The Beginning of the End for Maduro?

How protesters banging kitchenware marked a turning point for a country in chaos

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

It’s nighttime, and the footage is grainy. At first, it’s not clear what you’re looking at. A gaggle of roughly 40 people walks quickly down a street, a strange clanking noise marking time. A voice emerges from the din: “¿Que es esto?” or “What’s going on here?” Then a large man dressed in olive green materializes, jogging through the center of the frame, surrounded by four or five men, presumably bodyguards. He looks panicked and powerless—entirely out of control. Gradually, it dawns on you that the large man in green is none other than Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, and the entourage his rattled security detail. People in the background shout “¡Mamagüebo!” — “Cocksucker!” It looks for all the world like Maduro is being chased down the street by an angry mob, clanging away, oddly, on pots.

Within hours, the clip of Maduro’s pursuit had gone mega-viral across Venezuela via social media. Soon, news trickled out that the presidential Honor Guard was going door-to-door searching homes and seizing cell phones in Villa Rosa, the hardscrabble shantytown on Margarita Island, 200 miles east of Caracas, where the pot-banging scramble all went down. But the regime’s goons move much slower than the internet: by the time they were done arresting and questioning 20 residents later that night, pretty much everyone in Venezuela had seen the videos.

It’s not yet clear why Maduro decided to go on his ill-fated walkabout in Villa Rosa that night. Minutes earlier, he had been showcasing a series of slum homes, recently refurbished through one of his social programs. The day before, three-quarters of a million people had marched peacefully in Caracas, demanding a referendum to recall Maduro from office, a right guaranteed to them by the Venezuelan constitution. Amid the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, and unprecedented levels of hunger and destitution, people have had enough.

The #VillaRosa incident, as it soon became known on Twitter, electrified Venezuela like nothing had in a good long time. Jeered to his face by desperate, furious, regular people, Maduro looked ridiculous. And little is more destabilizing to an autocrat than being made to look ridiculous. Even the extraordinary scenes of three main Caracas thoroughfares, packed to the gills with demonstrators the day before, couldn’t capture the emotional impact of #VillaRosa. There’s something radical about the image of ordinary people right up in the president’s face, banging their empty pots, something no march could match for raw affect.

That pot-banging—known as a cacerolazo, a venerated form of protest dating back to demonstrations over shortages in Allende-era Chile, which typically involves striking empty kitchenware—merits specific consideration. It is a decentralized, do-it-yourself form of dissent: At scheduled times, people position themselves at their windows, banging on their pots with ladles, producing a neighborhood-wide cacophony. Its genius is in how it lowers the cost of protest, breaking down the isolation that autocratic regimes like Maduro’s, and Hugo Chavez’s before him, rely on to break down their opponents. Amid a cacerolazo, you can actually hear the sound of those who feel the way you do. Things you would be too scared to voice openly, the cacerola can say on your behalf. In fact, the ruckus turns the tables on government supporters: Normally, they can enforce silence, but during a cacerolazo, they’re the isolated ones. And for the security forces, a cacerolazo presents an insurmountable problem: How do you repress a protest that’s both everywhere and nowhere in particular at once?

Cacerolazos figured prominently in the first wave of anti-regime protests from 2002 to 2004, when Chavez was still around and things in Venezuela were nowhere near as bad as they are today. Then, the protest movement failed, beaten by Chavez’s raw charisma and deep pockets amid the oil-price boom of the early aughts. To some, the tradition still carries the foul odor of that movement’s defeat: Chavez, of course, did not fall, and went on to rule in increasingly authoritarian fashion right up to his death in 2013.

Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, inherited his instinct for repression and gut-level admiration for Cuban methods of controlling dissent, but none of his charisma, and none of his luck with the oil market. Low oil prices have cast a spotlight on the million dysfunctions to which a socialist economy is prone. Today, the system has reached a crisis point: an all-out economic rout that’s left even middle-class professionals facing outright hunger. The pots are empty anyway—why not bang on them?

In Venezuela, increasing authoritarianism under Maduro has left people justifiably fearful of speaking out too openly against his government. Known opponents of the regime are routinely fired from state jobs. Worse, they’re denied access to the rationing system virtually everyone now depends on for food. To survive, you must stay quiet; enforced silence, in turn, leaves opponents isolated. Where there’s a terrible price to pay for revealing your true beliefs, political action is nearly impossible.

Yet the sense of urgency for regime change is palpable in Venezuela. To those in the country I’ve spoken to in recent days, it was clear that some sort of #VillaRosa had been brewing all year. Public opinion, long split roughly down the middle, has turned virulently anti-regime: a July Venebarometro poll had likely voters breaking 88-to-11 in favor of recalling Maduro from office. Under such circumstances, denying a timely recall vote seems liable to set the country on a path to unmanageable political conflict.

The first signs of that conflict were on display in Villa Rosa. The sight of ordinary people in an ordinary neighborhood literally chasing the president down the street brought to mind the famous scenes in Romania in 1989, when a handpicked crowd of government supporters in Bucharest began jeering at then-president Nicolae Ceaușescu during a set-piece speech. Romanians remember the way his aura of menace and omnipotence crumbled on live television as he waved at the audience, lamely, in a futile effort to settle them down. Within days, his once all-powerful dictatorship had crumbled, and Ceaușescu was summarily executed by a revolutionary tribunal. All that, two decades before Twitter.

On first glance, it would seem that #VillaRosa was Maduro’s Ceaușescu moment—that one image that burns itself onto the national psyche and lays bare the collapse of a leader’s authority. But the regime itself won’t fall quite as quickly as Romania’s. While only 15 percent of respondents in a recent poll backed the government strongly, chavismo’s adherents are organized, ideologically rigid, and heavily armed. Maduro’s authority may be flagging, but he has plenty of power. The regime controls virtually every part of the state, from the Elections Authority, to the police, the the ruling party’s National Guard militia, the army, navy, and the air force.

The one bit of the state chavistas don’t control is the National Assembly, the sole institution shaped by the people and now controlled by the opposition, which won a crushing two-thirds supermajority in elections last December. Even that’s no sweat for an autocratic regime like Maduro’s, though, since it controls the Supreme Tribunal. On Tuesday, the tribunal—Venezuela’s Supreme Court—ruled that the legislature's bills are all "null and void," in response to the opposition-controlled body's decision to swear in three lawmakers it had accused of electoral fraud. With a single ruling, the highest court in the land overturned literally everything the elected National Assembly does.

Legally, the opposition needs 3.9 million signatures in October’s signature-gathering drive (agreed to by the government’s docile Elections Council) to officially trigger a recall vote. The opposition’s gamble is that a defiant show of force at that point—say if 5, 6, or 7 million turn up to sign—will generate irresistible pressure toward a referendum before the end of the year. If the government refuses to hold one even then, extreme civil disobedience could render the country impossible to govern. At that point, the pressure on Maduro to resign could become overwhelming.

The timing matters. Under the Venezuelan constitution’s complex rules, snap elections are called only if the president is recalled before year four of his six year-term. The key deadline is January 10, 2017: If the vote to recall Maduro occurs before then, a new election will be triggered. But if the vote happens after this date, his vice president will serve out the remainder of his term, leaving the chavista regime in power. The government’s strategy, then, has been to delay the recall as much as possible, dragging its feet at every stage of the process in an effort to run out the clock.

What the opposition needs most of all now is street pressure: the determination to sustain a protest agenda in defiance of a regime that has virtually unlimited power, but virtually no authority.

Power, shorn of authority, is inherently unstable. In Venezuela, it’s hard to shake the sense that we’re witnessing the final days chavismo. What began as a hopeful experiment is ending in the kind of economic and institutional devastation rarely seen beyond the battlefield. How long it might all take to play out, and how much more damage the regime might still do on its way out, is uncertain. But in the wake of #VillaRosa, it’s a question of when, not if.