Venezuela: Hand grenades from a he­li­copter

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Gwynne Dyer

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.

Last week, 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.

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 Pres­i­dent 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. 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 per­cent) 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 $100 per bar­rel. By 2015 it was in the low $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 $100 — but it is very poor when it is be­low $50. The coun­try is there­fore now broke.

For rea­sons hav­ing noth­ing to do with al­leged plots by the U.S. 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.

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.

No­body is fooled by all this flim-flam, and it is no sur­prise that Os­car 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.

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.

Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

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