by Andrew Rosati, Daniel Cancel
A police officer commands a heavily-armed helicopter, buzzes downtown Caracas, disappears.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro takes to the airwaves to denounce a "terrorist attack".
The Opposition calls it a staged event by the President to justify a power grab.
Now, the morning after, crisis-weary Venezuelans are trying to make sense of it all. Many, like Giofran Blanco, a 24-year-old administrative assistant, seem inclined to agree with the Opposition's version of events.
"This is completely fictitious," Blanco said from his scooter as he commuted to work. "Supposedly there is a coup last night and the streets are calm today? The Government is just trying to stop the pressure on the streets."
The episode came hours after Maduro, struggling to contain three months of violent street protests, stated that he was prepared to take up arms to defend the socialist movement begun by his predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The demonstrations - fuelled by anger over shortages of food and medicine and increasing repression by security forces - have intensified as the regime pushes forward with a plan to overhaul the constitution. Key members of the socialist coalition assembled two decades ago by former President Hugo Chavez have begun to peel away from Maduro.
"Defections from within Chavismo may escalate ahead of the July 30 launch of the constitutional convention," Siobhan Morden, the head of Latin America fixed income strategy at Nomura, wrote in an emailed note. "Our base case scenario remains for regime change on this unstable equilibrium, however it's difficult to quantify whether it's within six hours or six months."
The incident began when a police helicopter circled low over downtown Caracas, where the Supreme Court, ministries and presidential palace lie. Gunfire and explosions were heard in the area, while there were no injuries, according to a news release from the court.
In an address, Venezuela's Information Minister identified the attacker as Oscar Perez, a member of the country's elite police force and investigation unit.
Little is known about Perez, who the Government said is still at large. In a video posted on his Instagram account, the pilot, flanked by masked men holding rifles, declares insurrectionists "warriors of god" seeking to end a corrupt government that has trampled citizens' rights.
Like many things in Venezuela, it's hard to nail down facts and many wondered whether the whole incident had been staged, as local media highlighted the acting experience of the pilot. Other posts of Perez's Instagram account feature him working crimes, scuba diving and riding horses, and indicate that he acted in a 2015 Venezuelan film, Suspended Death.
Despite the pledge to bring Perez to justice, the Government hasn't found the blue police chopper, which was draped with a banner that read "freedom."
Maduro blamed the supposed attack on his former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres and asked the Opposition to denounce the incident by buying into his version of events.
But the absence of evidence that grenades had been tossed and gunshots fired at the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry as suggested by the Government added to the doubts over what exactly occurred.
The quick attempt to link the events to Rodriguez Torres and a simultaneous Supreme Court ruling to weaken Public Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, the highest-profile government official critical of the Administration, were other signs that the incident may not have been pure coincidence.
"This is the kind of armed escalation I have been warning about," Maduro said. "I call on the Opposition alliance to denounce this incident."
Rodriguez Torres and Ortega have both been vocal with their criticism of the constitutional rewrite in what they say is an attempt to trample on the legacy of Chavez, who died from cancer in 2013. The Government circulated a document in the past few days tying Rodriguez Torres to US intelligence agencies - a connection the former minister has vehemently denied.
"The helicopter event is rather confusing, but it reflects chaos, anarchy and division within the Government," said Hernan Castillo, military analyst and historian at the Simon Bolivar University. "Venezuela is at the brink of a low civil war. Emotional and political grounds for it are set."
The escalation of violence in the Opec nation has led to almost 80 deaths. In the past 24 hours, authorities arrested more than 200 people in the city of Maracay west of Caracas after violent looting, and national guardsmen clashed with Opposition lawmakers at the National Assembly.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas denounced the "terrorist attacks", assuring the events wouldn't derail the President's plans to call a constituent assembly next month to rewrite the Government's charter.
The six-year term of the Venezuelan leader, who eked out a victory following Chavez's death, ends in 2019 with presidential elections expected at the end of next year. While the Electoral Council and government officials have said they expect general elections to proceed, the Opposition is increasingly sceptical of getting fair treatment in a democratic process.
Maduro made it clear he won't step down quietly.
"We would never surrender and what we could not achieve with votes we would do with arms, we would liberate our country with arms," he said.