Photo: Riot police embrace protesters in Barquisimeto. Twitter, retrieved.

The moment when it fully sunk in is when I read Alfredo Romero’s end-of-day tweet on behalf of Foro Penal, the NGO in defense of political detainees he leads.

In previous bouts of protests, back in 2014 and 2017, Foro Penal’s end-of-day tweets became a grim ritual—reporting, in cold hard numbers, the protest day’s toll: so many arrested, so many clashes with the security forces, so many injured and, yes, so many dead. I came to dread them— each number, I knew, was unsuited for the task of representing the human pain it reported.

And so, last night’s tweet came as an unaccustomed jolt. As of 8 p.m., Foro Penal reported…

Nothing.

After a day of mass protests all throughout Venezuela, in cities big and small, in towns as small as Caripe, off by the Cuevas del Guácharo in Northern Monagas state, Foro Penal had nothing to report.

No arrests. No clashes. No injuries. No killings. Nothing.

Later in the night, a handful of arrests were reported in Miranda and Apure, but that was after the protests had ended peacefully.

That morning, a video from Barquisimeto showed National Police troops in full riot gear withdrawing from the site of a protest, hugging protesters and seeming to side with them.

Whether or not that image convinced Maduro that it was just too risky to order the security forces to repress protests we don’t know.

In the few protests spots where men in uniform were present, they kept well back and never engaged the protesters. In most places, though, they just never showed up.

What good is it to control the security forces if you can’t use them? And if you can’t use them, in what sense do you actually control them?

It now looks clear that the order for the security forces to repress the protests was never given. If it had been given, and rejected, the regime would have crumbled by now. It hasn’t crumbled. Yet. Which strongly suggests to us the order was never given.

We heard reports that most troops were being quartered—they were acuartelados—kept in facilities where their bosses could keep a close eye on them. It’s hard to confirm in this environment.

Readers of our Political Risk Report (and if you’re not one, really, what are you waiting for?) know our line on this phenomenon. The biggest risk for Maduro is a breakdown in the military chain of command. The one thing Maduro knows he cannot afford to do is issue an order that is then rejected. The loss of face and authority that would imply would practically invite a revolt.

So what do you do when you can’t afford to risk giving an order that won’t be followed, but you’re not at all certain the next one will be?

You just don’t issue it. Because issuing it is too risky.

The result? A jolt of exhilaration, as hundreds of thousands of people taught by long practice that protests always end in trouble got to go out, stand up against the regime, sing the national anthem and then go home without anyone getting roughed up, without any tear gas or arrests or worse. That that’s even possible already represents a breakdown in the regime’s power.

What good is it to control the security forces if you can’t use them? And if you can’t use them, in what sense do you actually control them?

Yes, there are still risks. But they’re diminishing.

What comes next is clear. The security forces’ passivity in the face of mass protests yesterday is an unprecedented show of weakness for the regime. Push them farther, harder and you’ll end up putting Maduro in an impossible position: screwed if he doesn’t give the order to repress, because protests are simply too big, and too close to him, and screwed if he does, because chances are very high they won’t be followed.

Yes, there are still risks. But they’re diminishing. Yes, a miscalculation could still send the protest movement haywire. But that scenario looks much less probable today than this time yesterday. Yes, prudence is still important. But so is daring.

What comes next is clear. How fast it will play out isn’t. How peaceful or violent it will be isn’t. But we know how this plays out. And thank God for that.

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