What the helicopter attack tells us about the Venezuela crisis

Downtown Caracas was the scene of what authorities say was an audacious attempt to destabilize the faltering government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro this week.

A stolen police helicopter allegedly piloted by Oscar Perez — an officer in Venezuela’s investigative police force — strafed the Supreme Court building and the Interior Ministry, dropping grenades and firing shots before whirring away after more than an hour.

It was the latest, and perhaps most bizarre chapter in Venezuela’s months-long downward spiral.

Near daily clashes between government forces and protesters have paralyzed the South American country. At least 80 people have died since the beginning of this latest round of civil unrest.

For months Maduro has been saying that protesters are plotting a coup against his government. With his grip on power starting to slip, some have asked if the Hollywood-esque coup attempt was an elaborate ruse by Maduro and his supporters.

Was it staged?

Opposition leader and National Assembly president Julio Borges stoked the speculation in a radio interview.

“There are people who say it’s a hoax,” Borges said. “[There are] people who say it’s for real, people who say it’s angry police who are tired of what’s going on. Whatever it was, it’s really serious.”

The scenes captured around Caracas looked straight out of a James Bond movie. Perez, the special forces pilot, is also an actor and keeps a very active Instagram page. In 2015 he took part in action film, Suspended Death, which he co-produced and starred in as an intelligence agent rescuing a kidnapped businessman.

Before the attack began, a man who identified himself as Perez appeared in a video online saying an operation was underway to seize democracy back from Venezuela’s “criminal government.” Flanked by a group of armed men in military fatigues and balaclavas, Perez claimed to be speaking on behalf of a coalition of military, police officers and civil officials.

While the helicopter hovered over Caracas, about a mile away, at the National Assembly, lawmakers were clashing with Venezuelan National Guardsmen. The scuffles started after the National Guard came into the building carrying electoral boxes ahead of an upcoming vote to elect a body to re-write the constitution.

For more than four hours, the National Guard would not allow the lawmakers to leave. There was confusion and chaos.

Hours later, in a late-night decision, the Supreme Court — the same body that had just been attacked — quietly issued a decision that granted a Maduro ally, Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek Williams Saab, powers to investigate, defend and oversee human rights complaints in the country.

The same complaints would normally be handled by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz. Ortega recently broke ranks with the Maduro government, accusing it of gross human rights violations.

On any given day, any one of these things would be enough to dominate headlines and social chatter, but on Tuesday, all everyone was talking about was the chopper.

How did we get here?

The political turmoil comes against the backdrop of a deepening economic crisis.

Despite having the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Venezuela is fast running out of cash, and its people have struggled for years with food and medical shortages, coupled with skyrocketing prices.

Inflation is in triple digits, unemployment is soaring, and even basic things like toilet paper are hard to come by.

On the political front, the opposition has attempted to remove Maduro by holding a referendum vote, but the government has repeatedly blocked their attempts. It has also delayed all local and state elections.

In short, the opposition say Maduro has created a dictatorship.

And now, there’s a bid by Maduro to rewrite the country’s constitution. This, many say, is a last ditch attempt by Maduro to tighten his grip on power that is quickly eroding.

What does it mean for the rest of the world?

Venezuela is a big player in the stability of South America, and many of the surrounding countries are keeping a close eye on what happens to its neighbor.

While some governments have been quick to denounce the Maduro government, others have defended it — mostly because of their reliance on cheap Venezuelan oil.

Many Venezuelans are already leaving the country, and if the situation deteriorates further, the world could be facing another migration crisis.

Venezuelans are the top asylum seekers in the United States. More than 14,700 Venezuelans sought asylum in the 2016 fiscal year, up 160% compared to 2015, when 5,605 Venezuelans applied for asylum.

Brazil and Colombia have had to deal with a massive influx of migrants into poor rural communities that lack the resources to handle them.

In his latest public speech to promote the constitutional rewrite, Maduro referred directly to US President Trump warning him of an impending migrant crisis.

“Thousands, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans will head to the United States and nothing will be able to stop them” Maduro said.

How are ordinary Venezuelans coping?

Living in Venezuela right now is no walk in the park.

Food shortages have become severe. Venezuelans have endured weeks, in some cases months, without basics such as milk, eggs, flour, and soap.

When there is food on the shelves, prices are so high that few Venezuelans can afford it. Many have taken to eating out of the trash.

Medicine remains in short supply, too. Public hospitals have fallen apart, causing people, including infants, to die because of the scarcity of basic medical care.

What’s Maduro’s position on this?

Maduro, 54, has been defiant, taking a confrontational tone with members of the opposition and protesters, whom he calls “vandals and terrorists.”

Venezuelan ministers accuse the international community and the US of leading an “economic war” towards the country, effectively cutting Caracas out of the international investments circles.

Maduro has denounced there is an international plot to depose him of his power.

The government has blamed old and new foes for the this latest coup attempt. Government officials have linked Perez to the CIA, Colombian weapon supply routes and to a former Interior Minister turned Maduro’s critic.

How might things play out from here?

The next key date for Venezuela is July 30, when the election to select the members who will re-write the constitution will take place.

Maduro says the effort will bring peace and stability to the country.

The opposition is adamant that the election will not take place because of widespread lack of support for the initiative.

It’s a stand-off.

On one side the protesters vow to continue, on the other, the government vows to push on.

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