The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why one man’s bizarre attack on the government is reverberating in Caracas

Jean Carlos Stanford, center, security director of the Supreme Court of Justice, explains the damage caused by the June 27 attack on the court in Caracas, Venezuela, on June 29. (Cristian Hernandez/European Pressphoto Agency)

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and consults on Latin American geopolitics.

Venezuelans have long since become accustomed to the unexpected, but what happened in downtown Caracas on the evening of June 27 still left everyone aghast. Shortly before sunset, a helicopter reportedly stolen from the national police force descended onto a cluster of government buildings. The pilot, identified in news reports as a disgruntled police investigator and action-movie actor named Oscar Pérez, managed to fire 15 shots into the Interior Ministry and drop four grenades on the Supreme Court. The pilot made sure that the message he was trying to send came through loud and clear: The copter was festooned with a banner reading “Liberty 350,” for the constitutional article empowering Venezuelans to rebel against tyranny.

Thankfully, there were no reported injuries and structural damage was minimal. Incredibly, Pérez himself remains at large – even though Venezuela’s armed forces boast the second-largest collection of attack helicopters in the Western Hemisphere and its fourth-largest assortment of military aircraft. He simply flew off, unopposed, into the tropical sunset.

For months now, Venezuela has been gripped by a wave of protest, including both opposition-orchestrated demonstrations and spontaneous acts of violent rioting. The economy has ground to a virtual halt amid rampant shortages of food, medicine and necessities. Yet with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro continuing to demonize the opposition, which won a majority of seats in parliament in the country’s last election, there seems to be no clear way out. Rather than sharing control, he is attempting instead to sideline non-presidential institutions by pushing through a new constitution. Doing so has proved to be highly unpopular, however, even among his supporters, and the regime itself is showing signs of internal division.

Amid this chaos, the pilot’s bizarre terrorist attack (or “attempted coup,” as some regime media is calling it) has come as a godsend for the embattled president. Maduro is already using it to hammer away at his expanding circle of critics. Chief among these is Venezuela’s attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who broke openly with the government a few weeks ago and has since become one of its fiercest critics. Until this week, Maduro had shown uncharacteristic caution in dealing with his renegade chief prosecutor, given his government’s long-standing policy of identifying and breaking with waverers before they could publicly defect.

After all, the danger posed by the attorney general is limited in a country where the courts themselves have never dared to rule against the president. Yet Díaz is a formidable foe, one who now boasts an international profile. Firing or arresting her could make a mockery of the regime’s (increasingly hollow) claim to honor the “separation of powers.” (The fact that her husband, Congressman Germán Ferrer, was a key regime figure during the highly secretive period of the final illness of former president Hugo Chávez and Maduro’s succession may have also helped to protect her.)

All that has now changed. After months of slow escalation, just hours after the helicopter episode, the Supreme Court transferred the attorney general’s investigative powers to the human rights ombudsman, a strong Maduro loyalist. It has since pronounced two judicial sentences aimed at opening the door to her removal (albeit with no constitutional justification.) The authorities have formally banned her from leaving the country and frozen her bank accounts. She will almost certainly be stripped of her office within weeks, if not days.

Miguel Rodríguez Torres, Venezuela’s highest-ranking former general and a harsh critic of Maduro with open presidential ambitions of his own, has also been indicted. The government has meticulously mapped out an alleged chain of sedition connecting him both to Pérez and to U.S. intelligence. Such conspiracies have been a constant feature of Maduro’s troubled presidential tenure. The government claims to have foiled countless coup attempts, invariably followed by swift crackdowns upon various opponents.

Yet these alleged overthrow attempts have always taken place out of sight of public view, and the government has struggled to offer credible evidence of their existence. Tuesday’s attack, by contrast, was caught on video in real time, and the pilot made sure to spread videos justifying his actions far and wide on social media. To be sure, since the current wave of unrest began in April, there have been many attacks upon government buildings. But there is a limit to how many times Maduro can invoke enraged urban mobs setting state property ablaze before even his own supporters start to wonder whether the president’s own policies may bear some of the blame.

The fortuitous timing of the attack — not to mention the fact that the alleged perpetrator is an actor — has convinced many Venezuelans that the whole thing must have been a ruse engineered by the government. As crackdown justifications go, a disgruntled thespian tossing grenades from a pilfered chopper may seem a bit cartoonish compared with the dark imagery of the 1933 Reichstag fire or the drama of the recently foiled coup in Turkey. But standards have fallen pretty far in Maduro’s Venezuela. In a country of shortages, even a strongman has to take what he can get.