The force of peaceful tactics

In their struggles for democracy, activists in Sudan and Venezuela show that a commitment to nonviolence can nudge brutal regimes toward peace talks.

Protesters in Sudan march against military rule last July.

At a time of global concern about democracy, violent crackdowns against protesters in Iran and Myanmar illustrate the difficulty of challenging authoritarian rule. Yet in two countries, Sudan and Venezuela, the tactics of pro-democracy activists may be showing how peaceful transitions are not just possible but perhaps inevitable.

Both countries are being nudged by regional and Western leaders toward talks to restore inclusive and accountable government bound by the rule of law. That goal, observers say, may rest on a characteristic the two countries share – a commitment by activists to nonviolence. As the United States Institute of Peace noted earlier this month, “an asset that can help Sudan build the more responsive governance it needs is the country’s remarkably vibrant, deeply rooted tradition of nonviolent civic action.”

Sudan and Venezuela face similar crises. They are ruled by disputed governments that have overseen acute economic and humanitarian crises. In Sudan, 8.3 million people face severe hunger, according to the World Food Program. In Venezuela, 95% of the population lives in extreme poverty, and nearly 7 million have fled since 2014, according to the United Nations. In both countries, security forces have responded to public protests with violence and detentions. 

The international community had hoped that isolating the two regimes – one a military junta that seized power in a coup last year, the other an autocratic regime that 50 countries regard as illegitimate – would compel them to change. There is now growing recognition that that strategy, which includes targeted sanctions, has not worked. And amid changing global energy security conditions, the Biden administration and others see a benefit in bringing the two oil-producing nations back in from the cold. Both have lately signaled an openness to talks.

That receptiveness, however, may be motivated less by the dangling of international carrots than by a recognition that intimidation has not quelled popular aspirations for a just society. In Sudan, for example, the junta’s tanks are up against a concept of nonviolent resistance called silmiya, which the Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed K described in a recent study as “the atmosphere of love.”

That ethos is one reason why nonviolent campaigns are “10 times likelier to transition to democracies within a five-year period” compared with countries that have violent anti-government campaigns, according to Harvard University professor Erica Chenoweth. Nonviolent civic protests, she noted in an interview with The Harvard Gazette, achieve three important goals. They unite society around shared values, empower moderates, and deprive repressive regimes of justifying violence against their own people.

“The way to change society is to change ideas,” said Giannina Raffo, a Venezuelan activist who helps develop websites and apps for peaceful campaigns by civil society groups. One key concept involves defending the “freedom to express ourselves without fear and to be able to criticize and combat everything we consider ... antidemocratic,” wrote Antonio Perez Esclarin, a professor at Simón Rodríguez National Experimental University in Caracas, on his blog.

Autocracy may be having a global moment, but the peoples of Sudan and Venezuela are showing that peaceful struggle against a violent ruler can help set a precedent for rule by law, freedom, and equality. The process itself reflects the ultimate goal.

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