Venezuela may be sliding into a civil war – Washington Post

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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.”

A still image taken from video shows a police helicopter over Venezuela’s Supreme Court building in Caracas on June 27. (Caraota Digital via Reuters)

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.

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