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?