded to Tuesday’s events by deploying armed forces “to defend tranquillity.”
But curious circumstances, like the pilot’s clean getaway, have stirred suspicion that the attack was a set-up by the Maduro regime orchestrated to justify its continued crackdown on dissent.
Maduro, whose approval rating has hovered around 20 percent, was narrowly elected in 2013 after the death of President Hugo Chávez. He is fiercely devoted to continuing his predecessor’s legacy and policies, even amid a socioeconomic crisis that has brought extreme shortages of food and basic goods.
The president’s critics accuse him of deep-seated corruption and blame him for Venezuela’s devastating recession and hyperinflation. They are demanding an election to replace him before his term ends in 2019.
But Maduro has managed to cling to power, warning opponents in March, “You won’t get rid of me.” His government canceled a recall referendum that could have removed him from office last year.
In January, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared that Maduro had abandoned his post as president by failing to carry out his duties and by allowing the economic crisis to deteriorate. The Supreme Court, which has consistently backed Maduro, ruled that the parliament does not have the authority to declare abandonment.
Tensions in Venezuela flared again in late March after the Supreme Court accused the National Assembly of contempt and announced it would assume legislative powers from the body. The court rescinded its decision days later, after the opposition denounced the move as a coup and clashes erupted across the country.
Three consecutive months of explosive anti-government protests have resulted in scores of deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of arrests. Humanitarian organizations have decried the country’s use of military courts to prosecute civilians and have accused Venezuelan security forces of killing demonstrators.
Even though the motives and culprits behind Tuesday’s attack remain unconfirmed, the incident will enable the government to intensify its oppressive clampdown on Venezuelans as they take to the streets to protest Maduro’s widely contested bid to rewrite the constitution.
The president boldly suggested such reforms will “restore peace” in the divided country. But critics accuse him of using the move to distract from the unrest and secure his re-election. Voting to elect a constituent assembly, which will be poised to rewrite the constitution and override the authority of several other Venezuelan institutions, is set for July 30.
Maduro’s controversial plans for the constituent assembly prompted the head of Venezuela’s National Defense Council, Alexis López Ramírez, to resign earlier this month due to his “disagreement with the way of proceeding to summon a national constituent assembly” without allowing Venezuelans the right to vote on the reforms in a referendum.
The government is trying “to use this as a tool in order to produce more violence and more repression in Venezuela,” National Assembly President Julio Borges told CNN of the constitutional reform efforts on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s helicopter assault on the Supreme Court and the government’s retaliatory response have only exacerbated the crisis, Borges warned.
“Every day we have a real crisis in Venezuela. We are living in anarchy.”