By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Deeply unpopular Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro looked keen to project himself as fully in charge of the crisis-ridden military, long a powerbroker, when he addressed its National Guard on Saturday.
One of the main avenues in the capital Caracas was sealed off, commemorative videos for the National Guard’s 81st anniversary flashed on a big screen, and a suited Maduro with a yellow, blue and red presidential sash spoke surrounded by the military’s top brass.
But just when the leftist leader was wrapping up by vowing OPEC member Venezuela’s stricken economy would recover, his wife Cilia Flores scanned the sky, seemingly alarmed.
An explosion rocked the event close to the presidential stage, according to the government and three witnesses.
Maduro’s wife recoiled, the camera shook, the state TV broadcast’s audio was cut, and the camera abruptly panned out to hundreds of soldiers in sharp formation. But the image of martial lockstep was quickly shattered when a second drone hit a building nearby, as scores of soldiers scurried away before the live transmission ended and switched to reruns about the South American country’s car census.
“This incident does make Maduro appear vulnerable but the truth remains that his circle has the power to crack down on enemies because they still control all the levers of power,” said Raul Gallegos, associate director with the consultancy Control Risks.
“Whatever frailty comes across is compensated by the excuse Maduro now has to crack down on his internal enemies real or perceived,” Gallegos said.
The incident failed to generate any wave of spontaneous support from traditional government backers, many of whom are reeling from hyperinflation, frequent water and power cuts, and food shortages.
Still, the government’s adversaries warned of a possible crackdown after Maduro accused opponents of seeking to assassinate him with drones. Six people were detained as suspects, Venezuelan officials said on Sunday.
The suspects launched two drones laden with explosives over the outdoor rally, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said. One was “diverted” by security forces while the second fell on its own and hit an apartment building, Reverol said.
Maduro initially blamed outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and residents of the U.S. state of Florida for the attack. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry in response said it “emphatically rejected” Maduro’s accusations.
Venezuelan cartoonist EDO published a drawing showing terrified soldiers fleeing under the tagline “Run Forrest, the Empire is invading us!”, in allusion to the film ‘Forrest Gump’ where Tom Hanks’ character jogs across the United States.
“The stampede of the military personnel, broadcast live, leaves the armed forces and the military top brass looking very bad,” said Hebert Garcia Plaza, a former general and member of Maduro’s administration who turned on the government.
Open calls for military intervention have grown after massive anti-government protests last year failed to unseat Maduro and he was re-elected in a May vote widely decried as a sham.
Scores of soldiers have been detained on accusations of conspiring against Maduro or deserting, as they too sometimes struggle to eat three square meals a day.
Last year, a rogue Venezuelan police officer hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. The officer was hunted down and killed by Venezuelan forces.
But in public, the top brass remains fiercely loyal to Maduro, a 55-year-old former bus driver and union leader who unlike his predecessor Hugo Chavez does not hail from the military.
As the economic crisis has worsened and his popularity has slipped, Maduro has handed the military sway over the lucrative mining, oil, and food import sectors to help keep his grip on power.
A little-known group called the “National Movement of Soldiers in T-shirts” claimed responsibility for Saturday’s explosion. The group, which describes itself as uniting members of “the resistance” to Maduro, said it had planned to fly two drones but that snipers shot them down.
Maduro can take some solace in that a half-dozen bodyguards dashed on stage to cover him with bulletproof panels. A voice was heard saying “let’s go, my leader” right before he was rushed away.
“That drone was coming for me but there was a shield of love,” Maduro said on Saturday night. “I am sure I will live for many more years.”
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera; editing by Grant McCool)