Venezuela squashed a small uprising on a military base Sunday, the first inkling of armed unrest in the beleaguered South American country after a new all-powerful legislative body condemned by the international community began targeting opposition foes.
Though the would-be rebellion, which left at least one man dead, appeared short-lived, it reignited spontaneous anti-government protests that had been absent for days after nearly four months of prolonged street tumult. Security forces once again repressed the demonstrations with tear gas and rubber pellets.
Further clashes loom. The opposition-held parliament intends to convene Monday at the legislative palace, which was taken over Saturday by the new constituent assembly. Its delegates, all ruling socialist party members elected last week in a vote widely seen as fraudulent, face potential sanctions from the U.S. and countries in Latin America and Europe.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro insisted Sunday’s incident was an outside attack staged by civilians hired by his political opponents. While security forces claimed the skirmish was quickly quelled, the defense minister acknowledged an ongoing search for an unknown number of stolen military weapons.
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The extended confusion over what took place before dawn Sunday at the Paramacay military base in Valencia, a city in central Venezuela about two hours west of the capital, Caracas, fed opposition calls for dissenting troops to rebel.
They were fueled by the morning release online of a video — the kind used in failed coup attempts against previous Venezuelan governments — showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues and holding assault rifles. They declared themselves in rebellion and urged like-minded security forces to stage a revolt against Maduro.
Without citing the video, socialist party deputy Diosdado Cabello asserted early on, via Twitter, that an irregular situation at the base was under control. But for hours, no government official took to the airwaves, communicating only in Twitter posts and written statements. State-run television replayed an episode of the late Hugo Chávez’s weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente.” The convening of a new “truth commission” was postponed.
When Maduro finally appeared on TV, at 3 p.m., he congratulated military leaders for their swift response but also admitted security forces were still hunting down a group of men from the morning assault who had gotten away.
“We’re going to capture them,” he said. “A week ago we defeated them with votes. Today, we were forced to defeat them with bullets.”
In an incongruous scene, Maduro spoke from a park, standing on a logo with colorful hearts — and surrounded by bodyguards. He admired a naturalist exhibit of animal skulls and skins, and cheered on a little girl standing in the middle of a circle of happy children, whacking a piñata.
According to Maduro, the scuffle at the base began at 3:50 a.m. when the instigators surprised overnight guards and went directly to weapons caches. Troops “reacted immediately, with the rifles of the fatherland,” Maduro said. He conceded “internal clashes” took place on the base between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m.
He said “nine civilians and a deserter” were caught. An earlier photograph shared on Twitter by a government spokesman showed seven detained men in civilian clothing lined up against a wall. An eighth man was reportedly in the hospital.
The deserter in question appeared to be Juan Carlos Caguaripano, the former national guard captain thought to be speaking in the video inciting rebellion. He demanded “the immediate formation of a transition government.”
“This is not a coup d’état,” he said. “This is a civic and military action to restore constitutional order. But more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction.”
Caguaripano was discharged three years ago, accused of conspiring against the government. He had been in hiding since — in Miami, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, claimed Maduro, who didn’t name the rogue ex-soldier but said he had been captured Sunday and was divulging information useful to the government. At least two unverified accounts purporting to belong to Caguaripano popped up on Twitter.
Maduro accused “terrorists” in Miami and Colombia of bankrolling the uprising, and cast aspersions on news outlets he said disseminated false information, including the Miami Herald. He also denounced other countries in the region that have harshly criticized his government, including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
The morning disturbance at the base awakened neighbors, who posted videos of what sounded like gunshots ringing in the dark. After daybreak, anti-government protesters gathered at the base entrance, cheering and singing the national anthem. They were dispersed with tear gas. Helicopters hovered low overhead as security forces then canvassed nearby streets. One video showed an officer hitting a parked car with the butt of his rifle.
As protests and roadblocks formed in Valencia and Caracas, more Bolivarian National Guard officers deployed to disperse them. In the eastern Caracas neighborhood of Santa Fe, an opposition stronghold, a gaggle of officers on motorcycles aimed pellet guns at news reporters, injuring two. Security checkpoints went up around other military bases.
Bolivarian Army Commander Jesús Suárez Chourio — surrounded by troops he said were from the 41st Army Tank Brigade on the base — later appeared in an online video declaring victory over the “mercenary paramilitary terrorist attack.”
“They assaulted us, but we suppressed them,” said Suárez Chourio, who is under U.S. sanctions for violently repressing political dissent.
In a statement, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López blamed the incident on “civilian delinquents sporting military attire.”
“Detainees have confessed to have been hired in Zulia, Lara and Yaracuy states by activists of the extreme Venezuelan right tied to foreign governments,” Padrino López claimed, without offering any evidence. The armed forces, he added, “remain unscathed, monolithic, united, clinging to our democratic convictions, with high morale and in unconditional support” of Maduro.
That it took awhile for anyone but Cabello, the socialist party deputy, to comment on the incident drew the attention of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has pushed for sanctions against Maduro’s government. Adding to the day’s dizzying surrealism, a Rubio post led to a brief Twitter war between the two men.
Cabello’s involvement, Rubio wrote, “shows who’s in charge of security forces in Venezuela.” He called Cabello, who has long been hounded by allegations that he’s involved in drug trafficking, a “narco leader.”
Cabello responded that Rubio was the first “character” to “defend the terrorist attack.”
“Now we know where it all comes from,” he said, later dubbing the Florida Republican “Narco Rubio.”
“Diosdado ‘Pablo Escobar’ Cabello is unusually nervous and frantic this morning,” Rubio retorted.
On TV later, Maduro, repeating the “Narco Rubio” moniker, accused the Florida Republican of backing the uprising. He recalled the time Rubio tweeted what turned out to be a false rumore that then-jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López was deathly ill.
“He got ahead of himself again,” Maduro said. “Last time, he looked ridiculous.”
Late Saturday night, the government returned López, who was re-jailed without explanation last week, to house arrest.
Earlier Saturday, the new constituent assembly dismissed Ortega, the chief prosecutor investigating the government. In response, the president of the opposition-held parliament, Julio Borges, urged the military to step in to restore the democratic order.
On Sunday, a standing ovation greeted Ortega at a forum that for the first time brought together Maduro opponents and socialists who broke with the president over the new assembly. For Ortega, that sort of welcome would have been unheard of; she broke with Maduro only earlier this year.
Her office, which the national guard took over Saturday, housed complaints from civil servants in 25 public institutions who were coerced into voting last Sunday, Ortega revealed.
“I don’t recognize my dismissal. I am still this country’s attorney general,” Ortega said. “There is no government.”