Roberto Picon, who was imprisoned for his pro-democracy activism, stands at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, May 4, after being appointed to the National Electoral Council.

Venezuela’s ruler taps a moral force

Nicolás Maduro’s appointment of independent activists to an election board exposes the growing power of civil society under an authoritarian regime.

Dictatorships are not supposed to do this: On May 4, the autocratic regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro appointed two independent civic activists to a five-member government body that runs elections. One appointee, Roberto Picón, had even spent six months in prison for trying to save what little democracy remains in a country short on freedoms and long on repression by fear.

The United States and others jumped on the small concession by Mr. Maduro as a possible first step toward a return of democracy. A few days later, the leading opposition figure, Juan Guaidó, dropped his stance that Mr. Maduro must leave office before elections are held.

Yet the move may have a deeper meaning, one seen lately in many countries where autocrats have failed to respond well to the pandemic.

Venezuela has a rising number of volunteers in independent civic groups trying to end the country’s political and humanitarian crisis. In fact, the two appointees were nominated by the Civic Forum, a nongovernmental coalition of trade unions, religious groups, academics, and others. As his legitimacy has faded, Mr. Maduro could be trying to adorn his government with trusted figures from grassroots organizations, filling a void in moral leadership.

“Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force,” states a May 6 report by the International Crisis Group. In particular, the report says, the Civic Forum has been active in dealing with COVID-19, seeking economic reforms, and relieving widespread suffering.

Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed. It is now Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. In April, the government finally agreed to allow the World Food Program into the country and feed 1.5 million children. Venezuela ranks fourth in the world in terms of food insecurity.

Democracies rely on the small platoons of selfless individuals who form independent associations that uplift society, whether to ensure rule of law or to feed hungry people. Even under authoritarian regimes, people find ways to express this natural freedom of association. At times, dictators inclined to suppress such activity may tap into it. Their own failings help make the civic good of civil society stand out.

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