The president walks around the streets after dark, after inaugurating some newly refurbished houses on cadena nacional. But instead of waving at him, people openly show their contempt; an impromptu cacerolazo ensues. It’s not the same to protest in the comfort of your home than to get right up in the faces of the president’s body guards. But in Villa Rosa (Margarita Island) that’s just what happened according to a couple of videos that went viral last night.
— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) September 3, 2016
We still don’t know a lot of details about what happened, and lots of contradictory stories are making the rounds — Maduro went crazy! Maduro punched somebody’s grandmother! Casa Militar raided every home in the area!
From my very partial little post as a sociology prof, this incident has already done its job illustrating perfectly how, as Max Weber argued over a century ago, power and authority are not the same.
Someone is powerful when he can make people obey even against their will. Authority is something different: authority means that people are willing to accept someone’s command. The difference lays in legitimacy: authority rests on people’s consent. It cannot be imposed, it is given (or not) by those that you seek to rule.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle engage in increasingly panicked attempts to showcase the power they still have: they throw opposition leaders into dank cells, block highways all around the country and shut down metro stations to impede people coming to Caracas’s protests, they deport international journalists to avert negative news about 1S protest.
To be sure, Maduro certainly has plenty of power: he controls our economy, most our media, the military, the Consejo Nacional Electoral and the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia. He can force us to do plenty that we don’t want to do: stand in line for four hours to buy a bar of soap, shut down the land border to Colombia, demand we jump through hoops to buy foreign currency to travel abroad.
But power has limits when there is no legitimacy behind it, and the huge September 1st demonstration just showcased that dramatically. For all the government’s heavy-handed use of power to dissuade people through fear, thousands walked from every corner of Caracas demanding our right to a recall vote. And that show of defiance in Caracas had consequences, consequences for the perception of legitimacy in the rest of the country, consequences we saw vividly on display last night in Villa Rosa —once a chavista stronghold, now the kind of place where people are not intimidated by armed bodyguards and are all too happy to cantárselas al presidente to his literal face.
Power won’t protect Nicolás from people’s open contempt forever. Winning an election is the ultimate basis of legitimacy and that is now out of his reach. The only remaining question is not if this new reality shown in Villa Rosa would be able to change our institutions, but when it will. And latest events show Venezuelans are trying to obtain this change as fast as they can.