Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis reached new heights at the end of March when a wave of anti-government protests erupted throughout the country after the Supreme Court took over legislative powers from the National Assembly. The opposition responded by launching a nationwide protest campaign against what they call a “coup on democracy,” and within the week the court overturned its decision. Weeks later, with protests escalating, the system seems to have been shaken for the first time in a decade. Meanwhile, numerous opposition representatives have been jailed, and at least three dozen civilians have been killed so far in protest-related violence.
Venezuela has been hit with a severe economic crisis over the past few years, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that the inflation rate could easily reach 1,660 percent next year, which would be the highest in the world. The new normal in the country is one of skyrocketing crime and a lack of basic necessities in stores.
Venezuela is a towering case study of how bad governance, corruption, and autocracy can turn a country with the world`s largest oil reserves and tremendous human capital into a disaster.
The opposition United Round Table, or MUD, is surprisingly united despite differences in its constituent platforms and clashes among a barrage of egotistical leaders. Still, in order to end the chaos and turn these actions into real change, Venezuela’s opposition and the international community should take a few lessons from successful pro-democracy movements.
1. Successful movements have a vision and clear plan of action. Gandhi wanted independence from the British; the American civil rights movement demanded anti-discrimination legislation; the color revolutions in former Soviet states fought for changes in their national leaderships, and so on. These were all tangible goals -- they gave activists something to build a strategy around.
So the Venezuelan opposition needs a plan -- not only for how they will make the regime commit to elections, and how they will then win those elections, but also for how to survive the victory and prevent the country from falling apart in the long term.
2. Successful movements must target the right pillars of support. The turning point in every successful nonviolent movement is flipping certain key institutions. Autocracies are always supported by coercive pillars. In Venezuela, these are the Constitutional Court, the police, and the military.
When the Constitutional Court stripped the country's National Assembly of its powers in March, we saw prompt reactions both from the opposition in Venezuela and from leaders of regional countries, the United States, and Europe telling the judges of this court to do the right thing and overturn the decision. The decision also sparked surprising dissent from within the Chavista regime: Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz strongly criticized the ruling. In a public statement on March 31, Diaz stressed that it was her unavoidable historical duty as a Venezuelan citizen and the nation’s top judicial authority to denounce what she called the supreme court’s rupture of the constitutional order. The combination of opposition reaction, international pressure, and loyalist dissent brought about changes.
Following massive opposition protests in 2014, the Maduro government has begun to rely more and more on “colectivos” -- ideologically organised paramilitaries who intimidate, attack, rob, and even kill protesters. The use of this tactic opened a window of opportunity for the opposition to begin talking to people serving in military and police forces, many of whom probably look at the colectivos with disgust. Some members of the military have already defected and have even posted protest videos on social networks. More than 60 were recently detained for alleged disobedience.
But to build a successful strategy, Venezuela’s opposition will need to talk to police using music, hugs, and flowers, and not by throwing Molotov cocktails, stones, and even bombs made of feces at them. It may be time to shift to “pull tactics”-- methods that draw a greater swath of the population into the movement. As an example, take the amazing video messages that the son of Venezuela's human rights ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, posted to his father online, calling on him to "do the right thing.” This message was soon followed by a similar statement from the nephew of Venezuela’s deputy defense minister. That post was shared by hundreds of thousands on social media. One of the most famous Venezuelans in the world, Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, spoke out recently as well, issuing a powerful statement on his social media profile and again at a concert dedicated to one of his disciples who had been killed in the demonstrations.
As Serbian protesters found out in the 1990s, using lighthearted tactics such as chasing officials while banging pots and pans, or offering police flowers and free music during a women’s march, works better than any of the “push tactics” to spur defections from security forces. Shifting to low-risk tactics like boycotts and strikes will also decrease the odds of violence in the streets. In every movement we have observed, violence justifies the use of oppression and lowers the number of potential participants. Polls show that Venezuelans want change. The wisdom is in keeping them active and safe at the same time.
3. Successful movements expand the battlefield and pull third parties toward their goals. Venezuela’s crisis has caused regional instability, and there are reportedly links between the Venezuelan government and drug smuggling into the United States and other Latin American countries. Furthermore, Venezuela`s economy is sinking fast, and the country now has the largest number of political prisoners in Latin America. The regime is on the defensive regionally. Venezuela, once perceived as a leader of a leftist anti-Western coalition of Latin American countries, filed two weeks ago to leave the Organization of American States (OAS). Brazil, Argentina, and Peru, historically strong regional allies of Venezuela, have called for Caracas to release political prisoners and to provide for free and fair elections. The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against eight members of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, including its chief, in an effort to support the Venezuelan people "in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance." Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro immediately slammed U.S. President Donald Trump, ordering him to stop "meddling" in the South American country.
Other players interested in restoring democracy in Venezuela may also have a role to play as the situation progresses. If they want to be effective they must understand that talks, declarations, and selfies with opposition leaders will have no effect. Rather they must focus their efforts on investigating and pressuring people affiliated with the regime. Venezuela may soon see targeted sanctions that focus on top regime members with criminal records or on those accused of human rights violations. It is the “sniper” sanctions that are effective -- those targeting specific individuals from the inner circle of authoritarian regimes. These have worked in the past much better than “shotgun sanctions” like those the international community ineffectively imposed over our country, Serbia, and on Iraq during the 90s, or later on in Iran and Libya.
When nephews of the president’s wife were arrested and prosecuted for drug trafficking -- and when Maduro’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami’s $3 billion-worth of drug-related assets were tracked and frozen -- there was a real impact. The introduction of targeted sanctions -- freezing accounts of Milosevic`s allies in Serbia and imposing a travel ban on more than 800 of them so they couldn’t travel and meet their kids who were studying abroad in expensive schools -- was a turning point for many erstwhile supporters of the Serbian dictator.
4. Successful movements often join forces with religious institutions. The church has been an important pillar in many successful movements. “Once people decide to be free, nothing can stop them.” This is a famous quote from Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, one of most prominent men of God that led the nonviolent movement in South Africa. Similar figures include Martin Luther King Jr., cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez of Chile, or, in Poland, the iconic figure of Jerzy PopieÅ?uszko, “the messenger of truth,” whose sacrifice encouraged hundreds of thousands to oppose a totalitarian regime. Successful movements can craft mighty relationships with religious institutions when defending freedom and democracy. After many appeals by cardinals to Pope Francis, and even “regime affiliated mobsters” breaking into procession in Basilica St. Teresa and attacking Archbishop of Caracas Jorge Urosa Savino, it may be time for the Venezuelan opposition to coin a joint strategy of protecting Christian values with the Roman Catholic Church.
Change in Venezuela, despite what at this moment seems like violent a stalemate, may be closer than we perceive. We are living in a world where topics like terrorism, international crises, and the rise of populism are making headlines all over the world, but it may well be the time put democracy, freedom, and human rights back atop the list of global priorities. Without these values, Venezuela may soon become a tragic example of a state that failed completely despite having every reason to succeed.