The Lesson of Venezuela: Regime Change Can Only Happen When People Take to the Streets

Wang Dan, February 5, 2019

On February 2, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets again, demanding change. This article by 1989 Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan (王丹) was published in Chinese by Radio Free Asia on January 25. After teaching in Taiwan for years, Wang Dan now lives in the Washington, DC area and heads the new Dialogue China think tank. – The Editors

On January 23, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital to protest the ruling party and President (Nicolás) Maduro. In front of a dense cheering crowd, waving their arms in support, the 35-year-old opposition leader (Juan Guaidó) proclaimed himself “interim President” and immediately received recognition from Western countries led by the U.S. and Latin American neighbors. The current Venezuelan administration faces severe challenges, and an alternation in regime will very likely succeed peacefully. What happened in Venezuela once again tells us one thing: that is, it is only when people take to the streets that regime change is possible.   

Why, you might ask? Simply because in countries with authoritarian dictatorships like China and North Korea, there’s no mechanism for people to change the regime through elections and other means within the system. Even in democratic countries, people taking to the streets is the most effective and direct way to effect a change in political power.

Venezuela is not a completely authoritarian state. It has long possessed a constitutional democracy. But a democratic system cannot guarantee that a corrupt regime will, on its own accord, correct its own mistakes. During Chavez’s four-term presidency and the tenure of his successor, Maduro, it’s not that the opposition did not try to overthrow their rule through elections, but they could not shake the entrenched power. This was in part due to the irrational choices of Venezuelan voters, and in part due to the fact that the opposition could not come together and jointly agree on a leader to put forward.

But in recent years the Venezuelan opposition party has continued to explore ways to solve problems within the system, and the majority of public opinion supported the opposition. In the December 2015 parliamentary elections, the opposition won 112 seats of 167 seats and took control of the National Assembly. The outside world thought that this would effectively check the anti-democratic behavior of the current government. However, on August 18, 2017, Maduro also used a method from within the system to announce the establishment of the Constituent Assembly. This Constituent Assembly, with direct legislative power, meant that the National Assembly was deprived of its main powers, making it impossible for the will of the people to be expressed through the system. Through manipulation by the government, the judicial system– another built-in check and balance mechanism – was, likewise, unable to play its role. The Supreme Court opposed the National Assembly’s exercise of its right to effect change in political power.

It was only when all means within the system were exhausted and there were no other ways to force a regime that had lost popular support to step down, that the people took action. Heeding the call of the opposition party, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. And this led to the moving scene witnessed by the whole world: the self-proclamation of a takeover of the regime by the young opposition leader.

It remains to be seen whether the alternation of political power in Venezuela will be realized smoothly. In addition to the crucial factor of whether the military’s support for the current government will change, the attitude of the United States and Latin American neighbors, such as whether or not to intervene militarily, and their influence, is also crucial. Regardless, at present we can already see there is hope for solving the political deadlock that has long troubled Venezuela.

Losing the recognition of the international community and facing large-scale street protests, the future prospects for President Maduro don’t look good. Even if he can manage to hold onto office, it’s unlikely that his rule will proceed smoothly. All that has happened is predicated on the people taking to the streets in large numbers, and peacefully displaying their desire for change.

It is often said that street demonstrations are a radical form of protest, which can easily lead to large-scale violent conflicts and undermine the democratic process. But in fact, throughout the ages, the vast majority of regime change took place when people went to the streets. Without the pressure of people taking to the streets, few rulers will take the initiative to step down on their own. At the same time, we also have seen that, without the support of street demonstrations, mechanism from within the system can easily be defeated by all manners of political manipulation. Although people taking to the street may lead to large-scale violent conflicts, there are many examples of peaceful demonstrations that have forced a peaceful change in the regime. The resistance on the street, which occurs outside the system, will provide an opportunity for the opposition party within the system, and it is only such an opportunity that can lead to success for the opposition within the system. This is root cause for why street demonstrations are the only method to change a regime, and what happened in Venezuela proves this point again.

Related:

Twenty-Eight Years After – An Interview With Wang Dan, October 25, 2017.

The Chinese Communist Party Should Fade Into History Peacefully, Avoiding Violence and Minimizing Social Unrest, Zheng Yefu, January 25, 2019.

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One response to “The Lesson of Venezuela: Regime Change Can Only Happen When People Take to the Streets”

  1. samwoole says:

    To go to the streets Chinese people should write the Article 79 of the constitution on their banner when it is time to elect the next president. And chant aloud “I want to be elected as the next president我想当选下届总统”.

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