For years, political violence in Latin America has been rare – until this week. On Tuesday, a vicious brawl broke out in Venezuela’s National Assembly. A few opposition lawmakers were badly beaten by ruling party members after objecting to the dubious results of last month’s presidential election.
The brawl follows the killing of street protesters and the use of intimidation tactics against the opposition over its demand for an audit of the much-rigged April 14 vote.
If such violence continues, Venezuela could be ripe for a larger popular revolt aimed at restoring its badly damaged democracy. Yet, as the example of strife-torn Syria shows, pro-democracy leaders must resist any tendency toward violence. The surest way to victory in a democratic revolution is to split the ruling elite and the military by appealing to their conscience – not their fears.
This is the lesson of many “velvet” revolutions in recent decades, from the Philippines to the breakup of the Soviet Union to Myanmar (Burma) to Egypt. When a political opposition keeps the moral high ground with nonviolence, whistle-blowers emerge, soldiers refuse to shoot, army officers defect, and cronies of a despot switch sides, either to save themselves or their values. Meanwhile, other nations with duly elected leaders offer moral support.
This may be why the alleged winner of the Venezuela election, Nicolás Maduro, has been playing rough with the opposition ever since the election. Violence may not only scare off the protesters but it can possibly be made to look as if Mr. Maduro’s opponents started it.
So far he has not succeeded. As the handpicked successor to strongman Hugo Chávez, who died in March, Maduro rules over a country that is demanding change after years of “Chavismo” mismanagement. Yet he still controls the main state institutions, including the vote-counting National Electoral Council.
His election opponent, Henrique Capriles, has wisely called for nonviolent tactics, such as the banging of pots in the street. He appeals to the court of public opinion by saying the protests are a struggle “for truth against lies.” And he’s riding popular resentment over the massive loss of integrity in each person’s vote.
Venezuela’s military, despite its close ties to Cuba, will be hard-pressed if ordered to shoot protesters. Many soldiers may recall the words of the 19th-century liberator Simón Bolívar: “Cursed is the soldier who turns the nation’s arms against its people.”
A half century of creating democracies around the world has shown that power doesn’t always flow from the barrel of a gun but can spread from one person to the next if people stick to basic democratic principles – and nonviolence.