Keep the peace in Venezuela's protests

As in Ukraine, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is losing the moral high ground as his forces shoot innocent protesters. He must adopt the nonviolent tactics of his political opponents.

AP Photo
Demonstrators join hands to block a highway in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 24. The banner over their heads reads in Spanish "We are all Venezuela." Traffic has come to a halt in parts of the Venezuelan capital because of barricades set up by opposition protesters.

During February’s protests in Ukraine, the world witnessed one of those tipping points when an elected government, entrusted to keep the peace, ends up killing unarmed demonstrators – only to then quickly fall. A universal moral preference for peace persuaded Ukrainian security forces to no longer take orders to shoot their own people.

Might Ukraine’s lesson of peace now apply to Venezuela, where a dozen protesters have been killed since Feb. 12?

“This is not Ukraine,” President Nicolás Maduro has declared as he faces the largest protests since he took power last April. He may well be right, but only if he tells the National Guard, National Police, and the paramilitary gangs known as colectivos not to kill the vast majority of protesters committed to nonviolent tactics.

Mr. Maduro, who is a much weaker leader than the strongman he replaced, the late Hugo Chávez, has lately shown a desperation to cling to power by resorting to violence and jailing his political opponents, such as Leopoldo López. He leads a divided government that is held responsible for Venezuela’s rampant inflation, extreme shortages of basic goods, and a murder rate unsurpassed in any country.

His economic and political failings have not yet cost him the moral higher ground among the country’s masses of poor. Many of the tens of thousands of protesters in recent weeks have been from the middle class. But as in Ukraine, the blatant killing of innocent protesters will likely come at a high moral cost. And in the age of Twitter and Instagram, the images of police shootings are reaching the world faster.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch are collecting videos of the shootings and decrying the excessive use of force. US Secretary of State John Kerry and some Latin American leaders are also speaking out. President Obama said last week that “all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.”

Despite Maduro’s attempts to control TV exposure of the official atrocities, the spread of social media is working against him. Even Venezuelan pro baseball players in the US are speaking out. Texas Rangers pitcher Martin Perez has tweeted the words of the 19th-century liberator Simón Bolívar: “Cursed is the soldier who turns the nation’s arms against its people.”

Top opposition leaders, such as Henrique Capriles, have consistently called for peaceful protests. And Mr. López wrote from his prison cell last week: “To the youth, to the protesters, I ask you to stay firm against violence, and to stay organized and disciplined.”

One phrase now commonly heard in the country’s urban slums is “Ya esta bueno ya” (Enough already). That usually was applied to shortages of goods like toilet paper. Now it is being applied with greater force to a government losing trust over its violations of peace.

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