Isabella Picón is a Venezuelan activist and founding member of LaboCiudadano, a civic organization based in Caracas. Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.”
Whether and how a democratic transition unfolds in Venezuela depend critically on the size, strength and organizing prowess of the pro-democracy movement in the country. Over the past decade, the opposition has suffered from weaknesses, including its narrow social base, lack of coordination between international and national pressure to promote democratic change, and over-reliance on elections to mobilize supporters. Notably absent has been the support of “chavistas,” those who back the political ideology and programs of the previous Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.
This is changing. Since 2018, largely due to the complex humanitarian emergency in the country, the majority of protests either surged spontaneously in areas that used to be chavista strongholds, or have been led by unions and grass-roots organizations and focused on social issues, service delivery and labor rights. The decentralized nature of this social mobilization broadened the base of the movement beyond the political opposition; it now consists of human rights groups, the student movement, organized diaspora, and thousands of grass-roots and civil society organizations.
More recently, the National Assembly, the country’s democratically elected legislature, has focused on five specific actions to broaden and deepen its reach. First, since Jan. 5, when Juan Guaidó was sworn in as its president, he and its members have used the “Cabildo Abierto” (or open town meetings) to engage communities, communicating a message of inclusion for this new stage of the pro-democracy movement.
Second, the mass protest demonstrations on Jan. 23, Feb. 2 and Feb. 12 have exhibited strength and diverse participation. Protests have also taken place in traditional chavista strongholds and include those that don’t identify with the traditional opposition but that are increasingly disillusioned with the Maduro regime.
Third, the movement is actively reaching out to the armed forces by distributing copies of a proposed amnesty plan in military bases and explaining its contents through social media. This direct engagement with ordinary soldiers and members of the security forces is unprecedented in Venezuela and key to encouraging loyalty shifts within the regime’s most critical pillar of support.
Fourth, movement leaders have unveiled a national reconstruction plan, dubbed the Country Plan (Plan País), which offers a road map for rebuilding the country’s economy and public services and was announced by Guaidó at the Central University of Venezuela on Jan. 31. Though it is an ongoing effort with many voids to be filled, the plan, which was developed by politicians, civic and business leaders and academics in and out of Venezuela, represents the most promising start yet in terms of showing a vision for the country.
Finally, activists are making a concerted call for a national and international movement of volunteers to help in efforts to receive, distribute and implement the humanitarian aid that is being gathered in collection centers in Cúcuta (on the Colombia border), Curaçao and Roraima (Brazil).
While these tactics have helped the movement grow active support, dealing with repression remains a major challenge. Around 35 protesters were killed during confrontations with security forces the last week of January. On Feb. 23, during mass protests across the country and at the borders to support the entrance of humanitarian aid, security forces on the borders killed at least four people and injured nearly 300.
This crackdown has convinced many that violence (foreign military intervention or otherwise) is the only solution. However, many in the pro-democracy movement are successfully arguing that nonviolent discipline is a key to success. Guaidó, along with other political leaders and civil society organizations, has repeatedly called for the struggle to be assertive but peaceful.
The road to democracy will be difficult. The movement faces a twofold challenge. The first is to intensify domestic and international pressure for a democratic transition to be possible. Grass-roots outreach to the military and security forces is vital. Persuading Russia and China to drop their support for the regime is likely to prove crucial. International efforts by the Organization of American States, the Lima Group (a 14-nation body created in 2017 to address the Venezuela crisis), the United States, the European Union and the United Nations need to be increasingly coordinated with organizational and grass-roots efforts in Venezuela.
The second challenge is to make real innovations in Venezuela’s democratic culture. While the focus has been on Guaidó as the leader of the National Assembly, he is not alone: He represents a renewal of political leadership in Venezuela. A new generation of National Assembly deputies, political managers, organizers and social activists has emerged as key conductors of the movement after being part of the pro-democracy struggle for years. This new generation now needs to expand and deepen its leadership.
The pro-democracy movement has demonstrated resilience and an ability to learn from past failures. It now has a chance to harness domestic and international pressure to achieve a democratic breakthrough and, perhaps more importantly, to help make it stick.