When conscience, not guns, decides a democracy

As Venezuela’s peaceful protests grow, its security forces may be hard-pressed to use violence. With cracks appearing in the Maduro regime, soldiers or police may determine the country’s democratic future. 

AP Photo
University students in Caracas, Venezuela, attend an April 29 vigil for a late classmate, Juan Pablo Pernalete, who was killed by security forces during an anti-government protest.

Pick almost any protest in history that led to a democratic revolution – Ukraine in 2014, for example, or Tunisia in 2011 or the Philippines in 1986 – and you’ll find many of the unsung heroes were soldiers or police officers. When ordered to fire on peaceful demonstrators, they refused. And a dictator was then forced to flee.

Such a moment of conscience by security forces may be coming to Venezuela. As pro-democracy protests against President Nicolás Maduro become larger and more frequent, more cracks have opened among his supporters. Polls show less than a quarter of Venezuelans support him. And as Maduro’s legitimacy fades and the economy enters its fourth year of recession, he has relied even more on forceful repression – and the shaky allegiance of armed forces. In the past month, dozens of people have died during peaceful protests.

The latest top official to openly criticize the Maduro government is Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. In March she denounced yet another unconstitutional grab for more power and Maduro’s use of armed thugs against dissidents. Her criticism led the opposition speaker of the sidelined legislature, Julio Borges, to make this request of the military: “Now is the time to obey the orders of your conscience.”

Any soldier or police officer that refuses to shoot nonviolent protesters is on solid moral and legal ground. Under a 1990 United Nations agreement called Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, security personnel have a right to ignore commands to shoot if there is a possibility of killing innocents.

In Venezuela, soldiers may have also heard of a saying by Latin America’s famed 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar: “Cursed is the soldier who turns the nation’s arms against its people.” And they may feel emboldened by recent demands from a majority of Venezuela’s neighbors in the Organization of American States for free and fair elections and the release of political prisoners.

New democracies have often been created or reborn after a mental revolution by soldiers who, rather than shoot, embraced their fellow citizens and their cause of liberty.

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