As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro tells it, he lives in a very dangerous world. Since winning a narrow and contested election in April, his administration has unveiled almost a dozen plans to murder him.
The latest accusation came Wednesday after Maduro canceled his visit to the United Nations General Assembly and a speech in the Bronx at the last minute. He then accused Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and beltway insider, and fellow ex-diplomat Otto Reich of a “crazy plan” to incite violence in Manhattan or, perhaps, even kill him.
Speaking from Washington, D.C. on Thursday, Noriega says he’s lost track of how many times Maduro has falsely accused him of plotting his demise.
“It’s not stressful,” he said of the recurring allegations. “I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that...He needs a boogeyman.”
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Some plots are modest, such as the assassins Maduro said crossed the Colombian border at the behest of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Others seem straight out of Hollywood — former Vice President José Vicente Rangel once said the opposition had purchased 18 jet-fighters that were going to operate from a U.S. military base in Colombia. The plots are such a hot topic in Venezuela that Ultimas Noticias newspaper has put out an interactive graphic to track them.
Even more prevalent than assassination plans are acts of economic “sabotage” that have been blamed for everything from blackouts to chronic shortages of chicken to toilet paper. Since mid-April, Maduro’s press office has sent out at least 144 communiqués that mention “sabotage.” When the government activated the sabotage hotline, 0800-SABOTAJE, earlier this month it said it got more than 1,000 calls in the first week.
After Wednesday’s aborted U.N. trip, Maduro unveiled a fresh case of potential wrongdoing. His presidential aircraft, which he said had recently undergone a five-month overhaul in France by its manufacturer Airbus, had “inexplicable” and “serious” damage to one wing. Maduro said he was assembling a legal team to press the case.
Airbus did not respond to a request for information, but told the Spanish news agency EFE that it did not perform the overhaul — that work is subcontracted out — but it would help Venezuela investigate.
Maduro seized on the Airbus comments as legitimizing his claim.
“The crazy right-wing has a strange and suspicious attitude,” he wrote Thursday on Twitter, referring to the airplane malfunction. “I think another one of their macabre plans fell through..”
The plane troubles were the reason he travelled to China last week on a Cubana de Aviación airliner that was also slated to take him to the United Nations General Assembly, he said.
That switch might have been at the heart of some of his recent travel woes. When Maduro was initially denied the right to travel through U.S. airspace over Puerto Rico last week on his way to China, the U.S. State Department said the delay was due in part because “the plane in question was not a state aircraft, which is required for diplomatic clearance.”
Maduro said he was on a layover in Canada when he received news of the threats and aborted the U.N. trip. But there was also speculation that if the plane had made it to New York it might have been seized by U.S. courts that have won rulings against the Cuban government.
Miranda State Gov. Henrique Capriles, the opposition standard-bearer, has been questioning Maduro’s story.
“Maduro said he didn’t go to the U.N. to protect his life,” he tweeted Thursday. “Does anyone believe that ridiculousness? Why won’t he tell us what happened in Canada?”
Venezuela has serious problems. Inflation is running 45 percent a year and shortages of basic items are chronic. Economists say the problem is the country’s strict currency and price controls that keep companies from freely importing goods and generate speculation.
The government has its own explanation: “economic warfare.”
When an electricity blackout earlier this month plunged almost half the country into darkness, Maduro said it was an opposition “test run” for a coup.
“Caramba!” wrote columnist Mario Villegas, the brother of Maduro’s former communications czar. “If you didn’t understand Venezuelan reality you would think that [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad and [Colombian President] Juan Manuel Santos, who are both facing armed rebels, are lucky not to have an opposition that’s so powerful and endowed politically, economically, socially, technically and militarily as Venezuela’s.”
A few weeks ago, Maduro talked about a White House plan called “Total Collapse” that he said is designed to bring down the entire Venezuelan economy.
The fact that Maduro is even conjuring up the scenario is telling, Noriega said.
“Here’s a guy who sees what the rest of us see — the total collapse of the economy — and he sees the political peril,” Noriega said. “But he thinks that if he can pin it all on Obama he might be able to hold onto power once the economy collapses.”
If the U.N. mayhem and murder plot is like those of weeks and months past, tangible proof will not be forthcoming. The government has accused the opposition of being ghoulish in its demand for proof.
After revealing an assassination plot against Maduro in August, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said his political foes had all the evidence they needed.
“We’re not going to give the right-wing Nicolás Maduro’s body as proof,” he said.