Political: On 04 August 2018, an explosion occurred at (or near) a military parade to commemorate the 81st anniversary of the creation of the National Guard, led by President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela. The government in the crisis-hit country has described the explosion as a drone attack and an assassination attempt on Maduro. The president himself has blamed the attack on Colombia and the US (allegations both have denied), while the interior minister has placed the blame on right-wing elements within Venezuela.
Six people have been arrested for the involvement in the incident and stand accused of being part of a larger group which loaded two drones with explosives before setting them off at the military parade. The interior minister has branded them as “terrorists and hired killers”. Seven soldiers were wounded as a result of the explosion. There have been conflicting and contradictory reports of what occurred coming from the government and their story of events has been questioned.
Is the Government Correct?
The government’s tale of events has been scrutinised by international media and analysts. Images and video from the parade are inconclusive about what caused the explosion despite the government’s claims. The government released footage of a drone explosion but there is nothing specifically to tie that footage to the location or timing of the parade. In response to Maduro’s accusations of US and Colombian involvement, US National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that the event could be “a pretext set up by the regime itself”. This is a possibility and is supported by some eyewitness testimony: Three firefighters from the scene told the Associated Press that the explosion was actually that of a gas tank inside an apartment building but did not elaborate. On social media, a little-known group called “Soldiers in T-shirts” said that it was behind the alleged attack. The claim was not backed up by any evidence.
If the explosion was the result of an attack, this would mark an abrupt shift in tactics by the opposition in Venezuela. Commentators have noted that despite the spiralling government-caused crisis Venezuela finds itself in and the virulence by which the opposition has been attacked by the government, the opposition has not resorted to the use of targeted violence against the regime. While protests have been deadly, this has largely been instigated by security forces intent on crushing dissent. The opposition has not previously made an attempt on the life of Maduro or his supporters and it is not clear why they would do so now. Any attempt on Maduro’s life would have made more sense before the recent elections in Venezuela and, while high, anti-government sentiment is not a boiling point as it was between March and August 2017 – for example.
What Does This Mean for the Opposition?
Whether this was a genuine attack or not, it will be used by the Maduro regime as a way to legitimise further crackdowns on dissent. At present, at least 200 opposition figures are imprisoned in Venezuela and many more have fled the country. The primary opposition leaders called for voter abstention in the 2018 elections which saw a very low turnout. The alleged attack and the government’s response will also likely embolden the military and paramilitary groups which have proved vital to the Maduro regime staying in power. Venezuela is likely to see a rise in politically-motivated killings, with the potential for indiscriminate attacks to occur under the rationale of targeting ‘traitors’ or those opposed to the Maduro regime. Opposition figures fear a witch hunt much in the same vein as that conducted by the Turkish government and President Erdogan after the failed coup in 2016. Elements of this have already begun. The government has blamed opposition lawmakers Juan Requesens and Julio Borges for attempts on the life of Maduro. While Borges is in exile, Requesens has remained in the country and has been arrested. The government is seeking to strip the pair of their immunity.
What is less clear is what the accusations made by the Venezuelan government mean for the US and Colombia. The latter recently elected a hawkish, right-wing president who was inaugurated on 07 August. The US, despite sanctions, is reliant on Venezuelan oil, while Colombia is one of the countries in the region dealing with the Venezuelan refugee crisis. Also, Colombia has seen the development of insecurity on its border with Venezuela where banditry is rife. Rebel groups and armed criminals are able to use the porous border to conduct attacks in Colombia, with splinter groups of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army) and ELN (National Liberation Army) routinely using Venezuela as a base of operations. It is likely that, as with the focus on the ‘right-wing opponents’ of the regime, Maduro is seeking to scapegoat or place blame on Colombia and the US to shore up his own position and solidify public opposition to these countries. It will take more than a single act though to turn public opinion in Maduro’s favour after years of decimating Venezuela’s civil society, economy, and state institutions. If this is the plan, observers can expect Maduro to escalate the rhetoric and perhaps create further occasions to allow the regime to criticise its opponents within and outside Venezuela.
Neither this alleged attack alone nor Maduro’s allegations will lead to regional conflict with the US or Colombia. However, the regional tide is turning against Maduro. Colombia has elected a vehemently pro-US, right-wing president who is looking to take a more assertive stance in security affairs and Brazil looks on course to elect a populist leader in a similar mould to US President Donald Trump. External pressures, built up by the migration crisis and border insecurity, are likely to increase the potential for outside powers to involve themselves militarily in Venezuela. While this is not a short- or medium-term likelihood, President Trump has proved himself to be unpredictable during his tenure and may initiate further moves against Maduro for personal political gain as well as fears over regional security. For any multinational conflict to occur, the following would need to be necessary:
- For there to be a further serious deterioration in Venezuela’s security environment, notably on its borders.
- A significantly increased rate of investor migration from the country, specifically the Chinese and Russians.
- For the Venezuelan military or paramilitaries to launch cross-border attacks, with Colombia the most likely target.
At present, these conditions have not been met.
Drone Terror Attacks a Sign of Things to Come?
While this alleged attack may show the weakness of the Maduro security apparatus and his vulnerability, it may also have wider implications and serve as a wake-up call. This attack lays bare the lack of a coherent strategy in many countries around the world in legislating for drone use and ownership. US officials have suggested that there may be a fourfold increase in the number of commercial drones flying in the country over the next five years from the current level of 110,000. The use of weaponised drones to conduct an attack (if this did indeed take place) marks the first such occasion outside of a war zone. This act may encourage other armed groups and terrorists to conduct copycat attacks. It is clear that drone use and ownership require solid legislation, specifically regarding the implementation of remote identification, allowing authorities a greater ability to track and disrupt commercial drones. Organisers of large public events should factor into their risk assessments considerations regarding the potential for drones to be used for indiscriminate attacks. It does not seem likely that this one event will open the floodgates to terror or criminal attacks but as the price of drone technology falls, the likelihood of copycat attacks, especially in locations with poor governance or lack of legislation, increases.
Travellers are advised to expect elevated security measures throughout Venezuela as a result of this alleged attack – foreigners and foreign entities, in particular, could see increased surveillance or interest from the government. Travellers should reassess if their travel to Venezuela is business-critical, especially so in the short-term. If not, it is recommended to delay travel plans. If in-country, travellers should avoid all crowds or political gatherings as they are highly likely to become violent and foreigners caught in demonstrations of this kind may be subjected to harsher treatment by local security forces. Those in the country should review their security arrangements and evacuation plans and are also advised to continually make preparations for further shortages of fuel, food, and medications. Should such shortages become a life-threatening concern, travellers should consider leaving the country.
For most travel to Venezuela, including the capital Caracas, Solace Global would advise clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet, a security-trained driver for all travel, and an armed a close protection officer. It may also be advised that this level of security is increased for other areas of the country or for specific client profiles. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed for all travel in Venezuela. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.