Photo: A Punto En Linea retrieved
Look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps
a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at
the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and
I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.
Jacob Riis

It’s the kind of inspirational quote you usually see on a poster, set against a majestic natural landscape. It came to mind this week as I thought about the plan, hatched by Leopoldo López and put in practice by Juan Guaidó, to put the dictatorship under pressure once more and see if it will finally crack.

Riis’s quote encapsulates a nice “el que se cansa, pierde” kind of sentiment, and it gets at some basic truths about the nature of the opposition’s task. Like all dictatorships, the Maduro regime is hard but brittle. It will not be easy to break, but the blow that does break it is likely to split it down the middle at once.

Which is to say I think Leopoldo and Guaidó have the right strategy. And yet I’m not at all convinced their plan will work.

Which is to say I think Leopoldo and Guaidó have the right strategy. And yet I’m not at all convinced their plan will work.

Why is it the right strategy? Because, like rocks, authoritarian regimes are hard but brittle. And when you’re trying to break something that’s hard but brittle, all you can do is keep pounding at it. Which is not at all to say there’s any good reason to believe the next blow is the one that’ll crack it.

Why is the dictatorship hard but brittle? Because it’s built on repression and fear. Maduro has created enormous pressures for dissidents within the security services and the Armed Forces to pass themselves off as his biggest fans. If you’re a colonel with grave doubts about Maduro these days, your overwhelming priority right now is to ensure everyone around you believes you’re his most committed supporter.

Spotting dissidents has become hugely difficult for the regime. It spends lavishly on a sprawling counterintelligence operation to flush out dissidents. But the strategy is counterproductive in the long term: the better DGCIM gets at ferreting out dissidents, the more the remaining dissidents double down on efforts to hide their own views.

Eventually, regimes like Maduro create unstable equilibrium where a critical mass of its own military officers oppose it but they’re all spending huge energy hiding that from one another. All it takes for them all to come forward at once is a coordinating event.  

Typically, elections provide those coordinating events, but with no elections on the horizon, the opposition needed to manufacture one.

That’s what the hubbub around January 10 was really about. López and Guaidó set out to create circumstances where the regime would come under enough pressure for that critical mass of dissident officers to coordinate with one another and reveal themselves all at the same time.

Typically, elections provide those coordinating events, but with no elections on the horizon, the opposition needed to manufacture one.

They’ve tried striking that rock before. First in 2014, during the first wave of anti-Maduro protests that originally saw Leopoldo jailed. Then by gathering signatures in 2016. Then again in the 2017 protests. That the rock didn’t crumble then in no way proves it is unbreakable. It is, we all sense, getting closer to breaking each time they strike it.

The analogy, though, has a flaw. A rock just sits there passively while you strike it, the only thing standing between the stonecutter and success is perseverance. The regime strikes back. Every time you strike it, it fires people. It rounds people up, jails them, tortures them, persecutes them, even kills them.

El que se cansa pierde—López’s old slogan, ‘if you tire out first, you lose’—implies all you need is stamina. So does Riis’s quote. But it isn’t quite like that. This rock might put your children in a dungeon and torture them if you strike it.

It’s not quite the same.

And yet the only way to break it is to strike it.

So is Guaidó delivering the 101st blow? Or the 99th? Or the 72nd? Or the 23rd?

How many more blows will it take?

I don’t know.

Neither does Leopoldo López.

Neither does Juan Guaidó.

And neither do you.

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