Back on February 22nd, I wrote “Visualize May”: an exasperated and – in retrospect – badly misguided post about the uselessness of the nascent protest movement. Well, it’s May now, so accountability demands we go through that post now and have a bit of a reckoning. (Spoiler alert: I Visualized May wrong.)
My main contention was simple: a radicalized protest movement would last a couple of weeks, a month max. Then it would fizzle out, leaving the opposition further demobilized and the government with a winning propaganda issue, and having newly normalized the means to repress further protests.
It’s true that the protests are not as active today as they were then, but I don’t think anybody would describe the situation in Venezuela right now as “some version of calm and normality.”
There are still peos in multiple cities basically every day, and ongoing large citizen mobilizations. The protest movement has proven way, way more resilient than I’d foreseen.
Of course, back in Chávez’s day that wouldn’t necessarily have been bad news for the government. Chávez had a knack for turning the table on protesters and convincing the broad middle of the Venezuelan electorate that their problems were the opposition’s fault.
But the polling data I’ve seen shows the opposite happening this time. In Datanalisis’s April Omnibus (field dates March 31st to April 20th), politically unafiliated voters side systematically with the opposition’s interpretation of recent events, leaving chavismo as a rump exposed. People back peaceful street protests by a huge 66% to 25% margin. That’s a 41 point spread. Crushing. Crucially, 64% of “Ni-Nis” back the protests, while just 26% oppose them.
On a typical “oppo dog whistle” question, like whether you want Cubans who meddle in Venezuelan state affairs to leave the country, 89% of the opposition supporters agree, but so do a staggering 70 (seven-TY) percent of NiNis. (And chavismo take note: 30% of chavistas also want the Cubans out!)
Meanwhile 64% of NiNis join 93% of the opposition (and 61% of the whole sample) in calling for the release of all political prisoners. And a Staggering 85% of NiNis join the 99% of the opposition that doesn’t believe the government will find solutions to the problems in the next 12 months.
On a few other questions, NiNis split more evenly between pro-government and pro-opposition positions. NiNis evaluate MUD and its most visible leaders (HCR and LL) in ways that mirror government supporters, not opponents.
But what the poll clearly doesn’t show is anything like the stampede of politically unaffiliated Chávez sympathizers back into the government fold we saw back in the era of hyper-polarization in 2002-2004. Quite the opposite.
The reason, I think, is simple enough: Maduro no es Chávez. Whatever X-Factor it was that Chávez had that allowed him to bring the broad center over to his side when he went into hyper-confrontational mode, Maduro does not have it.
So I had it wrong: I overlearned the lessons of the last war. The dynamics this time around are obviously different. The protest movement has gingerly by-passed the Maginot Line of 2002 old timers’ sensibilities – just gone around it – to reshape the political map faster than any of us thought possible.
The time to protest is when protesting rallies neutrals to our side and drives a wedge between them and the government. That seems to be the dynamic we’re seeing now.
Once you grasp that, the dynamics of the last three months start to look very different. Back in February, for instance, I used to be the Number 1 proponent of the idea that repression was designed to spur on more protests – a cynical gambit from a government that (I used to think) stands to gain from added conflict.
But is Monday’s HRW report really consistent with that? Is beating people up in a dark cel in police detention really about spurring on more protests? The incomunicado stuff? The ruleteo stuff? And what about the super-onerous regímenes de presentación, which always include the threat of heavy jail terms if you break your court order by protesting again?
Is that the policy mix of a security state that feels it gains from more and more protests in middle class areas?
I just don’t think the evidence points that way. The way they’re going about the repression, the very camera-shyness Juan discussed, points to guys repressing to get us off the streets. Which is what you do as a government once you’ve lost faith in the organizing idea that with each new protest more of the broad political center of the country moves closer to you as a hedge against chaos.
That isn’t happening. The government seems to grasp it isn’t happening. But has the MUD?!
The question is what it’ll take for MUD’s moderate wing to reach the same conclusion. They have the same data we do – hell, they paid for it, they presumably had it a good long time before we did.
The empirics of the protest movement are now relatively clear. And the dynamite-muthafuggin’-tnt nature of the rift they risk with their own base if they continue to be seen to appease a regime they should be confronting was laid bare by Jacobsongate yesterday. So what’s it going to take for these guys to revise their own assumptions about May was supposed to look like vs. what May actually looks like? I’d like to know.