In studying protests in Ukraine and Russia, we have identified some common mistakes that observers make in analyzing such events as they occur. Here are five suggestions for better understanding the Venezuelan protests and their likely outcome.
1. The most popular images may not be real
A video of Mariel, a Venezuelan protester, recently went viral on social media. Mariel offers a first-person, on-site account of the grievances central to the protests. In this video, Mariel says that protesters are mostly “youth” mobilized by Venezuela’s collapsing economy. But this video is in fact from 2014 — a year that also saw massive protests in Caracas.
Something similar happened in Ukraine in 2014. Images from the 2004 “Orange Revolution” and protest banners with Hitler’s portrait were circulated as real depictions of the 2014 “Euromaidan” protests. Today in Venezuela, hundreds of old images and videos are circulating on social media, presented as evidence of the Maduro government’s repression or of protesters instigating violence. All such videos and images must be carefully checked before being reposted or relied on as evidence.
2. Young people may offer great sound bites but may not be great organizers
Observers and news media often pay attention to students who protest. This can be because they make up a large portion of those engaged, or because they are vocal and skilled at spreading information on social media.
Olga Onuch’s research into Ukrainian protests found that although 18- to 25-year-olds went to the streets early and in large numbers, they relied heavily on existing activist networks. Activists who have years of experience tend to set the agenda and bring together students, the general population and opposition parties.
Venezuelan students have been at the center of key protest events over the last three years. But as in Ukraine, large groups of middle-aged (and older) Venezuelans have taken to the streets in the most recent wave, with mothers’ marches and even a “March of the Grandparents.”
3. Old tactics and civil society matter in a new media world
Mass protests that actually succeed in deposing repressive governments tend to come from coalitions — across classes and political points of view — that are created in real time, in the streets, rather than in online echo chambers. That’s what we’ve learned from political scientist Mark Beissinger, Onuch, Gwendolyn Sasse and Bryn Rosenfeld’s research on protests in Ukraine and Russia, as well as sociologist Michael Biggs’s research on long-term trends in protest.
Experienced organizers are often the ones who pull together such coalitions, using tactics such as appealing to ideas about universal human rights to bring in many segments of society. During a period of mass protest, it’s important to understand which groups are coordinating the protests, what (if any) coalitions are forming in the streets and what unites them.
In Venezuela, several nongovernmental organizations have coordinated their tactics, are working with student organizations and key opposition parties, and are rallying around a call “against dictatorship.” Some of the more prominent ones are Un Mundo sin Mordaza, PROVEA, FUNDECI, Redes Ayuda, Mujeres Venezolanas en Acción, Acceso a la Justicia and Foro Penal.
Research by Onuch suggests that if they are to succeed in bringing out more protesters while also managing broad coalitions, they will need to foster a collective identity among protesters, facilitate compromise among competing demands and resolve internal conflicts. Much of this will require face-to-face interaction and outreach and will be hampered by the speed at which false information travels online.
4. While massive, the protests might not be inclusive enough to force a change in government
Observers often focus on the size of protests, assuming that bigger is better. But even very large protests in Moscow have not produced a Ukrainian-style revolution.
In Venezuela, the opposition’s strength has drawn from the upper and middle classes. That may be a problem. While organizers are working across classes, the class divide still troubles the opposition’s organizing.
Chavismo — the populist movement that Maduro relies on — has spoken especially to the poor over its past 18 years. Many of the poorest citizens rely heavily on subsidies from the government and are closely embedded in networks of Chavismo supporters, such as Local Food Committees (CLAP). As a result, they may hesitate to join protests en masse.
Maduro’s patronage and populism, combined with the opposition’s failure to reach out to the working classes and the poor, may prevent the creation of a broad all-Venezuelan protest coalition. That’s a problem if organizers hope to force change in Maduro’s government.
5. Protesters have clear demands. It’s rarely just about the economy.
Venezuela is suffering a severe economic collapse that has left many without food, health care and other necessities. While that can be one reason for the protests, what set off this wave of mass demonstrations was a Supreme Court ruling to eliminate the National Assembly. So what is it protesters want — economic restoration or political transformation?
So far, protesters say they are rallying for the defense of democracy, against dictatorship and to remember those who have been killed as a result of state repression.
In other words, despite years of extreme economic deprivation, protesters are focusing their current demands on protecting basic political and civic rights.
What happens next?
Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych seriously miscalculated the broad nature of the protest coalition that he faced. Attempts to suppress the opposition backfired, and he had to flee. However, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has been able to repress, divide and rule. Which outcome can we expect in Venezuela?
Maduro, like Yanukovych, appears to be underestimating the political grievances and the degree to which the opposition is coordinating. The government is working to buy time, betting that divisions within the opposition, coupled with disturbing pictures of radical protesters who are depicted blocking streets and destroying public buildings, will send the supporters home.
But after more than 50 days, the opposition appears more unified than ever. Protesters appear to be in it for the long haul. The international community — including some of Venezuela’s longtime allies, such as Ecuador — is pressuring the government to hold general elections and end the repression. Meanwhile, opposition leaders are working to coax defectors from the ruling coalition by promising a negotiated way out that will involve no judicial prosecution or political persecution.
In short, the situation in Venezuela appears to be at a tipping point. But here’s what we don’t know: Which way it will go, and how soon?
Olga Onuch is a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies, a lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester and an associate fellow at Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. Her most recent book is “Mapping Mass Mobilizations: Understanding Revolutionary Moments in Argentina and Ukraine” (Palgrave MacMillan 2014). Find her on Twitter @oonuch.
Iñaki Sagarzazu is assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University. Find him on Twitter @YVPolis.