How to make sense of what happened in Caracas today? We know hundreds of thousands —perhaps close to a million— people braved an unprecedented wall of government intimidation and threats to come out and demand a recall referendum this year. But what does it mean? Was it a historic milestone? A defiant point of no return? An anticlimactic bust?

To me, it was none of those things. Instead, it was a performance, and a prelude.


Marching in an atmosphere saturated with intimidation is expensive talk.

The first thing is to get clear on what a protest is. A protest is a communicative act. A performance. It exists to transmit a signal. By raising the stakes ahead of the protests, by going all out to intimidate and threaten protesters, the government amplified the volume of the signal their participation sent. Marching in Caracas today was the polar opposite of “cheap talk”: the riskier it is to march, the stronger the signal you send by marching. Marching in an atmosphere saturated with intimidation is expensive talk. 

The message is straightforward: we’re many, we’re strong, we’re mobilized, we support our leadership, and we’re not going to let this one go without a fight. We know we have the constitution on our side. We know we have international public opinion on our side. We know we have domestic public opinion on our side. We know we’d win any imaginable vote. We know you know it. And now you know that we know that you know it.

Now, here’s the really hairy question: who is that message being sent to? 


But the message is being sent, most of all, to the institutions that support the government’s power: the CNE, the bureaucracy and, in particular, to the security forces.

It’s being sent, in the first place, to ourselves: Venezuelans who aren’t willing to let our democracy just shrivel up and die need to communicate to one another that we’re in this together. We need to coordinate, and the communicative act of marching helps us do that.

It’s being sent, in the second place, to the rest of the world: these lunatics do not represent us. We know they’re lunatics, you know they’re lunatics, we need your help wresting control of the country away from them.

But the message is being sent, most of all, to the institutions that support the government’s power: the CNE, the bureaucracy and, in particular, to the security forces. We spoke clearly to them: we know the people who give you orders are lunatics, you know the people who give you orders are lunatics, we’re mobilized, we need you to, if not actively help, at least not actively sabotage our struggle to make the constitution effective again.


The blood-thirsty, hyper-violent opposition shown in government propaganda bears no resemblance to the hundreds of thousands of well-behaved marchers they saw streaming through Caracas today.

I thought the restraint the security forces displayed today within Caracas was telling. It was in the National Police and the National Guard’s gift to turn 1S into an almighty brawl: go in with batons swinging, tear gas popping and just break up the demonstrations long before they reached their end-points. They did not. (Restraint, too, is a communicative act.)

Tonight, not just the brass but mid-ranking officers and soldiers and street-level cops will be thinking through what happened today: the blood-thirsty, hyper-violent opposition shown in government propaganda bears no resemblance to the hundreds of thousands of well-behaved marchers they saw streaming through Caracas today. And they’ll be mulling to the government’s scandalously sparse counter-demo on Avenida Bolívar: one so sparse, Diosdado Cabello embarrassed himself by tweeting a four-year-old photo and trying to pass them off as current rather than show its actual size. (That, too, will not have gone unnoticed.)

All of these messages will have reached the Security Forces, and their interpretation will give 1S its second meaning: prelude. Today’s protest are a prelude to the real confrontation, the one we’re going to see in the next seven weeks, leading up to the 20%-Signature-Collection-Drive, which now looks very much like the real referendum event.

Was 1S a success? It’s too early to tell. If it sets the stage for the opposition to score a crushing success at signature collection, it’s a success. If it creates an atmosphere where we collect not just the 3.9 million signatures we’ll need, but closer to the 7.5 million votes we’d eventually need to get rid of Maduro, it’ll help create political facts in the ground incompatible with the government’s original plan to delay Maduro’s removal until next year.

 

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