Amid Venezuela’s chaos, protesters ask: Was helicopter ‘attack’ rebellion or ruse?

A rogue helicopter that buzzed Venezuela’s Supreme Court building and possibly dropped grenades became a strange centerpiece Wednesday in the country’s meltdown — with some suspecting it was a ruse by President Nicolás Maduro to further clamp down on the opposition.

The chopper flight Tuesday — trailing a banner saying “Freedom” — was initially hailed by opposition groups as a sign that security forces were breaking ranks in the first step in a possible coup.

But later, questions crept in. The helicopter pilot turned out to be an actor, Oscar Pérez, who also served in special operations forces. Maduro opponents then began to interpret the incident as a possible government-staged charade to muster support for even tougher measures against protesters as Venezuela’s political crisis grows more violent and desperate.

At least one prominent journalist took a different tack, describing the chopper flight as a genuine act of rebellion by a man who “maybe has a touch of craziness.”

Yet even as Venezuelans tried to sort out what has been called the “Chopper Coupster,” the nation sank deeper into chaos.

A man shouts slogans against Venezuela’s government during a protest march on Tuesday. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Opposition groups and demonstrators have been outraged by the Maduro government’s attempts to dissolve the National Assembly and change the constitution. More than 70 people have died and at least 1,000 have been injured in near daily clashes over the past several months. Thousands have been arrested, and detainees have alleged physical and mental abuse by security forces.

Maduro, who has presided over an economic collapse that has caused extreme shortages of food and medicine, has refused to back down

On Tuesday, Maduro denounced the helicopter incident as a “terrorist attack” and deployed tanks and other armored vehicles onto the streets of the capital to “keep the peace.” Pro-government gangs surrounded parliament and kept lawmakers inside for hours.

In a speech, Maduro, who has long accused the United States of fomenting opposition in Venezuela, accused the CIA of supporting Pérez.

Amid the chaos, the government took other steps.

The Supreme Court, a strong ally of Maduro, issued a decree stripping the attorney general of some powers and transferring them to the nation’s ombudsman, the top human rights official who supports Maduro.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has emerged as the strongest internal critic of Maduro’s administration, having spoken out against security force abuses against citizens and the erosion of democracy.

It also turned out that Pérez, a police inspector and pilot with a special operations brigade, had a background as an actor. In 2015, the helicopter pilot acted and helped produce a film, “Death Suspended,” a police thriller.

“Through the cinema, we will enter the consciousness of the viewers, showing that there are Venezuelan policemen who are true heroes,” Pérez said in an interview with a Venezuelan news site about the film. Pérez has Instagram photos of himself in derring-do type poses, including one in which he holds a pistol in one hand and a makeup mirror in the other.

Elyangélica González, a journalist in Venezuela known for contacts within the military, said it seems likely that Pérez, in fact, rebelled. Gonzalez said military officers told her that Pérez had been suspected of leaking information in the past.

“It’s an isolated action of a man who sees many war movies and maybe has a touch of craziness, I don’t know,” she said. “It all points to it not being a show.”

One thing the helicopter incident confirmed: Maduro, with approval ratings of about 20 percent, has little remaining credibility with the public.

“The ‘Chopper Coupster’ episode, in all its glorious surrealism, comes just as the regime needed to draw attention away from its latest power grabs: a decision hollowing out the Prosecutor General’s office of most of its powers, and a straight-up assault on parliament,” wrote Francisco Toro, editor of the website Caracas Chronicles. “Lots and lots of crazy things happening out there, folks. And guys like Oscar Pérez will only sprinkle on more crazy.”

The president of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, said he had “no information on the helicopter incident. We’re analyzing.”

“Some say it was a trap; others say it does show police discontent,” he said in a radio interview.

The incident began in the late afternoon Tuesday, when Caracas residents saw a blue helicopter from the police investigations unit, the CICPC, circling the capital, carrying a banner that read “Libertad” and the number “350,” a reference to the article in the Venezuelan constitution that allows people to “disown” their government if it acts in an undemocratic way.

The communications minister, Ernesto Villegas, said the helicopter was stolen from a military base in La Carlota, in eastern Caracas. It circled over the building housing the Supreme Court, which has backed Maduro’s efforts to block early elections and to change the constitution.

Villegas said it dropped four grenades and that three exploded. The government reports could not be independently verified.

In a video he released, Pérez denounced the “criminal government” as four masked men with guns stood behind him. Describing his group as a nonpartisan alliance of military, police and civilian officials, the pilot, wearing a uniform and reading from notes, said their fight was not against the rest of the security forces.

“It’s against the impunity imposed by this government,” he said. “It’s against tyranny. It’s against the deaths of young people who are fighting for their legitimate rights. It’s against hunger.”

On Tuesday, Maduro said during a rally before supporters that his government was willing to use weapons to preserve the Socialist movement started by Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.

“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat,” Maduro told the crowd. “We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons.

“We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”

Maduro, who has long accused the United States of propping up his enemies, also called out President Trump, saying: “You have the responsibility. Stop the madness of the violent Venezuelan right wing.”

After the helicopter incident, National Guard and other security personnel in Caracas took positions around government buildings, including Miraflores, the presidential palace. Maduro said he has put the armed forces on high alert to “keep the peace.”

At the National Assembly, pro-government gangs known as “colectivos” — which often ride around on motorcycles and are known for violence — temporarily prevented a group of lawmakers from leaving.

Manuel Trujillo, a journalist with Vivoplay who was inside the assembly during the incidents, said it started when National Guard members entered carrying boxes marked with the letters of the national electoral agency. As an argument erupted about why they were there, the pro-government gangs arrived at the building and threw rocks, bottles and sticks. Trujillo said he could hear several explosions.

“We were very scared,” he said.

Before 10 p.m., lawmakers and others were able to slip out of the assembly.

Krygier reported from Caracas.

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