It was not easy for me to watch the drama of Tahrir Square; and I cannot imagine that it was easy for any of my fellow Venezuelan exiles to watch, either. To the millions of us who marched our hearts out in the anti-Chávez protests of 2002 and 2003, the sight of those huge, hopeful crowds in Egypt set off an instant shock of recognition. In late 2002, a steady build-up of massive marches—usually numbering in the hundreds of thousands—brought Caracas to a standstill for days on end. All of us who marched—and marched and marched—back then can instantly summon that heady exhilaration, so visible in the footage from Cairo, that a crowd gets when it feels itself invincible while trying to achieve the impossible.
But in Venezuela, unlike in Egypt, it was all a mirage. The mass movement that feverishly worked to head off the consolidation of Hugo Chávez’s dictatorship was never alone on the scene. Hard as it was, hard as it still is, for us to admit, the protest movement stood alongside another, poorer Venezuela, one that genuinely believed in Chávez’s message of radical, leveling social change. And so, the hundreds of thousands of us who marched urgently, desperately to prevent the country’s fall into outright authoritarianism were matched by hundreds of thousands of others who saw Chávez as their best chance for redemption. As a result, we failed where Egyptians have now succeeded. In Cairo, our mirage—that hope of a brave people united against a reviled regime founded only on fear—became their reality.
Looking back, it’s easy to see what went wrong. In Egypt, the cascade that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime came about because Egyptians, for multiple generations, had been forced to feign allegiance to a despised government. It was by forcing the population to falsify its preferences that Mubarak made his regime so brittle—and turned not just the committed dissidents but truly the entire country against him.
This was not the case in Venezuela eight years ago. Chávez came to power in free elections, so people did not start out having to hide their true feelings about the regime. There was opposition, yes, but it was hardly universal. The widespread brittleness that builds up when an entire country has spent generations lying to itself had not yet developed.
Today, however, there are signs that Venezuela has more in common with Egypt than it did in 2002 and 2003. Certainly, Chávez has a way to go before he becomes Mubarak: Torture is not standard operating procedure in Venezuela, and dissent is repressed selectively—almost randomly—rather than comprehensively. Most political scientists would probably still describe Venezuela as a hybrid regime. But most Venezuelans—including many chavistas—would hasten to add that the direction things are headed is clear. We know space for dissent still exists in our country; but we also know that it keeps narrowing. In Venezuela these days, if you’re young and ambitious, if you want a career and the best possible life for your family, you sing the regime’s praises, whether in earnest or not.
With the regime piling on incentives for people to falsify allegiances, distrust runs deeper and deeper. It has been painful to watch this hardening of autocracy. But, if there is any silver lining to these last eight awful years, it is the possibility that the passage of time and the growing fanaticism of Chávez have increased the brittleness that often serves as a precondition for successful social protest.
Maybe, just maybe, the conditions that were present in Egypt this year—but were not present in Venezuela in 2002 and 2003—are coming to the fore. But who would lead an uprising in Venezuela today? Movements feed off of mass discontent, but they also frequently require some group of people to provide a spark. And, in the years that followed the protests of 2002 and 2003, hundreds of thousands of the Venezuelans who were most passionate in their opposition to Chávez—myself included—left the country in despair, the sting of our failure deepening as we impotently witnessed the regime’s radicalization. (“El país cambió”—the country changed—has become a kind of mantra among Venezuelan exiles, likely to be heard whenever two or more gather in the same place.) In retrospect, those of us who marched in 2002 and 2003 moved too early, before enough of the population was with us; and we lost too many Internet-savvy potential organizers to emigration in the aftermath. New groups of anti-chavistas, then, will have to step forward. Too many of the old ones are gone.
Francisco Toro is a writer living in Montreal. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.