The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela may be sliding into a civil war

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It was like a scene from a movie. On late Tuesday afternoon, residents in Caracas saw a blue police helicopter circling the capital, carrying a banner that read "Libertad,” or "freedom,” and the number "350" — a reference, my colleagues explained, "to the article in the Venezuelan constitution that allows people to 'disown' their government if it acts in an undemocratic way.”

Government officials said the chopper then dropped a number of grenades on Venezuela's Supreme Court buildings and strafed the Interior Ministry. On Wednesday, authorities were on the hunt for the alleged ringleader of the attack, Oscar Perez, an actor who also served in the country's special forces.

In a country wracked by political turmoil and economic collapse, the helicopter incident — framed as a coup attempt by embattled President Nicolás Maduro and his supporters — happened to be just one explosive episode in yet another a day of chaos. Protests and counter-protests continued in several Venezuelan cities; pro-government supporters stormed the National Assembly, which is dominated by opposition legislators; Maduro made an incendiary televised speech, warning darkly of further violence.

"If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat,” Maduro said to a crowd of supporters, referring to the socialist, populist platform that transformed Venezuela under his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez. "We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons. We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”

Since the onset of the crisis three months ago, at least 76 people have died in clashes between protesters, armed counter-protesters and security forces. The majority of those killed have been civilians. Experts worry that Venezuela could drift into outright civil war without outside diplomatic intervention.

"Maduro and the top officials who surround him appear determined to remain in power at any cost, despite increasing regional isolation and growing signs of division within the government and the military,” my colleague Nick Miroff wrote earlier this month. "A more dramatic rupture within Venezuela's armed forces could be a worst-case scenario if it sparks internecine fighting.”

That's why Perez's helicopter mission seemed so alarming. Maduro and his allies wasted no time describing the incident as right-wing terrorism abetted by outside powers. In a video uploaded to social media, Perez said his group was a nonpartisan military alliance of soldiers and police that sought no conflict with the country's security forces.

"It’s against the impunity imposed by this government,” Perez said in the video, which shows him flanked by masked men with guns. "It’s against tyranny. It’s against the deaths of young people who are fighting for their legitimate rights. It’s against hunger.”

But by Wednesday, many in Venezuela had started to question whether the attack, which fitted so conveniently into the government's narrative, was a false flag. The conspicuousness of Perez's own showbiz career — he starred in an action film called "Death Suspended” — raised eyebrows and confusion.

"Right now, I only see two possibilities: Either the pilot was tricked or it was staged,” Félix Seijas Rodríguez, a political analyst in Caracas, said to my colleagues Rachelle Krygier and Joshua Partlow. "It makes no sense.”

"Some people say it is a setup, some that it is real,” said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature. "Yesterday was full of contradictions ... A thousand things are happening, but I summarize it like this: A government is decaying and rotting, while a nation is fighting for dignity."

Francisco Toro, the editor of the website Caracas Chronicles, summed up the moment: "The 'Chopper Coupster' episode, in all its glorious surrealism, comes just as the regime needed to draw attention away from its latest power grabs: a decision hollowing out the Prosecutor General’s office of most of its powers, and a straight-up assault on parliament. Lots and lots of crazy things happening out there, folks. And guys like Oscar Pérez will only sprinkle on more crazy.”

Meanwhile, the country is spiraling deeper into crisis. Although he is profoundly unpopular, Maduro is clinging on to what levers of state power he still controls. He has called a July 30 election for a new special assembly that could amend the country's constitution — changes that may only add more fuel to the fire. The opposition intends to boycott the vote, and it is likely that the days around the balloting will see even more clashes erupt on the streets.

Under Chávez, Venezuela saw the dramatic uplift of millions of poor people, boosted by new social programs that were funded by the oil-rich state's coffers. But years of corruption, mismanagement and a drop in oil prices have devastated the country, sparking perennial food shortages and a range of dizzying public health crises.

"There has been terrible economic and social destruction,” wrote Enrique Krauze, a historian and commentator on Latin American affairs. "Across 15 years, a trillion dollars' worth of oil income has been squandered and 80 percent of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty. The estimated inflation rate for 2017 is 720 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.”

Maduro's government has desperately sought to secure emergency cash loans on such unfavorable terms that, as Miroff wrote, it resembles "the kind of financing typically available to people with trembling hands trying to negotiate through bulletproof glass.” The country's neighbors are struggling to find a common strategy to help resolve the crisis. And the division between Maduro's camp and his opponents is so entrenched and heated that reconciliation looks to be a distant prospect.

"Marches and countermarches are usually a signal that history is on the move -- that change, of some kind, is coming," wrote historian Greg Grandin. "But Venezuela is in stasis.”

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