A potential uprising is in motion in Venezuela. A helicopter from the Scientific, Criminal, and Penal Investigative Body (CICPC) dropped two hand grenades on Venezuela’s Supreme Court building June 27 in Caracas. One grenade failed to explode. Crewmen aboard the small helicopter also opened fire with small arms on the Interior Ministry building in Caracas. Troops and armored personnel carriers were seen in western Caracas in defensive positions, though it is not yet clear whether their loyalty lies with the government or elsewhere. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the attack during an address on live television, vowing that his government would find the aircraft responsible. According to one report, the helicopter took off from La Carlota air base in Caracas and landed at a separate heliport in southeastern Caracas. Photos circulated on Twitter showing the crew unfurling a banner from the helicopter that said “Article 350” and “freedom,” in reference to an article of the Venezuelan Constitution that allows for civilians and military personnel to rise up against any government that violates the country’s constitutional principles.
The attack on the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry appears to be an attempt to trigger a military uprising against Maduro — or possibly a prelude to a coup itself. On June 20, Maduro took power away from Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez in an attempt to further insulate the core of elites in the government from a potential coup by the military. Dissident members of the ruling party — including members of the armed forces, law enforcement, and former Cabinet ministers — have pushed for Maduro’s removal for months. At the same time, parts of the military and government have been wavering in their loyalty to Maduro. A faction of dissident members of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) have coalesced around Attorney General Luisa Ortega and former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres with the intent of halting Maduro’s drive toward rewriting the country’s constitution and eventually trying to remove him from power. This faction realizes that Maduro’s attempts to hang on to power at all costs are not politically sustainable, given the country’s extreme economic deterioration and low approval numbers for the president. Rodriguez Torres has previously called for the creation of a broad front to stop the constitutional assembly.
It will be important to watch for further troop movements in Venezuela’s major cities — but especially in Caracas. Any coup attempt by the broad coalition against Maduro would have to seize the capital to be politically successful, otherwise the government could mobilize troops to counter the coup, with likely reinforcement from Cuba. The government can also be expected to call in support from local armed militias — known as colectivos — to intimidate opposition protesters from swelling on the streets. Already, colectivos have surrounded the National Assembly, trapping some opposition legislators inside. At this point, the actions of the defense minister are key. If he chooses to mobilize troops to quell a coup attempt or cracks down heavily on the CICPC and armed forces to root out dissent, then the government stands a chance of surviving this challenge to its power. Ultimately, this is a test of a dissident faction within the PSUV’s ranks, and before the night is out we will know just how much weight the armed forces can muster to pressure the president out of office.