Venezuela rallies Maduro supporters after thwarted attack
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Pro-government factions mobilized thousands of Venezuelans dressed in red — the color of the ruling socialist party — onto the streets of the capital on Monday in a bid to show the country remains united around President Nicolas Maduro after what the government described as a thwarted assassination attempt.
“This river of red,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza declared as the crowd waved flags and carried posters with Maduro’s image. “It could have been another red running through these streets.”
Authorities say they have now captured all those behind the attack using two drones armed with explosives. The names of those detained have not been released, but chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab said the six people arrested could face charges including treason, attempted homicide and terrorism.
“They need to pay the penalty Venezuela’s law calls for,” Diosdado Cabello, a high-ranking socialist party leader, told the crowd of thousands. “There won’t be any more forgiveness.”
Public employees are required to attend such pro-government rallies to ensure a strong show of support. Yet, even as Venezuelan leaders sought to project a nation united behind Maduro, analysts warned the incident makes the already unpopular leader even more vulnerable as he struggles to reverse a crippling humanitarian and economic crisis considered worse than the Great Depression.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Markit, warned Saturday’s failed attack could be a sign that low-level insurgent groups that have in the past expressed their frustration by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the National Guard during protests are now escalating to a more violent approach.
“This is a manifestation of institutions not being able to channel the political, economic and social crisis that Venezuela is going through,” he said.
Maduro was addressing hundreds of uniformed soldiers Saturday in a speech celebrating the 81st anniversary of the National Guard when an explosion pierced the air. Authorities say two drones, each packed with a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of C-4 plastic explosive, were aimed at the stage where Maduro, his wife and a slate of the nation’s highest-ranking government leaders were gathered.
The military managed to knock one of the drones off course electronically and the other craft crashed into an apartment building two blocks away.
Images captured on live television showed Maduro and his wife looking up at the sky as the explosion struck and then hundreds of soldiers scrambling from the scene, an image of panic in stark contrast to the one of power and control the government tries to project.
Saab said Monday that two suspects were detained quickly on Saturday after witnesses saw them operating one of the drones from a vehicle. He added that there was evidence that the attack was linked to an ongoing investigating related to a “terrorist attack” last year.
The comment appeared to be a reference to rogue police officer Oscar Perez, who flew a stolen helicopter over the capital in June 2017 and launched grenades at several government buildings. He and several comrades were killed in a gun battle with police after months on the lam.
In his rallying speech, Cabello told Venezuelans there is no doubt that the “Colombian oligarchy” and “North American imperialism” were behind Saturday’s attack.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos vehemently denied the accusation, saying that at the time of the attack he was at the baptism of his newborn granddaughter. The United States has also denied any involvement.
“They say they didn’t participate in this attack,” Cabello told supporters. “And in which ones did you participate, gentlemen of the imperialism?”
A little-known group calling itself Soldiers in T-shirts claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the explosive-laden drones were intended to target the president. “It was not successful today, but it is just a matter of time,” the group said in a tweet.
The authenticity of the message could not be independently verified, and the organization did not respond to a message from The Associated Press seeking further comment.
Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said that the political clout Maduro cemented in recent months suffered a blow with televised images of soldiers fleeing in fear. Maduro won a May election that was decried by the international community for lacking basic democratic guarantees. The opposition’s most popular leaders were barred from running.
Pantoulas noted that Maduro appeared to be making some advances in charting economic reforms and shifting from politics to policy since the election.
“Now, Maduro has to overcome doubts about his power,” he said. “It means instability and chaos.”
The attack comes as Venezuela’s economy continues to hemorrhage and thousands flee to neighboring Colombia seeking food and medical care. Meanwhile, Maduro has grown increasingly isolated, with the United States and other foreign powers slapping economic sanctions on a growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials and decrying his government as an autocratic regime.
The International Monetary Fund projects inflation could top 1 million percent by year’s end.
In his remarks since the attack, Maduro has vowed to press forward with the socialist revolution begun by his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez.
Cabello echoed that message at Monday’s rally.
“The right will never win here again!” he cried to resounding applause.
Ramon Duarte, a security worker at the march, said he believes Saturday’s attack will have the opposite effect of what the conspirators have intended: Serving to solidify support for the revolution.
“This revolution may have its errors,” he said. “But it needs to be supported.”
Armario reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.