Venezuelan authorities seized a General Motors plant Wednesday, an unexpected move that appeared aimed at provoking U.S. authorities and distracting attention from intensifying protests against President Nicolás Maduro.
The plant takeover happened on the same day that huge crowds of demonstrators marched against Maduro’s government, calling for new elections and a return to democratic rule.
GM called the expropriation of its plant “an illegal judicial seizure of its assets” and vowed legal action to defend itself. The company is not the first foreign firm whose assets have been confiscated by Venezuelan authorities, but those actions have typically been preceded by repeated public threats from the socialist government.
The Venezuelan government has offered no explanation for its seizure of the GM plant, and the timing of the move suggests Maduro may be looking to escalate his confrontation with the United States to try to move attention away from the intensifying protests against him.
He claims his opponents are colluding with U.S. authorities to overthrow him, and he has placed Venezuelan security forces on high alert. But it was unclear if the GM seizure was meant as some form of retaliation for the alleged plots.
“It fits a broader pattern, in the sense that the government’s response to surges in opposition activity tends to be the deepening of the revolution,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There are those at the top, including Maduro himself, who appear genuinely to believe that this is a revolution and the ultimate goal is the replacement of the capitalist economy with one that is entirely state-run,” he said.
Auto manufacturing has virtually come to a halt in Venezuela amid a broader economic collapse under Maduro. The country’s economy contracted by an estimated 18 percent last year, facing one of the world’s highest inflation rates and widespread shortages of food and medicine.
Once one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations, the oil-rich country has witnessed a stunning collapse of industrial activity. As many as 80 percent of Venezuelan are living in poverty and unable to find enough food, according to a recent survey by the country’s leading universities.
In its statement, General Motors said it has operated in Venezuela since 1948 and employs nearly 2,700 workers in the country. Several other large American companies, including ExxonMobil, have seen their assets seized since late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was elected in 1999. Maduro succeed Chavez in 2013.
In addition to the plant takeover, GM said, other property, including vehicles, were “illegally taken from its facilities,” and “in total disregard of (GM’s) right to due process, causing irreparable damage to the company.”
Production at the GM plant in the city of Valencia has been interrupted repeatedly in recent years due to import restrictions and shortages of parts and raw materials.