Venezuelan Government Says President Faced Assassination Attempt
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There is confusion this morning over what Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is calling an attempt on his life. Maduro was giving a televised speech in the capital, Caracas, when this happened.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maduro looks to the sky. An officer near him appears to faint. Soldiers scatter. And the broadcast goes off the air. The Venezuelan government says the explosions were caused by drone-like devices targeting the president and his senior command. But the Associated Press reports that firefighters have a different account and say it was a gas-tank explosion from a nearby apartment building. Let's talk this through with David Smilde. He's a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a Venezuela expert. He joins us just across the border from Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
DAVID SMILDE: Thank you for calling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So is this clear whether this was really an assassination attempt? There seem to be differing accounts.
SMILDE: It's not at all clear. I think it seems clear that it wasn't a planned, you know, self-coup by the government. It wasn't a government operation because, frankly, this made Maduro look terrible. You know, having the images of him interrupted in mid-speech and his soldiers running away makes him look highly vulnerable. But it's not at all clear that it was an actual attack because afterwards, as you mentioned, there were these accounts from firemen and police officers that said that this was actually an apartment fire and a propane tank that exploded.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maduro's government, regardless of what the cause may be, is trying to paint this as an assassination attempt. It's blaming Colombia and, alternately, far-right extremists in the country - the opposition, as it frequently does. The usual suspects, if you will.
SMILDE: Yeah, absolutely. This has happened time and again. You know, in 2014, there was a Venezuelan legislator who was killed. And, you know, all the evidence suggested that it was some sort of internal job and some sort of internal rivalry among people that were close to him. And the government said that this was a paramilitary attack organized by Colombia and had an enormous state funeral. So we can assume that the government is going to stick with this story and is going to say that this was a drone attack, whatever the evidence is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's put this into context. The Maduro government is widely seen as illegitimate. And the country is in shambles. Remind us what it's like to live in Venezuela today.
SMILDE: Well, the IMF recently came out with an estimate that inflation will be 1 million percent this year. You know, they're in hyperinflation and...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One million percent?
SMILDE: ...Yeah, 1 million percent. You know, it's not just prices that increase dramatically virtually every day. It's the fact that you can't even get - you can't get cash. You can't get actual paper money. Many poor people have informal businesses that - they rely on cash. They don't have electronic payment - forms of payment. And so it's poor people that end up getting impacted by this more, you know? And people, you know, are going hungry.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're not only going hungry inside the country. They're actually leaving the country, right? And you've been spending time with Venezuelans who've been crossing into Colombia - that's what you're doing there in Cucuta. Tell us briefly what you're seeing, what they're telling you.
SMILDE: Yeah, you know, there's been a million Venezuelans that have left in the past two years or so. I mean, that means there's about 2 million Venezuelans abroad. About half of those - or a little less than half - are in Colombia right now. And that's a real change because during the whole Chavez period, there's been emigration, but that was usually among middle-class people that were leaving to Miami or to Madrid. But now we're seeing these people of other lower working classes that are crossing into Colombia. These are people that oftentimes spend their very last dollars or actually take out loans and get to the border virtually with nothing. You get to the border, and there are literally thousands of people sitting on their suitcases, trying to figure out their next move or waiting for someone to help them. And it's really a dramatic sight.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's David Smilde from the Washington Office on Latin America. He joined us from the border of Venezuela and Colombia. Thank you so much.
SMILDE: Thank you.
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