Venezuela ‘air attack’ sows confusion
Critics claim helicopter raid was Maduro stunt as violent unrest continues
It seemed like a scene from an action movie: the tale of a stolen aircraft, a rogue intelligence agent and a daring attack on the symbols of state power in a beleaguered tropical nation.
Late last Tuesday, a helicopter flew low over Venezuela’s supreme court and interior ministry, where the pilot fired several shots and dropped several grenades. Within minutes, social media exploded with video and photos of the pilot, who identified himself as Oscar Pérez, a special operations officer with the national police. In one clip, Pérez held a flag that read “Freedom. Article 350” – a reference to the section of Venezuela’s constitution that allows for civil disobedience against an illegitimate regime.
“We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government,” said Pérez, standing before four figures dressed in fatigues, wearing ski masks and carrying assault rifles.
President Nicolás Maduro described the episode as a terrorist attack to force him from power. “It could have caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured,” he said.
But the next day speculation grew that the incident may have been staged by a government eager to divert attention from three months of protests, fuelled by anger at the chronic lack of basic foods and medicines. Julio Borges, president of the oppositionled national assembly, said that he and other opponents of Maduro were still analysing the events. “It seems like a movie,” he said. “Some people say it is a set-up, some that it is real … but I summarise it like this: a government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity.”
It soon emerged that Pérez had an active Instagram account with images of him in fatigues with a German shepherd dog, horse riding and scuba diving while clutching a rifle. The account has since been deleted. He also has a CV which included a starring role in a 2015 action movie called Suspended Death in which he played an investigator rescuing a kidnap victim.
In an interview with a local TV station to promote the movie, Pérez said: “I am a helicopter pilot, a combat diver and a free parachutist. I am also a father, a companion and an actor ... I am a man who goes out without knowing if he will return home because death is part of evolution.”
According to the minister of information, Ernesto Villegas, who spoke shortly after the attack, Pérez launched four Israeli-made grenades of “Colombian origin”, one of which did not explode. No one was hurt and the next morning there were no visible signs of damage outside either building. Villegas also said security forces had been deployed to arrest Pérez, whose helicopter was found abandoned in a remote region on the Caribbean coast last Wednesday. “We ask for maximum support to find this fanatic, extremist terrorist,” said vicepresident Tareck El Aissami.
But sceptics questioned how an aircraft was allowed to circle above such sensitive government buildings in a city where even drones are illegal. “If the incident of the helicopter is a hoax, it means the regime is desperate, and if it was a coup attempt and no one defended it, then it’s even worse,” said one Twitter user.
And as the plot unfolded on Venezuelan television, opponents of the government were quick to point out that several other important stories were taking place off-screen.
Last Tuesday the supreme court approved two rulings stripping powers from attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz and transferred them to the ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, who is largely seen as a Maduro loyalist. Meanwhile a group of opposition legislators said they were being held against their will inside the national assembly by armed militiamen loyal to Maduro.
And the attack came hours after one of the worst outbreaks of looting since protests erupted in April. Last Monday night and Tuesday the city of Maracay – home to one of the country’s most important military bases – was hit by unrest in which scores of shops were sacked. More than 70 people have been killed, and thousands injured in the latest violence.
Earlier last Tuesday, Maduro had warned that he and his supporters would take up arms “where ballots failed” to defend the “Bolivarian revolution” of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Defiant … protesters in Caracas