A televised speech by President Nicolás Maduro was abruptly cut off Saturday, and military personnel were seen running from what the government called a “failed attack” against the president that left seven soldiers wounded.
At 5:40 p.m., first lady Cilia Flores looked up and put her hand to her heart, appearing frightened. The image was quickly changed to lines of military men in formation in the center of Caracas, who seconds later all ran to one side. Maduro’s voice could be heard saying “let’s go to the right.”
“Explosions were heard,” said Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez an hour later on state TV. “Investigations show clearly that flying artifacts or drones containing explosive material exploded near the presidential stage.”
Photos of the incident published by China’s Xinhua News Service showed suited bodyguards jumping in front of Maduro with Kevlar shields, and one uniformed officer clutching a bleeding wound on his head.
Rodriguez said Maduro was safe and in a meeting with his cabinet and top military officials, and that the wounded men were being treated. Firefighters were at the scene of the explosion, The Associated Press reported.
Smoke bellowed from the site of a building at the scene, the outlet reported.
“The event is evidence of desperation of ultraright leaders who, being defeated politically, continue to resort to criminal practices, and they have failed once again,” Rodriguez said.
Maduro, who was speaking at an event celebrating the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s National Guard, was in the middle of a pledge to lead the country toward an economic recovery when the apparent explosions occurred.
He addressed the nation nearly three hours after the attack, saying some of the “far right” plotters had been captured, and pointing the finger at Venezuelan dissidents in the United States as well as neighboring Colombia.
“This was an attack to kill me,” he said. Referring to the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, he added: “Already, the first investigations show that those intellectually and financially responsible for this attack live in the United States of North America, in Florida. I hope the government of Donald Trump is willing to combat terrorist groups that want to attack presidents of peaceful nations.”
Some of Maduro’s detractors suggested that Saturday’s attack could have been staged to stoke patriotism and buoy his flagging national support. The Associated Press, citing three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident, said the explosion was actually caused by a gas tank explosion inside an apartment building.
The incident nevertheless sent shock waves through Venezuela, a country already on edge. The South American nation is in the thick of a roiling political and economic crisis. With inflation spiraling toward 1 million percent and shortages of food and medicine growing more acute, dozens of officers and soldiers have been arrested by the government in connection with alleged coup plots.
Last June, an intelligence police commander flew a helicopter over government institutions and threw grenades at the country’s Supreme Court. The commander, Oscar Perez, was executed in January after publishing dramatic videos of his confrontation with military men.
Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers have deserted their posts since Maduro – a former bus driver and successor of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 – won an election in May that opposition leaders and dozens of countries, including the United States, called a fraudulent power grab. Maduro has sought to rally his loyalists to defend the nation after suggestions by President Donald Trump that a military solution remains on the table to force Maduro to restore democracy.
A group called “Soldiers in T-Shirts,” who describe themselves as dissident soldiers, took responsibility for the attacks through a twitter handle that has 90,000 followers.
“The operation was to fly two drowns charged with C4 with the presidential stage as the objective. But guard of honor snipers overtook the drones before they reached the target. We demonstrated that they’re vulnerable. We didn’t achieve it today, but it’s a matter of time. #PatriotMilitarymen,” they tweeted around 7 p.m.
Maduro’s popularity has fallen to less than 30 percent as Venezuelans have become unable to access the most basic needs.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Rachelle Krygier, Anthony Faiola