10 Venezuelan lessons for the Belarusian opposition

2021 will be a crucial year for the future of Belarus; in Venezuela, the future looks bleak. The Belarusian protesters can look and learn from the experience of the Venezuelan opposition.

Individuals gathered holding a banner for the "Walk For Peace" march.Carlos Díaz CC BY

Last Sunday marked the 120th consecutive day of massive rallies in Belarus against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s electoral fraud and use of state terror against peaceful protesters.

On the same day, Venezuelans went to the polls in a parliamentary election that offered little hope of the end of Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime any time soon.

Venezuela’s opposition had its moment of glory in 2015, when, to the surprise of the “Bolivarian” regime, it took control of the legislature. But Maduro ignored the result of that election. Since then, political leaders have been killed, arbitrarily detained, falsely accused, tortured, banned from politics, or sent into exile. NGOs report that there are currently 348 political prisoners in Venezuela. Over 200 protesters were killed over the last five years. In September this year, a UN-appointed panel concluded that abuses in the country amounted to crimes against humanity.

Belarus and Venezuela share the same recent experience of trying to rid themselves of a corrupt and authoritarian regime

This year, Maduro’s regime made sure it could not lose the legislature, by taking control of the national electoral council, neutralising the opposition, intimidating voters, and rejecting unfavourable international observers. Voter turnout was just 31 per cent, down from 74 per cent five years ago. The ruling party claimed over two-thirds of the vote. This will end Juan Guaidó’s tenure as head of the country’s National Assembly – thus undermining his claim to be the only legitimate president of the country. Since early 2019, he has been recognised as such by almost 60 countries, including the United States, much of Latin America, and nearly all members of the European Union.

It is not just distance that separates Belarus from Venezuela – and they differ in many more respects than just December temperatures. But the two societies share the same recent experience of trying to rid themselves of a corrupt and authoritarian regime. Is there anything the Belarusian opposition can learn from its counterpart’s struggle in Venezuela?

What happens in one place may not necessarily repeat itself in another. Even so, Belarusian activists could draw the following lessons from Venezuela as they look ahead to 2021.

  1. Resist unnecessary symbolism. In Venezuela, Guaidó’s international recognition as legitimate president was supposed to mobilise protesters. It did for a while, until the regime crushed the demonstrations. After that, recognition became an encumbrance. He was a president with no actual power inside the country, which (coupled with economic collapse, massive emigration, and covid-19) only led to further disappointment. Compared to him, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has stronger claims to presidency, because she very likely won the election on 9 August. But she should resist the temptation to seek international recognition nonetheless, not least because she does not need it to mobilise people. Such a development could alienate some of the opposition’s supporters and would put her in the same graceless role of a lackland leader. Belarusians are protesting against Lukashenka not only and mainly because they think he lost – but also because they no longer consider him legitimate given the state terror of the past four months.
  2. Be careful what you ask your friends for. In 2019, the US introduced economic sanctions on several Venezuelan industries, on top of the earlier sanctions on key members of the regime. This was supposed to deal the final blow to Maduro; instead, it gave the regime the chance to claim that the US – rather than their own economic incompetence and corruption – is the reason for people’s misery. An amateurish and unsuccessful military coup in May 2020, organised with the help of an American private military company, only made Guaidó and his team look absurd, even if evidence of his involvement has never been confirmed. Both of these events are useful warnings for the Belarusian opposition, some of whom flirt with the idea that the massive economic sanctions the EU could impose would bring about Lukashenka’s eventual departure. Others in the opposition’s ranks suggest that resisting the regime through only peaceful means has no chance of succeeding – thus implying the desirability of some sort of direct conflict.
  3. If anything, ask your friends for smart leverage. It is expected that, in his efforts to help resolve the Venezuelan crisis, Joe Biden will focus on countries like Turkey and China, which continue to do business with Venezuela. The Belarusian opposition is in a trickier situation, given its country’s strong economic and political dependence on neighbouring Russia. But the EU and the US could still use their complicated but closely intertwined relations with Russia and China to discourage them from providing decisive support to Lukashenka.
  4. Beware geopolitics. If the crisis stays regional, it may have a regional solution. But when it goes global, any solution is likely to end up blocked. The most damaging thing to happen to the Venezuelan opposition was when it became yet another item in the global rivalry between the US, China, and Russia. Framing their cause as a fight between east and west would be equally damaging for the Belarusian opposition. Instead, they should continue to present themselves as engaged in a struggle against a bloody dictatorship – and for democracy, human right, and dignity. This is a lesson that Venezuelans are learning from Belarusians right now; the latter should not repeat the mistakes of the former.
  5. Be wary of friends who hijack your crisis for their domestic political agenda. If that happens, it only discredits the local opposition as a tool of foreign powers. Friends abroad should let the local opposition determine the agenda, and act prudently in the background to help them strengthen their case. On Venezuela, Mike Pompeo has had the tendency to steal the show and encourage actions that then turned out not to have the backing of Donald Trump. External “negotiators”, such as former Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero, did not help the opposition maintain their unity. On Belarus, Europeans have been more prudent. But, with much of the opposition located in Vilnius and Warsaw, there is a risk that some of their friends could one day cross from being useful allies to becoming hawkish interlopers instead. 
  6. Be pragmatic, not dogmatic. This requires an openness to talking with different parts of the regime, and a readiness to accept political compromise. Perhaps the chances for such a negotiated solution are more limited in Venezuela than in Belarus, as the Venezuelan state has been so deeply penetrated by the Cuban security forces. But the main weakness of the Venezuelan opposition is that it has been strongly divided on the question of talking to the regime. Belarusians are doing much better, so far, in speaking in unison and accepting Tsikhanouskaya’s leadership – but they are only just starting. They may be tempted to reject pragmatism prematurely if they become disappointed by its limited effects. What to do with Lukashenka’s vague promise of a constitutional reform is a difficult question awaiting them.
  7. Don’t assume the police and army will switch sides. In Venezuela, such has been the expectation for the past two years, and it has not materialised – perhaps because the opposition underestimated the extent to which the army had been purged by Maduro and put under the control of corrupt generals. This does not seem to be the case yet in Belarus. But, rather than assume that a large part of the law enforcement will eventually conclude that patriotism means joining the protesters, the Belarusian opposition should increase the number of incentives to persuade police officers and soldiers. So far, they are doing remarkably well on this front: announcing a People’s Tribunal to try those suspected of crimes, promising amnesty for those perpetrators who confess recent crimes and change sides, creating funds to support the persecuted, but also trying to extend the opposition’s base among the employees of the administration. They should not get discouraged too quickly.
  8. Keep up the attention and reporting. Prestige matters, even to rogue governments. International attention and reporting on the repression make dictators uneasy. Higher levels of repression normally set in once international attention moves on and the regime feels freer to act. At the same time, however, international reporting must make sure it is credible, and seen as credible – not as biased against the regime. The more accurate the reporting about the situation on the ground, the more the local strongmen will know they are being watched.
  9. Give ordinary people concrete help. Once opposition campaigners begin to emigrate in numbers, who will be left to carry out the revolution? And, if they do leave, how can they dispel the impression that the revolution is being steered from the outside? To address this, it is crucial for the opposition to preserve links and structures inside the country. Similarly, if the population start to focus again on economic and health difficulties, will there still be scope for the political revolution? How to avoid current anger subsiding into future despair? For this, the opposition needs to prove it can help the people in their everyday problems. The Belarusian opposition and the diaspora are already doing admirable work on this front, having set up funds to support the protesters, the strikers, the refugees, and the persecuted in their daily expenses. But they must be prepared to step this up.
  10. Stay united. In Venezuela, the opposition was united but split ahead of last weekend’s parliamentary election. Some members of the opposition took part, others boycotted it – which ultimately weakened them all. The Belarusian opposition has remained strongly united so far. But with several influential personalities within their ranks, and some high-profile leaders still in jail, Lukashenka has ample room to try to divide his opponents. There is strength in unity.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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