Given the depth of the feeling against the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, it does not come as a surprise that some of his fellow-citizens might wish to kill him.
Saturday’s assassination attempt against the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas, seems to have been the world’s first attempted magnicide by drone. The incident occurred while Maduro was giving a speech to an audience that included hundreds of soldiers standing in formation, and several soldiers were lightly wounded by shrapnel, but the President was unhurt. One of the drones exploded in mid-air; a second struck the wall of a nearby apartment building.
Considering the rapidly advancing state of drone technology—including the deployment of drones for both surveillance and combat in military theatres from Afghanistan to North Africa—the use of an explosive drone to eliminate a political leader seems, if anything, an inevitable development. As with everything else in Venezuela lately, however, Saturday’s attack was bungled. Superheated rhetoric and outlandish claims abound in the country’s current political climate, and much of the initial reporting on the attack was also waggish and cynical. Some suggested that the attempted assassination was a fiction concocted by Maduro to justify a crackdown, or that it wasn’t a drone attack at all but was, rather, an accident caused by an exploding butane-gas cylinder in a nearby apartment building.
These reports appear to be specious. Video footage of the incident shows Maduro suddenly looking skyward during his speech and his wife, who was standing next to him, showing alarm and ducking sideways, just as everyone hears the explosion. Another clip shows a half-dozen bodyguards swiftly moving in and surrounding Maduro with protective shields. In other footage, shot from farther away, the soldiers standing at attention before the stage are shown breaking ranks and running in all directions, evidently following the second explosion.
Maduro has blamed “far right” Venezuelans, Donald Trump’s Administration, and the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos—who is set to leave office on Tuesday, after eight years in power—for organizing the attack against him. His government has also said that several suspects have been arrested, though, as ever with such official announcements in Venezuela, the details remain vague, and a long history of evidence-poor accusations by Maduro and his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, have made it difficult to trust such statements.
It is true that Venezuela’s relationships with both the U.S. and Colombia have been extremely fraught for more than a year—ever since Maduro’s decision to assume quasi-dictatorial powers by replacing his country’s opposition-packed congress with a new, more pliant constituent assembly. Four months of civil unrest followed—during which a hundred and fifty people, mostly anti-government activists, were killed—and, when it was all over, Maduro crowed victory. But the atmosphere of violent repression, along with the vicissitudes caused by the collapse of Venezuela’s oil economy (inflation is soon projected to reach the surreal milestone of a million per cent), has brought on a national mood of despair, and accelerated the mass exodus of the country’s citizens.
For all this, Maduro is blamed, and despised, by many Venezuelans. Given the depth of the feeling against him, it does not come as a surprise, therefore, that some of his fellow-citizens—far-right or not—might wish to kill him. In Venezuela, nineteen years of “Bolivarian revolution”—led first by Chávez and then by Maduro—has created a winner-take-all political culture, in which old-fashioned horse trading and compromise have no place.
Last year, a dissident police officer, Óscar Pérez, flew a helicopter over downtown Caracas, lobbing grenades at official buildings, in an attempt to rally support for a broad-based resistance against the government. He then went underground with a group of armed followers, hoping to lead a popular insurrection, but earlier this year he was tracked down and killed, along with his comrades, despite having offered to surrender. Ignoring all claims to the contrary, Venezuela’s government has insisted that Pérez and his followers were terrorists who deserved their fate.
Is it possible, then, as Maduro claims, that a group of Venezuelans conspired to kill him, potentially with the help or endorsement of the U.S. or Colombian government? The short answer is that, yes, it is possible.
In recent months, a series of arrests of military men in Venezuela has coincided with leaked reports about active coup plotting being under way—with the rumored involvement of American intelligence agents, in an operation supposedly green-lighted by the Trump White House and Santos’s government.
Colombia has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan economic migrants since its neighbor’s crisis began, and the Santos government has made no secret of its concerns about the situation. In an interview earlier this year, Santos told me that in his initial conversations with Trump, in 2017, Trump raised the idea that a military invasion of Venezuela could get rid of Maduro. Santos told me that he and several other Latin American Presidents dissuaded Trump from this line of thinking. They instead formed a regional bloc of nations that had been working with Washington to pressure Venezuela on other fronts: by isolating it diplomatically and economically, and by applying targeted sanctions on individual members of Maduro’s government. But, when I asked Santos about the possibility of a military takeover in Venezuela, he acknowledged that he was not averse to the idea of a military coup. He spoke of his awareness of the existence of several groups within the Venezuelan military that were actively plotting such a move, and cited the fact that several officers had already been arrested.
Yet a coup is not what happened on Saturday. The drone attack, while certainly original and attention-getting, carried with it an air of amateurish improvisation, and it spectacularly failed to accomplish its apparent objective—killing Maduro. And, even if it had succeeded, it would not have guaranteed a change of power in Venezuela. Maduro would have been replaced by his Vice-President, or, perhaps, by a loyalist general. Most counterproductively of all, the attack makes Maduro’s rhetoric of conspiracy more plausible, and less hollow, perhaps, than ever before.