Gwynne Dyer | Venezuela: hand grenades from helicopter
After almost three months of daily anti-government demonstrations, what Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro needed most was an excuse to impose martial law, or at least to use major violence and mass arrests to close the protests down.
On Tuesday, Maduro got his excuse. A stolen police helicopter flew over the Supreme Court building in Caracas and dropped a couple of hand grenades near it.
The man behind this attack was Oscar Perez, a police officer who announced in a video posted on Instagram that he was launching an armed struggle against tyranny.
"We are a coalition of military employees, policemen and civilians who are looking for balance, and are against this criminal government," Perez said, and the four armed men standing behind him in the video tried to look fierce. The ski masks helped a bit, but it was hard not to giggle. They really didn't look very dangerous.
But you have to work with the material at hand, and President Maduro did his best to inflate the incident into a major terrorist attack.
Maduro can no longer stay in power by democratic means. There is no doubt that he won the presidency by a narrow but genuine majority (1.5 per cent) in the 2013 election that followed the death of Hugo Chavez, the hero-founder of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. But there is also no doubt that the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary election of 2015.
What made the difference between those two elections was the price of oil. In 2013, it was around US$100 per barrel. By 2015, it was in the low 40s, and it is still there today.
Venezuela is not a rich country, although most Venezuelans believe it is. It has a lot of oil, but it produces almost nothing else and imports practically everything it consumes. So it is rich when oil is at US$100 - but it is very poor when it is below US$50. The country is, therefore, now broke.
Per-capita income in Venezuela has fallen by more than half in the past two years. So people are angry, including many of the poor people who benefited from Chavez's generosity with the oil revenues back in the good old days. There is a presidential election due next year, and as things stand now, Maduro would probably lose by two-to-one.
Stripped of power
The National Assembly has had a two-thirds majority of opposition members since the 2015 election, and it has been pressing hard to bring the presidential election forward to this year. Maduro had to stop that, and his first step was to have the Supreme Court, which is packed with Chavez and Maduro appointees, strip the National Assembly of all its powers and take them for itself.
This is what triggered the daily anti-government demonstrations that began in early April. The Supreme Court's action was clearly unconstitutional, and after three days that also saw protests from members of his own party, Maduro ordered the judges to backtrack on their decree. But the protesters, with the bit between their teeth, stayed out in the street. Despite 70 dead in the past three months, they are still there today.
So Maduro, desperate to sideline the National Assembly, then came up with the idea of rewriting the constitution. There was no referendum to test popular support for this idea, and the people in the "constituent assembly" are being chosen according to rules set by the Maduro government.
Nobody is fooled by all this flim-flam, and it is no surprise that Oscar Perez, whether he is a deluded revolutionary or a secret government stooge flying false colours, chose to drop his little hand grenades on the Supreme Court.
Maduro has his pretext, and will now clamp down harder and try to terrify the opposition into submission. It is probably going to get much nastier yet in Venezuela.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email feedback to email@example.com.