Forgiveness as a peace tool in Venezuela

Mass protests may not be enough to bring down an illegitimate regime. Offers of mercy to the military, however, might turn the conscience of soldiers.

Juan Guaido, President of Venezuela's National Assembly, joins the Jan. 23 rally against President Nicolas Maduro's government.

By the hundreds of thousands, Venezuelans took to the streets Wednesday to demand an end to the regime of Nicolás Maduro. He has become president in name only after rigging his own reelection last year and now relies more than ever on the military to stay in power. Yet the opposition knows protests are not enough. In past demonstrations, hundreds have been killed by the armed forces – kept loyal by economic favors from Mr. Maduro.

Now the opposition has come up with a new and perhaps more powerful tool. It is offering forgiveness to members of the military who switch sides.

On Jan. 15, Venezuela’s only legitimate political body, the duly elected National Assembly, approved a measure offering amnesty to soldiers who “contribute to the defense” of the Constitution.“We need to appeal to their conscience and create incentives for them,” said one opposition member, Juan Andrés Mejía.

The new leader of the National Assembly and of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, makes clear he is not looking for a coup or violence within the military. The offer of mercy is based on individual soldiers simply recognizing Maduro as no longer a legitimate leader.

“Our troops know that the chain of command is broken due to the usurpation of the presidency,” Mr. Guaidó wrote on Twitter. “We don’t want the security forces to split apart or clash, we want them to stand united on the side of the people, the Constitution and against the usurpation.” Under the Constitution, the Assembly considers Guaidó  to be the interim president, as does the United States.

The steep decline of the Venezuelan economy and of Maduro’s authority has led to rumblings in the military rank and file. An estimated 200 soldiers are political prisoners. More than 4,000 low-ranking officers deserted last year, according to Reuters. Many soldiers know the hardship of their families in a country where 80 percent of the population has been reduced to poverty by Maduro’s mismanagement.

Offers of mercy can be effective in countries torn by civil strife. In neighboring Colombia, forgiveness of Marxist rebels by the government helped end a half-century of war two years ago. Amnesty was used to reconcile people in Rwanda after a genocide 25 years ago. In Indonesia, Islamic terrorists who surrender are offered leniency.

Reconciliation of any people relies on a process of contrition, forgiveness, and renewed affection. The bond that must be restored in Venezuela is mutual respect for constitutional order. In his message to the troops, Guaidó said: “Let democracy, that you once swore to protect, reign again over the political destiny of our country.” The real protests in Venezuela may be happening in the hearts of currently silent soldiers.

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