Venezuelan Pres. Nicolás Maduro Targeted in 1st Assassination Attempt by Drone Against Head of State

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro survived an apparent assassination attempt Saturday. Officials say two drones loaded with explosives detonated above Maduro as he gave a nationally televised speech at a military event in Caracas. It was the first known attempted assassination by drone strike against a sitting head of state. We get response from Alejandro Velasco, executive editor for NACLA Report on the Americas; Gabriel Hetland, assistant professor of Latin American studies at SUNY Albany; and Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has survived an apparent assassination attempt Saturday. Officials say two drones loaded with explosives detonated above Maduro as he gave a nationally televised speech at a military event in Caracas. It was the first known attempted assassination by drone against a sitting head of state. Venezuelan television showed Maduro looking up at the sky after hearing the sound of an explosion during his address. After the sound of another explosion, security rushed to surround the president, while hundreds of other soldiers ran for cover. Seven people were injured. Officials say neither drone reached its intended target area before detonating. Two videos posted on Twitter show drones at the scene. One shows a drone crashing into a building. The other shows a drone exploding in midair.

In a televised speech hours after his address was cut short by the assassination attempt, Maduro blamed Colombia for the attack.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] There has been an attempt to assassinate me. I have no doubt that this all points to the extreme right in Venezuela, in alliance with the right in Colombia, and that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is behind this attempt. I have no doubt. Preliminary investigations have indicated to us that there are various financial backers of this attempt on my life. They live in the United States in the state of Florida. Hopefully President Donald Trump’s government is willing to fight these terrorist groups, which are attempting great attacks against countries on this continent, in this case Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile on Sunday, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, tweeted, “Within the last 12 months, US Vicepresident Mike Pence made 3 trips to Latin America to meet at least 8 presidents from whom he demanded support for a military intervention against our brother president of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro. Those are the Empire’s coup attempts,” the Bolivian President Evo Morales tweeted.

Speaking on Fox News Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton denied the U.S. was behind the apparent drone strike assassination attempt in Caracas.

JOHN BOLTON: Well, I can say unequivocally, there is no U.S. government involvement in this at all. Now, with respect to what happened last afternoon, look, it could be a lot of things, from a pretext set up by the Maduro regime itself to something else.

AMY GOODMAN: A group of Venezuelan soldiers calling itself Operation Phoenix has claimed responsibility for the explosions in a communiqué posted on Twitter. The group’s former leader, Óscar Pérez, was killed in a shootout with the government in January after he hijacked a helicopter last year and fired at government buildings. Venezuelan authorities say they’ve arrested six people over Saturday’s incident.

Maduro replaced longtime President Hugo Chávez after Chávez died of cancer in 2013. He was elected to a new 6-year term in May.

Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests. Via Democracy Now! video stream, Alejandro Velasco is with us, associate professor at New York University, where he’s a historian of modern Latin America. He is the executive director of—the executive editor for NACLA Report on the Americas and the author of the book Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela. He was born and raised in Caracas. Also with us here in studio, Gabriel Hetland, assistant professor of Latin American studies at the State University of New York in Albany. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, president of Just Foreign Policy.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Alejandro Velasco. Can you talk about what happened this weekend in Caracas—first time an assassination attempt has been made against a head of state using drones?

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Yeah, it was a very confusing situation. Maduro and most of the high command, military high command, as well as officers of the United Socialist Party that he presides over, were gathered to celebrate the 81st anniversary of the National Guard, which has become very prominent in the security apparatus in Venezuela. And as he was laying out some of the reforms that he just recently announced to try to right the ship of Venezuela’s economy, what the video showed was—or what you heard from the video was a very loud explosion, and his wife, first lady Cilia Flores, reacting, quite surprised, and another general behind him seemingly fainting, and then followed, a couple—a few minutes after—a few seconds after that, by another very loud explosion. And then cameras turned to the assembled soldiers below, who began to scatter. And at that point, the feed closed.

So, from then, you know, what we heard was that there were two separate drones filled with C-4 explosives that detonated near a—you also have to understand, this is right in the downtown, very densely packed area of Caracas, detonated outside of an apartment building. And since then, even though there had been initial reports that perhaps it had been instead a gas explosion in one of the apartments, subsequent reports have disproven that theory. And it’s quite clear now that there were actually C-4-equipped drones that exploded.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn right now to April, when Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a Latin American summit in Lima, Peru, said more must be done to isolate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We must all stand with our brothers and sisters suffering in Venezuela. And I can promise you, the United States will not rest, we will not relent, until democracy is restored in Venezuela, and the Venezuelan people reclaim their birthright of libertad.

AMY GOODMAN: In June, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, called Pence a “viper” and vowed to defeat what he called Washington’s attempts to force him from power.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Every time the poisonous viper of Mike Pence opens his mouth, I feel stronger, clearer of what the road is. The road is ours. It is Venezuelan. It is not the one Mike Pence points out to us, not 20 poisonous snakes, not 20 vipers like Mike Pence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Mark Weisbrot into the conversation, head of Just Foreign Policy, with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Can you talk about, well, what Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, tweeted about, saying Pence has made several visits to Latin America pushing for, he said, military intervention in Venezuela, and if you think there’s any relationship between that and what happened this weekend, the first assassination attempt by drone against a head of state anywhere in the world?

MARK WEISBROT: Yes, well, I don’t have any evidence that the U.S. was behind the attack. It is kind of unusual the State Department was asked to comment, and they said they had no comment on the attack, which, normally, you know, given what the United States has done in Venezuela for the past 20 years, they would at least—you would expect them to say, “We’re against any kind of assassination or any kind of violence like that,” and they didn’t say that.

But, I mean, they’ve been trying to get rid of the Chavistas for 20 years now. And the difference between the Trump administration and the two previous administrations is that they’re more explicit. As you noted, they’ve called for a military coup in Venezuela, which is something I don’t think they’ve done for 50 years. They didn’t even do that in Chile in '73 before the coup happened. They tried to—in the last presidential election in Venezuela, they tried to force—they threatened the opposition candidate who ran in the election, Henri Falcón—they threatened him for running in the election. They threatened him with individual financial sanctions against him, if he ran in that race, because they didn't want an election. So, they’re very committed to a regime change strategy, and it’s explicit, and it’s open. That’s the real difference between, you know, what they did in the past, like the 2002 coup, for example, which the Bush administration was involved in, but they denied that. And now it’s very open and explicit.

And the media here kind of ignores it. They treat the United States as primarily a bystander and occasionally report when, you know, something comes out, like Trump asked his advisers if they could have a military intervention. That was reported in the press. And then they just go on as though the United States has nothing to do with any of this. So, that’s something I think that’s really important that you’re not getting in the news at all.

And then you have, you know, the whole narrative that this has something to do with human rights. So, when Marco Rubio, who’s basically in charge of policy here for the Trump administration, and his Florida crony, who’s the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, and he’s—you know, he goes around to countries there and threatens them and tells them to vote with the U.S. And all this is treated as though they’re trying to promote human rights in Venezuela. And again, the media accepts this narrative. And then you look at the U.S. allies in Latin America, you look at Mexico, where over a hundred journalists have been killed, and in most of those cases there’s government involvement implicated. And you don’t have a single case in Venezuela in the last 20 years of a journalist killed, where the government is implicated. And you look at Guatemala, where most—where, you know, you talk to a human rights defender there, and they don’t expect to be alive a year from now. Again, you don’t have anything near that violent in Venezuela. In Colombia, human rights defenders and activists are being killed every week, as you’ve reported on this show. And again, it’s nowhere near. So, that’s not defending the Venezuelan government; that’s just saying that anyone who states publicly that this intervention by the United States, which is constant, which includes a financial embargo that’s explicitly intended to prevent the economy from recovering—anybody who says that this has something to do with human rights has to be dishonest.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to National Security Adviser John Bolton speaking on Fox News Sunday, denying the U.S. was behind the drone blast in Venezuela on Saturday.

JOHN BOLTON: These are things he’s said before, and you have to take them for what they’re worth. If the government of Venezuela has hard information that they want to present to us that would show a potential violation of U.S. criminal law, we’ll take a serious look at it. But in the meantime, I think what we really should focus on is the corruption and the oppression of the Maduro regime in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Alejandro Velasco, can you respond to what he said? Not only talk about the U.S., but also President Maduro talking about the outgoing president of Colombia being behind this, Santos, who will leave office tomorrow. Tomorrow is Inauguration Day in Colombia.

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Yeah, I mean, interestingly, Colombia, even as the rest of Latin America over the last 20 years, during the so-called left turn or pink tide, most countries in Latin America were electing left-wing governments, Colombia sort of bucked that trend. And so, first with the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, who was Santos’s mentor, and then with Santos to some extent continuing that policy, Colombia really positioned itself as very much against not only Venezuela’s Bolivarian government, but, more broadly, sort of the left in the region. Of course, that relationship has become even more soured of late, since many Venezuelans have flocked to Colombia over the last year, year and a half, as economic conditions have deteriorated there. And not only that, but I think, importantly, it’s worth mentioning that many opposition leaders, including a group that fashions itself the national “Supreme Court in Exile,” actually conducts its business in Colombia, with the support of the Colombian government. And so, there’s sort of a parallel government that’s housed in Colombia. And so, all of this sort of suggests that Colombia really is positioning itself as very much against the Venezuelan government.

On the other hand, you know, it’s true that Venezuela and Maduro have consistently sort of blamed Colombia, and Santos in particular, for some of these interventionist moves, and then tying it to the United States and the close relationship between Colombia and the United States. My own sense is that, at least in this case, the very kind of amateurish features of the attack, even though there was sort of the high-tech drone component to it, really suggests that it’s more of a rogue element that’s taken advantage of the sort of wink-and-nod, classic, “Yes, we will publicly condemn or even not say anything against interventionist efforts, but we’re not going to be sad if the Maduro government leaves,” right? And so, my sense is that that’s the nature of the support right now, that it’s sort of cover rather than any technical or material assistance. But, yeah, that’s certainly been the case in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And the timing of this, Professor Gabriel Hetland, the timing of this attack on Nicolás Maduro? And do you think it’s clear that it was an assassination attempt?

GABRIEL HETLAND: I think nothing is entirely clear at the moment, but it seems to be an attempted assassination against Maduro. And the timing of it is disturbing, mostly because Maduro has finally done some things that need to be done in Venezuela: accepted some responsibility for the economic crisis, which has really been devastating the country, and taken some actions—not entirely adequate, but some actions—to actually move Venezuela in the right direction, specifically starting to discuss the much-needed currency reform, which Mark has written about widely for years and talked about, which is the number one factor behind the economic crisis. And so, about a week and a half ago, Maduro was making some changes. He was also sort of meeting with grassroots sectors, talking about moving Venezuela in a different direction. And all out of the blue, we get this drone attack, which could really sort of charge things up in Venezuela, move the country back to a crisis scenario and make the possibility of economic reform and dialogue with the grassroots sort of Chavista sectors much more difficult. So, it’s a sort of tragic timing, and it may not be coincidental at all.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion in 30 seconds. Our guests are Gabriel Hetland of the University of Albany, the State University of New York at Albany; Alejandro Velasco, who is executive editor of NACLA and also a professor at New York University; and Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research, joining us from D.C. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Alí Primera, here on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re talking about Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro survived an apparent assassination attempt on Saturday. Officials say two drones loaded with explosives detonated above Maduro as he gave a nationally televised speech at a military event in Caracas—again, the first known attempted assassination by drone against a sitting head of state. Our guests, Alejandro Velasco, executive editor of NACLA Report on the Americas; also with us, Gabriel Hetland, associate professor of Latin American studies at State University of New York in Albany; and Mark Weisbrot in Washington, D.C., of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Alejandro, can you talk about the popular sector and what’s happening now in Venezuela and the response to what took place on Saturday?

ALEJANDRO VELASCO: Yeah. So, the response actually has been pretty muted. On Sunday, Maduro called for a rally in solidarity and support, and it was not very well attended. He has called for another rally in support today on Monday, which, especially because it’s a weekday, many government officials turn out for those rallies, so we expect more support to be shown there.

But I think in terms of popular sectors and what they’re going through, of course, is they’re bearing the brunt of the economic crisis, to which Gabe just alluded. Mostly, daily life is a struggle to try to just get basic access to foods, to medicines, to cash, which is in short supply as hyperinflation is exploding. And so most of the day is really spent in the grind of trying to get by from one day to the next. That, of course, has led to a significant amount of discontent, some of which was expressed, for instance, again, as Gabe just mentioned, a recent very large peasants’ march that saw hundreds of people, hundreds of peasants from the interior of the country, where the economic conditions are most acutely felt, walking to Caracas to make demands upon the president. He met with them there. So, you know, there is a lot of discontent, certainly, among popular sectors, but that’s of course muted by the fact that there isn’t really a credible opposition that they might latch onto as an alternative. So, as far as popular sectors are concerned, they’re really sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. And to some extent, that’s expressed in the lack of direct support that Maduro received on Sunday when he called for a rally.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, I wanted to ask you about this opposition group Frente Amplio, or Broad Front, issuing a statement accusing the Venezuelan government of leaping to the assumption the explosions were an assassination attempt and of making irresponsible accusations without any proof, saying, “We warn that the government is taking advantage of this incident … to criminalize those who legitimately and democratically oppose it and deepen the repression and systematic human rights violations.” And yet you have this group that, by Twitter, has taken responsibility for the attack. Mark Weisbrot?

MARK WEISBROT: Yes. Well, I mean, that was part of the media narrative. In fact, El País for a while had a headline up saying, “Opposition accuses the government of staging the attack,” and other headlines calling it a supposed attack. And so, you had the—and El País usually leads a lot of the reporting in Latin America. El País is in Spain. And so, you do have a lot of that out there and a lot of confusion over it. You know, again, I don’t know any more details than what you see in the press.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask Gabe Hetland. You have this group Operation Phoenix claiming responsibility, a group of Venezuelan soldiers, their former leader Óscar Pérez killed in a shootout with the government in January after he hijacked a helicopter last year, firing at government buildings.

GABRIEL HETLAND: Yeah, I mean, I think that what the crisis—what the attack shows is sort of the crisis of the opposition. The opposition, by and large, boycotted the election in May. There’s a lot we can criticize about the election, but there’s a lot to criticize about the opposition and their lack of a sort of strategy for engaging with the economic crisis, for engaging with the popular sectors, which Alejandro was talking about. And so I think that this is an expression of the crisis of the opposition and their inability to come up with any sort of strategy. And the more the U.S. pressures the government of Venezuela, the more it opens up elements on the fringe to do things like this.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mark Weisbrot, The Atlantic's Peter Beinart wrote, “Before becoming national-security adviser, John Bolton declared, ’We once had a capacity for clandestine efforts to overthrow governments. I wish we could get those back.'” Do you think he’s gotten those back, Mark?

MARK WEISBROT: Well, I don’t think it ever left. I mean, I think they’ve been—you know, we know they’ve been involved. You know, it’s part of our budget, the funding to USAID, National Endowment for Democracy. They’ve stepped that up after the coup in 2002, and they’ve been continuing to pour millions of dollars in there. And so, yeah, I mean, again, the real difference between the Trump administration and the previous administrations is now it’s very explicit they’re trying to overthrow the government of Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but I want to thank you all for being with us, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research; Alejandro Velasco teaches at NYU and is executive editor of NACLA Report on the Americas; and Gabriel Hetland of SUNY Albany, State University of New York.

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