The Guardia Whisperer

I’m a sifrino kid who used to get shaken down for bribes at checkpoints all the time. Then I learned how to chill with a Guardia Nacional. And it stopped. Can MUD learn my tricks?

Here we are. More than two months in, around 70 dead, 3,000+ injured and thousands protesting in the streets. When is this going to an end? We all read the statistics, nonviolence has up to 50% higher chance to succeed than violent protest. We’ve heard of Lichback’s 5 % rule — no government can survive an active mobilization of five percent of its citizens. In greater Caracas, we’re not far from that. The regime should be crumbling. But it isn’t. Not yet. Why? Se trancó el serrucho?

I think I may have some insight. For one thing, I’m scared to death of law enforcement. My baby-face is a sure prompt for cops at alcabalas (police checkpoints) to look for bounty. As a defense mechanism, I decided I needed to figure out how to strike up conversations with them. How to just talk. Just like doing fieldwork for my Sociology classes. I made a conscious decision to show an interest. To ask them about their lives, about their families, about where they’re from and what matters to them and what they like and hate and why. And to listen —really listen— to what they to those questions.

It was after many of these chats that it started to occur to me. Isn’t this what MUD should be doing, too?

Theory suggests large-scale desertions are one tipping point for non-violent regime change. Chenoweth has measured that nonviolent campaigns that elicit substantial defections are forty-six times more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns where that fail to elicit them. And the key to setting off defections? Winning over those who do the repression.  

But how do you get large scale desertions and loyalty shifts from the security forces?

The officers I chat up at the average alcabala are nothing like the main actors of the protests. Most of them have been living on the margins of society. They come from places like Guadalupe (a small town in Lara) and Guasipati (a mining town in Bolivar state) or slums like La Vega (Caracas).

The crisis is hitting the middle class hard, but it’s hitting the working class much, much harder.

They don’t have many lived experiences in common with the middle class protesters they’re sent to tear-gas. We hate to admit it, but there’s a ethnic aspect to this. You can see it. Their ancestors aren’t the typical faces you see in Tovar y Tovar’s paintings, the lords of the valley who had long ruled our country.

It’s no coincidence that the government has invested so much in portraying protesters as non-Venezuelans, as Other.

As Gene Sharp put it (P.122),

The greater the barrier of social distance the stronger the barriers to ‘fellow feeling’ mutual understanding, and empathy, between the contending groups, the less possibility of conversion. Some nonviolent resisters have taken steps to reduce or remove the social distance between the contending groups.

Don’t fret, it’s not a calle ciega. We know glossing the protests as a fight of the privileged vs the marginalized is a gross distortion — especially this time around. Neomar Lander was out protesting because his family couldn’t find enough food: describing him as some spoiled rich kid is a grotesque slander.

Venezuela as a whole is discontented. The ENCOVI 2016 household survey shows why: people’s living standards have catastrophically collapsed. Datanálisis collects numbers on the collective arrechera. And the spasm is nationwide, too: while there have been around 60 protests in Caracas since April, there have been 1,791 protests all over the country in the same time.

But still, the defections from the government side have come in a trickle, not a flood. How do we change that?

We need to focus the protests on food shortages, inflation and homicides.

For starters, by centering our message the things that matter to the kinds of people who join the security forces: we need to focus the protests on food shortages, inflation and homicides. Central Caracas (Municipio Libertador) has close to 120 violent deaths per 100,000 people while better off El Hatillo is nearer 15 per 100,000. The crisis is hitting the middle class hard, but it’s hitting the working class much, much harder.

Guardia, a tus panas también los matan.

It took a work for me to learn how to talk to Guardias at checkpoints naturally enough for them not to shake me down. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, because I felt I had to do it and I had a strategy to do it. I figured out a way to talk across our social differences, and that makes all the difference.

Maybe the opposition is like me: the minute they figure out they’re better off establishing fellow-feeling between repressors and the repressed is the minute the escalation stops cold. But I can tell you from experience: it takes work, but it pays off. Not as a human strategy to win, but as a realization of the necessity to fight for others’ rights too of not only reading numbers on the crisis but feeling their stories of stuggle. It’s only if we make a decision to commit to that work that this will work. Pa’ ayer es tarde.