The B-movie playing out in Venezuela could have a tragic twist

Fears are growing for the anarchic South American state after a bizarre turn of events

Venezuela is reversing the usual order. History there is playing out first as farce, then as tragedy.

The barely credible latest from the crisis-wracked country is a plot twist barely worthy of a B-movie. On Tuesday a rogue police commander supposedly hijacked a helicopter, proclaimed rebellion, dropped grenades on the supreme court, fired bullets at the interior ministry and disappeared. Nobody was hurt.

Oscar Pérez, the attacker, has even starred in a B-movie, the 2015 action flick Suspended Death. A video posted before the attack on his Instagram account – which also shows scenes of him shooting over his shoulder using a mirror, and scuba-diving with a machine gun – shows him calling for an overthrow of the government.

Nicolás Maduro, the president, called the flight “a terrorist attack” that aimed to destabilise the government. “The person who took that aircraft launched a coup and took up arms,” he said on state television. “This is the kind of escalation I have been warning about.”


But few believe his version of events in a country that proclaims the merits of socialism but where 82 per cent of households live in poverty, according to the 2016 Encovi survey of living conditions.

One source of doubt is that Venezuela’s air force never mobilised, despite its new Russian air-defence system. “It’s inexplicable, given the incredible sums spent on armed systems . . . over the past 12 years,” Rocío San Miguel, a defence specialist, said.

Rather, many suspect the bizarre incident, which comes after three months of anti-government protests that have left almost 80 dead, was a clumsy show to divert attention. Earlier that day, the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the sole state branch not controlled by Mr Maduro’s government, was over-run by National Guards.

The attorney-general, Luisa Ortega, a former government ally turned fierce critic, was also stripped of some of her powers. Ms Ortega accused Mr Maduro of "state terrorism" and said she would not recognise the rulings. On Wednesday her bank account was frozen and she was barred from leaving the country.

Excuse to repress

Whatever actually happened, one thing is clear: Mr Maduro, nearly half of whose cabinet members are generals, now has an excuse to repress more.

The former trade union leader has vowed to take up arms if his regime is removed. “We would never surrender . . . We would liberate our country with arms,” he said again this week.

Mr Maduro now seeks to cement control at a July 30th convention that will rewrite the constitution, probably cancel scheduled elections and over-ride all organs of state, including the democratically elected National Assembly.

The result would be a Cuban-style dictatorship in a country that is a major drug-trafficking route and has the world’s largest energy reserves, all within a short flight to the US.

Given the chance, three-quarters of Venezuelans would vote down a new constitution, polls show. Indeed, anarchy – which includes triple-digit inflation and one of the world's highest homicide rates – is likely to accelerate as July 30th approaches. In Maracay, west of Caracas, 200 people were arrested after violent looting on Monday.

The international community is largely at a loss as to what to do. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is worried. Peru's president warns of a "bloodbath". Even allies, such as Rafael Correa, Ecuador's former leftist president, believe the solution is free elections.

But a recent meeting of the Organisation of American States failed to get the consensus needed to condemn the constitutional rewrite after several Caribbean island states, which have benefited from past Venezuelan oil largesse, voted against the measure.

The best solution may be targeted financial sanctions against officials who have profited from state-sanctioned corruption. As much as $300 billion has been stolen since 2000, former ministers estimate.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's farce-turned-tragedy unfolds. "Violence . . . will increase," warned Raul Gallegos, an analyst at Control Risks and author of Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela. "The security forces will continue to abuse their power, even killing.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017