One rule for people involved in nonviolent campaigns against a brutal and corrupt leader is to always maintain one’s innocence. The hope is that this moral stance will touch the conscience of people in the regime and compel them to defect. A powerful example of this just happened in Venezuela – and at a critical time. Despite near-authoritarian rule in Venezuela, the country holds parliamentary elections Dec. 6 that could mark the end for embattled President Nicolás Maduro.
Until September, the most effective opposition figure in Venezuela was Leopoldo López. But then the regime convicted him on a charge of inciting violent protests and sentenced him to 13 years. A few weeks later, a lead prosecutor in the case, Franklin Nieves, fled the country with a tale of how the trial was all a sham, especially the claim about violence. He says his role as chief accuser was forced on him.
Besides his better-late-than-never concern about justice, Mr. Nieves says he could not stop thinking about the impact of the sentence on Mr. López’s children, who went to the same school with his own children. “I always saw their faces when I woke in the middle of the night,” he stated.
This confession by someone on the frontline of crushing the opposition has riveted Venezuelans. Most have immediate worries over steep inflation and a shortage of goods that are the result of years of misrule by the late Hugo Chavez and his successor, Mr. Maduro. Polls show the ruling party would lose the election – that is, if the vote is held fairly. Many international observers doubt that.
Unlike many defectors who flee a regime in trouble, Nieves may not be saving his own skin. He could have been truly influenced by the steadfast nonviolence campaign against the regime. He is not the first prominent member of the regime to jump ship. But his conversion may be the most dramatic and consequential. He and his wife and children are now in Miami seeking asylum from the United States. He has asked forgiveness from the López family.
This case is worth noting, like many in the history of democratic revolutions, to help inspire others who work under authoritarian leaders. Many defectors from Islamic State, for example, are being interviewed by experts to understand their reasons for leaving and then use that against the militant group. One common reason so far: the random killing of innocent hostages and villagers by IS fighters.
A study of successful nonviolent civil campaigns, published last year in Foreign Affairs magazine, found one reason for their success lies in producing regime defections. Nonviolent campaigns succeed “almost half the time, whereas only 20 percent of violent movements achieved their goals, because the vast majority were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win,” wrote the authors, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.
Political activists who follow a moral lodestar often have far more influence on others than they believe. Turning points in history do not always happen on the streets or the battlefields. They occur first with the moral courage of a wrongdoer clearing his or her conscience.