For the past three weeks, protests in Venezuela have simmered near a boiling point.
It all started when the Supreme Court stripped the country's National Assembly of its power. The court is controlled by President Nicolás Maduro, a disciple of Hugo Chávez, while the democratically elected legislature is dominated by those opposed to Maduro's government. The Supreme Court tried to effectively gut this governing body of its authority, though it subsequently reversed its decision.
That, on its own, is enough to bring people into the streets. But many Venezuelans are already at the breaking point. Food shortages have left much of the country hungry, and access to basic goods and medicine is intermittent at best. Inflation is spiraling out of control, and crime is a daily reality. Corruption and mismanagement have squandered the country's vast oil reserves.
For days, more than a million people have taken to the streets across the country in the “mother of all protests” to demand that Maduro and his vice president (recently sanctioned in the United States for alleged drug trafficking) resign, effective immediately.
The Supreme Court reversed its ruling, but that didn't quell the government's opponents. The government then responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. When that didn't work, Maduro called on his supporters to take up their weapons and act as a citizen militia, taking to the streets with an eye toward preventing a military coup. At least 24 people have been killed; hundreds more have been detained.
Even so, the opposition has pledged to “stay on the streets” until presidential elections are called (right now, they're due to be held in 2018.)
These are some of the largest protests the country has ever seen. But will they work? Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at the University of Denver, has some thoughts.
Chenoweth studies mass movements. In some of her more recent research, she's looked at every popular effort to overthrow the government — some 500 of them. And she's sliced, diced and quantified the data to figure out what makes these movements effective. According to her research, mass protests are most likely to work when a couple of factors are present.
For one thing, she says big numbers are important, but only if they represent really diverse segments of society. And participation doesn't have to be overwhelming. Get just 3.5 percent of a country's population onto the street, and your movement is likely to work.
She also says these movement work best when they're innovative and flexible, particularly in more repressive regimes. Movements that “start to diversify to other forms of noncooperation like economic striking, boycotts, things like that are able to apply various kinds of pressure on the opponent while minimizing risks,” she said. “Particularly in very repressed countries, protests can be really dangerous especially if they become predictable.”
That flexibility helps with another key factor — resilience even when repression starts to escalate.
Another key factor: loyalty shifts among security forces. That doesn't mean the police have to start marching with the opposition, Chenoweth says. It's enough for them to skip work or refuse to fire on protesters “because they don't feel like going out and beating up a bunch of elderly women.”
Lastly and, perhaps, counterintuitively: Nonviolent opposition movements are about twice as effective as violent ones. Chenoweth theorizes that this is because nonviolent movements attract a broader range of people and are sustainable over a longer period of time.
Does Venezuela have what it takes? Miguel R. Tinker Salas, a regional expert at Pomona College, said he isn't so sure.
There have been protests in Venezuela for 16 years, he noted. While this movement is larger, Salas said he isn't sure that it's drawing the kinds of diverse crowds necessary to change the conversation. “I don't see that they've expanded their base,” he said. Salas also said he worries that the opposition has laid out a very rigid set of demands: Maduro must step down, no negotiation. That doesn't leave room for, say, the government to schedule regional elections this year, which the opposition candidates would probably win. This will make it harder to attract moderates.
There's also not a lot of evidence that they've swayed the security forces, he said, particularly the citizen army loyal to Maduro.
Still, he said he thinks the scarcity that exists around the country is engaging people who were willing to let the government try to correct course. The idea of scarcity goes against the country's sense of who they are — a place that has always been resource-rich, where people have been free from want. “It scares people because it breaks from the narrative constructed,” he said.
Even so, Salas said he doubts Maduro will step down, unless something dramatic happens. And even if the opposition succeeds, Salas said he worries about what comes next. “What's not clear is the endgame, what does the opposition hope to accomplish?” he asked. “What's their positive program for how they would lead the nation?”