On Saturday, August 5, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro survived an alleged assassination attempt via explosive drone. According to reports, a flying device carrying explosives detonated during a speech Maduro was delivering in Caracas. While the full details of this strange incident are still coming out, there is already a basic picture of what went down.
President Maduro was addressing a crowd at a military parade in the capital, celebrating the 81st anniversary of the National Guard, when a flying device approached and exploded midair. Video footage from the scene shows Maduro looking up to the sky in reaction to the explosion. While everyone at the scene is taking in the strange noise, there is a second explosion from an unidentified location. Immediately, Maduro’s personal guards surrounded him with protective shields, what appear to be Kevlar mats. The massive formations of soldiers that had gathered for the event dispersed.
“This was an attempt to kill me,” Maduro later said in a televised retelling of what happened. “Today they attempted to assassinate me.” The “they” Maduro was referring to are the Venezuelan right-wing opposition. Maduro claimed his attempted killers were also aided by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón.
The possibility that Colombia had a hand in the plot to kill Maduro is not that far-fetched. Colombia and Venezuela have a complicated history of bilateral struggle, and the old rivalry has erupted twice in recent years. The first occurred during the so-called Colombia–Venezuela diplomatic crisis of 2010. The diplomatic standoff was triggered over allegations by then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that the Venezuelan government was actively permitting the FARC and ELN guerrillas that had been the thorn in Colombia’s side for years to seek safe haven in its territory. Drawn from laptops seized in a raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador, Uribe was even able to present evidence to the Organization of American States (OAS).
The Colombia–Venezuela border dispute occurred more recently, in 2015. It started when Colombian militias taking advantage of Venezuela’s deteriorating economic situation began smuggling food, gasoline, and other basic goods over the Venezuelan border. Some of these militants were reportedly even involved in attacks on Venezuelan soldiers guarding the crossing areas.
While there is certainly a historical basis for Colombia having it out for a Venezuelan leader, it is important to remember that the current administration does not have a track record of aggression toward its neighbor. On the contrary, one of Calderón’s crowning achievements was quickly solving the 2010 crisis almost immediately after entering office. Eight years ago, Calderón flaunted his achievement of re-establishing peace after a tense standoff that many thought would result in war. “[It is an] important moment for Colombia and for relations between Colombian and Venezuela. I greatly celebrate this meeting today with President Chavez, two people who have had… such frequent differences, who decide to turn the page and think about the future of our countries and our peoples.”
But the current economic crisis in Venezuela has shaken up much of the regional dynamic, including the relations between Caracas and Bogota.
Over the past year, the world has seen the situation in Venezuela slowly deteriorate to something resembling a third- world country following several natural disasters. Things got so desperately bad that discussions began brewing in the U.S. on possibly getting involved in the country’s plight. Last month, reports indicated that President Donald Trump himself made comments floating options to intervene militarily in Venezuela. While the Colombian government distanced itself from these suggestions, former Venezuelan general and high-level official Pedro Carreño stated publicly that if the United States were to take action against Venezuela, the Venezuelan military would immediately fire on targets in Colombia. Carreño even laid out how the attack would take place: Venezuelan fighter jets would destroy the seven bridges crossing the Magdalena River that flows through the center of Colombia, thereby splitting the country in two. Days after Carreño’s threats were released, the Venezuelan military placed missiles and anti-air equipment on its border with Colombia, in Táchira. In response, Colombian forces were placed on alert.
With this backdrop, it is understandable that Maduro, an unpopular leader who has presided over one of the worst economic collapses in Latin American history, would point to Colombia as a scapegoat, along with the usual suspects of operatives aligned with the political opposition.
The question moving forward is: What will dictator Maduro and his henchmen do with this opportunity with which they’ve been presented?
An assassination plot could provide them with the justification to go after political opposition with a veil of legitimacy. Six people have already been arrested by authorities and the suspects are all being implicitly described as right-wing operatives. Venezuela’s government has claimed it has already uncovered a major conspiracy, spanning three countries. Official statements from Caracas indicated that the six suspects collaborated with others in Miami and Colombia to acquire the materials needed for the attack, plan it, and to execute it. With such a widespread plot, authorities will have all the reason they need to round up as many people as they see fit. Many insiders in the country are certain that the incident will be used to justify further acts against political opponents. “The government’s threats related to the incident make it clear that it is being used or it’s going to be used as a tool for greater political terrorism, greater persecution, and greater violations by the state,” said former government loyalist Nicmer Evans, who now campaigns with the opposition.
While predictions can be made, only time will tell if and how Maduro will capitalize on these recent events.