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 automaker said it has ceased operations there.
The company is not the first foreign business whose assets have been confiscated by Venezuelan authorities. But those actions typically have 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 seeking 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.
Auto manufacturing overall virtually has 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.
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In its statement, GM 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.