Venezuela Quells Military Uprising, Fires Outspoken Government Critic

Venezuela Quells Military Uprising, Fires Outspoken Government Critic

Venezuela put down what appeared to be a small military uprising Sunday, killing two soldiers who said they had taken up arms to “re-establish constitutional order” in a country drifting headlong into dictatorship and wracked by months of violent street protests.

The showdown comes as embattled President Nicolas Maduro is seeking to consolidate his authority in the wake of a widely-condemned vote creating a new pro-regime legislative body. That so-called Constituent Assembly is meant to draft a new constitution to maintain Maduro in power, but the election last last month was lambasted as deeply flawed by international observers.

Still, Maduro used his newfound authority to quell at least one prominent dissenting voice, firing outspoken Attorney General Luisa Ortega and using riot-gear clad guardsmen to keep her from her office. Ortega, who started criticizing the government this spring after the courts usurped power from the opposition-dominated legislature, had been a rare critical voice inside the beleaguered Maduro regime. She was replaced by a pro-regime figure recently added to the list of U.S. sanctions.

A key opposition figure, Maria Corina Machado, said Monday that “the time for talking is over,” and said strong actions are needed to make Maduro understand he has to leave.

Most worrisome in the short term for Venezuela’s leaders could be potential cracks in the loyalty of the Venezuelan military; the armed forces have long been a power broker in the country, and former president Hugo Chavez, a former paratrooper, attempted a coup before winning election.

The uprising Sunday was apparently carried out by Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a former National guard captain. A social media video that circulated on Sunday showed Caguaripano with a score of men in military uniforms.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” said Caguaripano, according to Reuters. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish constitutional order. But more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction.”

Maduro in his weekly TV show blasted the former guardsmen, saying “they attack with terrorism and hate.”

The escalation of Venezuela’s political crisis — more than 120 people have been killed since protests began this spring — will likely increase pressure for a tougher U.S. response, after the Trump administration slapped sanctions on 13 Venezuelan government officials last month. Trump administration officials indicated that more punitive options could be on the table, including restrictions on Venezuela’s ability to import U.S. crude oil — a key ingredient to refine and export its own super heavy crude. Venezuela imports just shy of 90,000 barrels of light U.S. crude per day.

Sources told Reuters last month that the administration was not yet planning on blocking the nearly 800,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan exports of heavy crude to the United States, a move that would poleax the already wobbly Venezuelan economy (and cause pain for U.S. refiners who buy the stuff.)

Still, the administration won’t rule it out if things go from bad to worse. “All options are on the table right now,” one State Department official told FP.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images