Venezuela: Maduro critic rejects 'absurd' claim he plotted to kill president

Julio Borges, living in exile in Colombia, attacks Maduro as other opposition leaders say apparent assassination bid was legitimate

A prominent Venezuelan opposition leader has rejected “absurd” claims he was part of an alleged bid to assassinate president Nicolás Maduro, as other members of the anti-Maduro resistance movement cheered what they called a legitimate and humiliating strike on a tyrannical regime.

In an interview with CNN en Español Julio Borges, the former head of Venezuela’s national assembly, denied any role in what Maduro claims was a foreign-backed plot to decapitate his leadership with drones carrying plastic explosives.

Venezuela’s supreme court ordered Borges’ arrest on Wednesday, four days after the attack, on charges of treason and attempted murder. Hours earlier another opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens, was seized from his Caracas home on similar charges.

Borges, who is currently living in exile in Colombia, claimed Venezuela’s president was using the “supposed magnicide” attempt as a smokescreen to conceal the country’s social and economic collapse. “It’s incredible how Nicolás Maduro makes a victim of himself when it is he who is responsible for the exodus of millions of Venezuelans,” he told CNN.

Borges, who last year accepted a European parliament human rights award on behalf of Venezuela’s opposition, said it was not the first time he had been accused of scheming to assassinate Maduro, who took power after Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013. He said: “A few years ago they accused me … of planning to hijack a Brazilian Tucano [fighter jet] on the border and said that I myself was going to fly it over Caracas to bombard the Miraflores palace.”

But while Borges distanced himself from the apparent assassination attempt, some members of Venezuela’s exiled resistance movement voiced understanding or approval for what they called a legitimate attempt to bring down an autocratic regime.

Under the late Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Venezuela’s socialist revolution in 1999, a new constitution and numerous elections placed nearly all government institutions under the control of the ruling Socialist party. 

This concentration of power was aided by a feuding opposition which carried out ineffectual campaigns and electoral boycotts. After Chávez died of cancer in 2013, he was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro who is even less tolerant of dissent.

Growing political authoritarianism has coincided with greater state dominance over the economy. But expropriations, price controls and mismanagement have led to a 40% contraction of the economy in the past five years. 

Oil accounts for 96% of Venezuela’s export income but many foreign companies have been driven out and production has dropped to a 30-year low. 

The resulting fiscal crisis has prompted the government to print more money, which has led to hyperinflation and a collapse of the currency. 

It also means that the government can’t import enough food and medicine to meet demand. 

Maduro has rejected economic reforms out of loyalty to socialism and because many government officials are allegedly getting rich off the economic distortions – through exchange rate scams and by selling scarce food on the black market.

Omar Lares, a former opposition mayor who fled to Colombia last year, told the Guardian: “Ultimately those responsible for this attack are those in the dictatorship because they have closed all the democratic and peaceful solutions to reach agreements. No-one wants to meet with them, no-one believes what they say.”

“So people are looking for a way out – whether it’s members of the military, students, political parties – all of them are looking for a way out because the situation is grave. The situation in Venezuela gets worse every day.”

Roderick Navarro, a Brazil-based resistance leader who left the country last August, said he supported the action – although claimed it was designed to scare and humiliate Maduro not kill him.

“The main goal of last Saturday wasn’t to kill Maduro, just to threaten him, and make him afraid of the people around him,” by showing members of his inner circle were collaborating with the resistance, said Navarro, one of the founders of the Rumbo Libertad dissident group.

However, Navarro admitted members of the underground military resistance within Venezuela did consider Maduro – who he called “the head of the most dangerous criminal organization in Latin America” – fair game.

“Power in Venezuela is controlled by criminals. So the [rebel] military forces and police forces are just doing their job. They want to restore the rule of law, and, yeah, I think they see Maduro and other leaders as a military objective.”

“What can we, the civil resistance, do?” Navarro added. “We can just support them.”

Nikki Haley at the Simon Bolivar bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Haley said Maduro had ‘created this chaos’.
Nikki Haley at the Simon Bolivar bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. Haley said Maduro had ‘created this chaos’. Photograph: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP/Getty Images

During a visit to Colombia’s border with Venezuela on Wednesday, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, also suggested Maduro had brought the attack on himself. “He did this by creating this chaos,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

Venezuelan authorities allege Borges and Requesens, who have been stripped of their immunity from prosecution, were part of a plot to assassinate Maduro that also included conspirators in Colombia and the United States. According to state media, Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful members of Maduro’s government, said the politicians should face justice for their role in “this abhorrent act of terrorism”.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert from the Washington Office on Latin America, said he doubted the perpetrators of the botched drone attack had been in direct contact with either Borges or Requesens. Rather, Ramsey said, the charges against them were a clear attempt “to crack down on the more vocal and confrontational elements of the opposition”.

Navarro said he believed the pair were being scapegoated and claims of their involvement were “fake news”. But he painted Saturday’s attack as a victory since it showed Maduro was not untouchable.

“I think there is a lot of hope right now. Whether it was successful or not, the people saw a dictatorship [that was] afraid, saw Maduro worried, saw the military forces running scared.”

Ramsey said he was unconvinced by claims the attack was “a shot in the arm for the opposition”.

“The opposition is more divided than ever. In fact, as it currently stands there doesn’t seem to be much of an organised opposition in Venezuela,” he said.

“So had this assassination attempt succeeded it would most likely have empowered chavista military men to take charge and make Venezuela into more of a classical military dictatorship. Or it could have been used to begin some kind of armed conflict between rival factions within chavismo.”

“I don’t think the opposition – had this operation succeeded – would have been in any shape to capitalise on it,” Ramsey added.


Tom Phillips in Mexico City and Joe Parkin Daniels Daniels in Bogotá

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