Venezuela’s massive anti-government protests appear to have the staying power they’ve lacked in years past. That’s good news, since Venezuela's socialist government has destroyed an oil-rich economy and once-sturdy democracy.
But – along with the 29 people killed so far in this month's unrest – here's the bad news. The longer the demonstrations last, the greater will be their defeat if they don’t succeed in forcing that disastrously erratic and dictatorial regime to restore democratic norms and elections.
That opposition failure would probably leave the regime more entrenched – meaning, more erratic and dictatorial. That’s the way erratic and dictatorial regimes are. When they’re challenged they don’t listen up. They double down.
If you needed any reminder of that, look no further than Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s Mad Max decision last week to arm 400,000, pro-government civilian militia members to defend his unraveling revolution. “A gun for every militiaman!” he shouted in his cartoon-radical style.
The order – delivered in Caracas, the city with the world’s highest murder rate – makes the National Rifle Association look socially responsible. But it also signals the retribution Maduro and the ruling socialists are capable of if the current turmoil doesn’t unseat them. And the pain will be economic as well as political – evidenced by their equally reckless seizure last week of General Motors’ Venezuelan assembly plant, which resulted in the loss of 2,700 jobs.
But, you might ask, even if the protests don’t bring down Maduro and company, won’t the very economic implosion they’ve caused eventually do the trick? Won’t Venezuela’s plunge into a failed state necessarily mean their demise?
No. There are plenty of failed states where ruthless regimes, like dogs that rule rubble heaps, are still intact. Syria. Zimbabwe. North Korea.
And that’s Venezuela’s problem right now, despite all the aura of Andean Spring hanging over the protests along with the tear gas clouds. If the demonstrations die down without Maduro backing down, he likely emerges stronger even if the country emerges more broken. As a result, Venezuela’s opposition leaders may be at a point of no return. If so, they have to deliver.
They’ve got two imperative jobs right now: keeping those tens of thousands of people in the streets indefinitely – and leveraging that enormous outcry into Maduro’s capitulation or voluntary exit.
WEST SIDE STORY
The key to the first task: Keep the focus on the poor.
The last serious anti-government uprising, in 2014, faded because it failed to draw the socialists’ working-class base, especially in Caracas’ slums. The imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo López that year was indeed a kangaroo court obscenity. (It still is; he remains in jail.) But poorer Venezuelans simply didn’t identify with López, who’d been mayor of Caracas’ affluent Chacao district. Nor did they feel a bond with the largely middle-class folks taking to the streets then.
Afterward, los sifrinos (yuppies) began to reach out to the poor more seriously. They walked out of east Caracas bistros like Limoncello and walked into west Caracas barrios like Catia, where Venezuela’s economic collapse has hit hardest. It paid off a year later when the opposition demolished the socialists in parliamentary elections – and this year, when the slums too have erupted in protests. Lesson: if Maduro is ousted it will ultimately be a west side story.
As for the second, harder task of making Maduro reinstate democratic institutions, free political prisoners and hold general elections such as the presidential recall referendum he keeps blocking: Keep the focus abroad.
Granted, internationally mediated “dialogue” between the government and the opposition has so far been a joke. Even leftist Pope Francis has walked away shaking his head at Maduro’s cluelessness.
But Venezuela's neighbors seem less patient with autocrats these days – a big reason Venezuela is leaving the Organization of American States (OAS) in a huff. So the opposition needs to keep finding and schmoozing outside players who can convince Maduro, and the military backing him, that the unrest isn’t going to end – and then show him a way out he can swallow. It’s happened before. Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti in 1986. Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990. And it can happen this time in Venezuela.
Or you might say: It has to happen this time.