On anniversary of protests Venezuela says it defused spectacular assassination attempt

Members of the national guard help an injured student during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela on February 12, 2015.
Members of the national guard help an injured student during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela on February 12, 2015. AFP/Getty Images

In a scene that sounds like it might have been ripped from a Hollywood script, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday said his intelligence apparatus had foiled a military plot to commandeer an airplane and bomb the presidential palace.

The embattled president said in a televised speech that there were indications “Washington” had bought the loyalty of Air Force officials, offering them money and visas to carry out the attack.

The officials were planning to use a Brazilian-made Super Tucano military airplane to try to assassinate him then bomb the Miraflores presidential palace, state-run TeleSur television station, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior and other targets, he said.

He also said that unnamed U.S. officials had given one of the plotters a visa on Feb. 3, so that if the scheme failed he could escape.

“Behind this coup there were officials of the United States involved,” Maduro said.

The president has often accused Washington, Colombia and other foes of plotting to overthrow his 22-month administration, but rarely provides names or verifiable details. Thursday’s accusations followed a similar vein.

The allegations came the same day opposition forces had called for a nationwide march to protest the administration and the tanking economy. The protests also marked the one-year anniversary of chaotic demonstrations that rocked the nation for months and left more than 40 dead and dozens still in jail.

By most accounts, Thursday’s protests were calmer. In the border city of San Cristobal — the epicenter of last year’s demonstrations — protesters clashed with police, leaving at least five injured, according to the Associated Press. Demonstrations in the rest of the country were largely peaceful, wire reports said.

In the capital of Caracas, demonstrators and government sympathizers took to the streets despite the pouring rain. Riot police kept the anti-Maduro crowds largely corralled in the opposition strongholds of eastern Caracas and there were no reports of major violence.

The marches come as the country has been struggling with an economic crisis that features the hemisphere’s highest inflation rate and an economic recession. Venezuela — which boasts the world’s largest oil reserves — has found itself struggling to keep basic items, such as condoms, diapers and cooking oil on the shelves. And massive shopping lines for limited goods are commonplace.

Maduro blames the woes on a conspiratorial private sector and other factors. As he tells it, Washington has been keeping global crude prices depressed to hurt Venezuela and Russia.

On Thursday, Maduro said the “economic war” and the coup plot are part of a grand strategy to sink the Socialist revolution. He said this latest plot is tied to a previous coup attempt in March 2014.

He said that conspiring military officials planned to film a general who is in jail for the previous scheme. Broadcasting that film was part of this plot, he said, which aimed to topple him and create a “transitional government.”

He also suggested there might be foreign ties, saying the aircraft might have been brought from outside the country. Although he stopped short of accusing Colombia of being involved, he said he’d been trying to reach Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos repeatedly Thursday.

Coups are deeply tied to the psyche of Venezuela’s socialist revolution. In 1992, Maduro’s predecessor and political godfather, Hugo Chávez, led a failed coup. And Chávez himself was briefly toppled in 2002, in an act the government has always blamed on the United States.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Super Tucano as a jet, it is a turbo prop.