Small Wars Journal

Remedying Venezuela: Soft Power Cures for Political Strife

Thu, 03/15/2018 - 7:21pm

Remedying Venezuela: Soft Power Cures for Political Strife

Mark T. Peters


Suffering from triple digit inflation, rampaging price increases, severe medicine and food shortages, a 50% drop in national petroleum revenues as well as an authoritarian, corrupt government focused on regime survival guiding the ship, Venezuela requires significant course corrections (Renwick and Lee 2017).  Two periods of massive, repeated protests attempting change since 2014 resulted in harsh, police crackdowns.  Analyzing the events shows potential vulnerabilities where righting Venezuela’s course may be possible for policy makers through soft power strategies during future protests.  Those seeking direction creating a more stable Southern Hemisphere could use soft power influences including techniques social media and financial options to create desired changes.  Protests challenged President Maduro’s government’s policies but lacked sufficient local or international support to successfully alter government behaviors or change the overall environment.  More Venezuelan protests will follow as Maduro’s regime repeats failures in economic areas while tightening governmental controls on expression.  This paper examines Venezuela’s most recent protests and where soft power actions policies may improve future outcomes.  Regional influence objectives should incorporate current U.S. policy to improve Venezuelan economic outcomes, increase basic goods availability, and stabilize relationships between the government’s agencies and its people. The 2017 protest cycle led to President Maduro’s ballot manipulation during the July 2017 constituent referendum and aims to eliminate future opposition through a constitutional redraft.  Venezuela is a key, Western Hemisphere oil-producer so economic failure and popular unrest leading to national failure creates an unacceptable locus for increased terrorist and criminal influences in addition to humanitarian crises.  Employing a soft power strategy rooted in social media and cyber-focused information operations early and often during future protest activity could change behaviors and partially remedy Venezuela’s systemic problems, mitigating regional oil market impacts, minimizing humanitarian impacts like refugee flow, and reducing the localized terrorist and criminal threats.

U.S. direct military intervention in Venezuela offers an unsustainable choice based on local constraints and strenuous U.S. overseas military commitments.   Coercive hard power techniques without military force through economic sanctions or embargo could influence Maduro’s regime.  However, restricting the Venezuelan people’s food and medicine access through reducing international trade will accentuate existing problems. Soft power techniques, defined by Joseph Nye as, “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes”, offers alternative options (2007, 20-21).   Methods to frame, persuade, and elicit attractive actions can be implemented through identified touch-points using techniques like social media influences to bolster protest events, reduce Maduro’s support, or pursue actions changing Venezuelan government agencies.  Soft power attractive techniques include targeted foreign aid, meme deliveries to change attitudes, and other subsequent actions improving policy maker’s regional objective accomplishment.  Choosing continued regional non-interference will accentuate resource shortfalls, decrease legitimate opportunities, and increase refugee flows, collectively resulting in spreading illegal activities.  U.S. global competitors like Russia and China as well as terrorist organizations like Al Qaida, Hezbollah, and others will seize the opportunity generated by local failures to influences.  The Venezuelan government, since Chavez’s 2013 death, has failed to address root economic causes that lead to a 30% contraction (Fiallo 2017).  The two protest periods, in 2014 for four months and 2017 for five, show the population’s desire for change contrasted against President Maduro’s inability to manage his government.  In future protests, U.S. policy makers could apply soft power techniques to accelerate targeted change to; improve the opposition’s success, advocate organizational paths past Maduro’s influences, or encourage external market development.

Venezuelan protests occur largely through street assemblies communicating contentious issues while opposing police and military forces.  These messages are supplemented through social media channels.  Improving future choices requires changing how the government interacts with their people.  New standards require new normative behaviors, potentially sparked through foreign aid incentives, international assistance to identified programs, and targeted social media, all which benefit U.S. regional objectives.  Manipulating external messaging can be accomplished to achieve these objectives without risking collateral impacts that may worsen the average citizen’s quality of life.  Examining protest patterns illustrates where soft power techniques may guide normative change and enhance the observed, democratic protests.  For example, the 2017 Venezuelan opposition party held fifty percent of pre-Constituent Assembly seats so increasing opposition numbers to change government actions may work.  Desired objectives should seek successes beyond the immediate through encouraging fundamental changes and eliminating non-democratic practices.  Soft power techniques can help steer changes.

Why Do Protests Change Outcomes?

Populations protest to draw attention to perceived injustices.  Individuals initiate protests with localized responses to produce increased effect through collective actions.  Implementing soft power techniques through persuasive or attractive means like trade incentives, social media campaigns, or regional engagement could convert street protests into sustained Venezuelan changes and accomplish U.S. regional objectives.  Broad brush soft power techniques influence individuals to adopt long-term changes that contribute to soft-power successes and result in behavioral shifts beneficial to Maduro’s opposition.

A Social Theory for Protest

Analyzing political systems with social conflict theory considers the local environment, internal factors, and actor relationships as a supporting framework (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff 2001, 107; Kriesberg and Dayton 2017, 27).  This framework originates from social constructivism to explain shared understanding, expectations, and the knowledge underlying protest motivations (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff 2001, 166).  Institutions shape social understanding through modeling processes interactions.  Further, shaping social understanding through predetermined models identifies additional useful research perspectives.  The interactions shaping change are best categorized as norm emergence, cascade, and internalization.  One analysis difficulty lies in contrasting the competing norms between opposition elements and Maduro’s government.  Norm emergence emanates from common principles like whether a defined action such as freedom of speech or peaceful nuclear energy usage will be permitted or restrained by authorities.  Here, the opposition party supports increased expressive freedoms and economic opportunity while the government desires restrictions, media control, and centrally planned economics as a return to Chavez’s guidance. These competing norms demonstrate opposed viewpoints.

The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) uses eight pillars in their positive peace theory.  The pillar tops represent an economically balanced and peaceful society characterized by: a well-functioning government, sound business environments, equitable resource distribution, accepting other’s rights, good neighbor relations, free information flows, high capital levels, and low corruption.  The pillars offer markers to contrast opposition party desires with Maduro’s government.  When the associated markers are more positive, nations tend to be more peaceful.  These IEP factors measure national resilience and may predict future actions (2017, 7).  In every area, Venezuela scores poorly but soft power influence success could elevate their potential and improve outcomes.

Normative behavioral development theory categorizes emergence as when ideas appear, cascade as wide-spread influences, and internalization as when ideas attach to values (Mazanec 2015).  These changes describe population behavior driving international outcomes. Further, normative change may appear through population-driven, bottom-up drives or as an elite-driven, top-down emphasis (Lantis 2016).  Venezuelan protests see bi-directional drives influencing standards through government institutions and public elements.  Policy makers should aim to create long-term results through soft power usages to spark normative cascades and then, internalization. 

Three areas influence normative actions during social conflicts; actors, motives, and mechanisms, sometimes called factors (Mazanec 2015).  Influencing all three can occur through strategies using persuasive memes to influence social interactions through distributed idea-based media or material-driven foreign assistance.[1]  In Venezuela today, one possible meme would advocate improved expressive freedoms to increase support to Maduro’s political opposition.  Smaller memes, contained inside the larger, could advocate medical care options, oil export improvements, effective minimum wage increases, inflation controls, or increased rights to protest. Messages should convince the public that government solutions may be possible but not through Maduro’s authoritarian actions.  Each meme transmits a central message constructed to create emergence with subsequent behaviors reaching cascade.  Effects should be narrowly planned with messages ranging widely since behavioral influences lack easily predictable outcomes.  Attempts need to reach key actors through social media and other channels.  Policy makers should focus on various Venezuelan group’s internal messaging to initiate desired changes.

Actors are change agents whose motives link to certain, critical factors.  These factors are more identifiable from third party perspectives.  For example, at emergence, Venezuela’s 2017 protests are driven by protests leaders (actors) out of ideological beliefs (motivation) about government roles and persuading others to join subsequent protests (factors) to change the overall societal norms with subsequent effects on the local quality of life.  As protest activities reached critical mass, leaders tried to maximize protest breadth to increase persuasive effects legitimatizing anti-Maduro actions.  Socializing economic and expressive freedom standards could create opportunities for popular and government interaction with the potential to include external agencies.  When norm changes are internalized, new social standards will motivate actors to improve democratic processes by displaying norms.  Another example, most U.S. citizens have internalized freedom of speech ideas while other global nations are sometimes less tolerant of individual rights.  Venezuela’s current authoritarian government prefers behavioral practices restricting individual freedoms for a collective good.  This argument appears in President Maduro blocking external media, Columbian TV stations and CNN, to prevent alternate views from reaching the people (Martin 2017; Mioli 2017).

Soft Power Impacts on Social Media

Soft power uses attractive techniques influencing social media channels and users.  Social media availability, especially internet-based options, expands one’s opportunity to persuade social factors to change norms.  Most developing nations lack sufficient access to experience an internet-based, social media developed, soft power barrage, however, a 2015 Pew study scores Venezuela with 96% of the population having internet access and 67%, using the internet daily (Pushter and Stewart 2016, 10,14).  Additionally, 74% possess either a cell or smart phone with 88% of smart phone users using the phone for social media access (Pushter and Stewart 2016, 16,21).  Two behaviors associated with internet access are window opening and mirror holding.  Window opening is seeing other nation’s behavior through internet accesses and creating longer, more expansive views into other cultures (Bailard 2014, 40). Mirror holding shows societies’ an outside reflection of internal media practices (Bailard 2014, 26).  These factors demonstrate how structured influence techniques affect populations to generate new behaviors.

Mirror holding and window opening theories explain how technology-savvy populations counter repressive government’s information filters.  During the 2014 and 2017 protests, the Venezuelan government controlled most media access (Lugo-Ocando, Hernadez, Marchesi 2015, 3790).  In 2014, print and video media were government controlled through approved, official sources with previously coordinated information using no broadcast news other than regime inputs.  2014 protesters did use some Twitter influences to popularize detainee names and unfavorable government action such as local property damage, but these remained outside of any video or print proliferation by official sources (Lugo-Ocando, Hernadez, Marchesi 2015, 3792). The 2017 protest started when the judicial branch dissolved the legislative one, removing the people’s voice to the government. These later protests demonstrate how cell phone video delivered through social media can contradict government news sources.  During the first four months of the 2017 protest, Maduro’s government closed 24 radio stations, blocked three digital channels broadcasting protest supporting information, and a university TV channel which reported demonstration events.[2]  Forensically examining 2017 social media trends will have to wait until more data becomes available.[3]  In each case, protestor actions show vulnerabilities where soft power influences may change long term behaviors.

Creating Venezuelan Change

Two paths emerge as options for Venezuelan change, hard power or soft power.  Hard power advocates typically plan kinetic action like military efforts to create outcomes.  The U.S population, let alone other Central and South American populations, likely has little appetite today for military adventurism in Venezuela.  Even a Venezuelan peace-keeping force, with armed, third-party guards keeping Maduro’s military separated from protestors may be too negative for regional allies.  With military approaches unlikely, other coercive actions such as economic sanctions, trade embargos and diplomatic demarches create other challenges.  Economic sanctions and trade embargos could crush Venezuela’s already fragile economy, making food and medicine delivery more difficult and delaying their market growth away from oil exports.  Diplomatically, demarches have also shown little effect on Maduro.

Venezuela’s economic fragility means any further monetary downturn might reduce their own recovery potential.  Past protests were supported through internal and external funding so financially isolating the country to coerce government officials may also adversely impact protest funding.[4]  Venezuela’s Brazilian relationship suffered from increased refugee traffic and Maduro’s government walked away from a June OAS meeting after counter-protest policies were criticized.[5]  International tensions have not restrained Maduro’s actions to date and may well further loosen internal South American ties.  The loosening of these ties could drive Maduro to seek stronger relationships in China or Russia, both not conducive to long-term U.S. strategies.  In addition, Venezuela’s once positive Columbian relationship, based on their negotiating peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), and previous Cuban economic ties are also deteriorating under Maduro.[6] Weakening links may not bear the increased stress required for transmitting hard power’s coercive efforts and snapping links could create unpredictable results.

Soft power’s attractive techniques could be supported through cyber means to generate beneficial behaviors in Venezuela.  Several authors propose attractive power means.[7]   Each demonstrates how desired effects can be matched to possible means to change outcomes.  For this case, three options appear, the first funding protests through outside agencies by harvesting sanctioned accounts to source monetary transfers.[8]  Second, implementing oil contract price supports with external parties to generate secondary and tertiary effects improving the local economy and benefiting protests objectives.  Third, external sources engaging the government to negotiate protest objectives by privately paying to reduce counter-protest actions as a foreign aid objective.  Each approach could be strengthened through meme targeted messaging including social media options and cyber tools.  Social media based cyber operations could spread influence by extending protest messages reach or amplifying camera presence through drones to highlight actual protests past media controls to prevent police and military forces from taking aggressive action.  Broadcasting government actions will increase regional pressures through changing the actor’s factor perceptions and protest motivations.  Disseminated media communications are highly effective at creating normative change.  The Maduro government clearly believes this to be true as evidenced by the effort they expend to control media through censoring protest reports.[9]  Dedicated cyber operations, like those available to U.S. military forces, could create guaranteed cyber channels, for example, utilizing a reverse ransomware application to secure encrypted paths allowing protest messaging to travel past Maduro’s media crackdowns.

The best U.S. option for mitigating Venezuelan circumstances without risking a government collapse will likely be blending soft power influences while threatening punitive economic, military, or diplomatic actions as a coercive element.  One must remember a military invasion threat will likely lack credibility while some punitive monetary changes may be short-term and subject to other market influences, like changing global oil prices.  The most effective solution targets would alter norms to increase opposition support to Maduro by integrating desired effects through social media, economic supports, and external encouragement.  Behavioral changes appearing throughout society will be measurable through conducting social media surveys or polling across influenced and secondary sources. 

Understanding the Venezuelan Protests

Protests constitutes one social movement factor to motivate actors through options including delivering a message, communicating a meme, or inspiring behavioral change.[10]  Social movements contain similarly motivated actor groups who attempt to change societal norms.  In studying Venezuela’s protests, the associated social movement actions attempt to influence external factors to solve demonstrated government inefficiencies as Maduro’s government did not negotiate with protest forces. This paper suggests U.S. policy makers can strengthen the Venezuelan population’s motivation through affecting normative factors through suggestive influences including using cyber-type tools to create desired ends.  

Analysis Method

Most protests are active with multiple demonstrations, assemblies and speeches so reconstructing protest events to uncover specific motivations and factors tied to various lines of effort can be difficult.  Analysis methods typically include interviews, surveys, and other interactive techniques mixed with historical reports including witness reports and first-person accounts.  The sheer numbers involved, the sometimes-illegal nature of protest activities, and language constraints make reconstructing events in a timely manner difficult.  A recent United Nations report on Venezuelan protests demonstrated extensive government human rights violations and abuses during these protests as the primary means to suppress dissent.[11] Further chronological distance from actual protest events will create more historical and case study efforts in addition to archived reporting.  Protests appear in many societies and demonstrate behavioral turning points that remain important objects of study.

In one protest analysis, Clemens and Hughes in, “Recovering Past Protest” discuss several approaches to uncovering protest inspired motivation.[12]  They suggest each study should identify a unit of analysis, movement data, and selected correlates.  The unit of analysis describes events assessed, in this case, the two Venezuelan actions are the analysis units.  Movement data describes the factors causing normative change associated with the protests.  Selected correlates are more consistent for quantitative studies when one uses census data fields to compare movement data against broader population trends.  One of the most useful census reports examined was the Pew Center’s reporting digital penetration into Venezuelan society by social media and cell phone technology.[13]  The investigated normative changes are more qualitatively based although further studies could compare analyze protest actions against Opposition party presence in governmental assemblies’ presence as a secondary impact.[14] The qualitative approach that analyzes factors and motivations across protests through narrative is likely best supported through a limited case study approach.  Creswell defines case studies as, “the study of an issue explored through one or more cases within a bounded system”[15]  A short case study for each the 2014 and 2017 protest was conducted here based on news sources and scholarly articles.

Each of the two protest periods was examined in four, roughly bounded areas; events, external actors, internal actors, and factors.  This analysis’ assessments were primarily subjective and comparative.  The first, events, describes protest actions through secondary sources including protest length, deaths and injuries, police involvement, and economic impacts such as lost business, local damage, or property destruction.  The second area, external actors, relates how those outside­ Venezuela perceived and influenced actions.  External actors include nations or international organizations taking protest-based actions and their perceived impacts.  For example, an economic sanction against Venezuelan leaders or a U.S. Senate resolution supporting protesters both demonstrate external actions.

The third category, internal actors, shows local individuals creating localized effects.  Examples include protest actions, changing food and medicine’s availability, or government policy changes. One major internal action was Maduro’s Constituent Assembly use to derail protests through beginning a constitutional redraft. Internal and external actor categories identified protests that changed behaviors.  The final category, factors, suggests where applied influences could effect change. Factors examines susceptibility to coercive action including blockade or military forces, economic hard power, and suggestive soft power techniques such as social media persuasion, financial aid or cooperative engagement.  Identified factors were paired to suggested cyber operations techniques potentially available to U.S. policy makers.  


All protest analysis methods tried to identify where factors created motivations.  Motivations were assessed against an actor’s declared objectives.  One useful analysis emerged by comparing the Venezuelan populace’s objectives to government goals.  Further comparisons used external actor objectives like the Organization of American States. U.S. foreign policy, or the IEP’s positive peace theory.

Venezuelan popular objectives looked to improve freedom of expression and overall quality of the average individual’s life.  The Venezuelan people want to ensure channels guaranteeing a government voice, conditional improvements to food and medicine availability, and internalize cultural ideas only previously glimpsed in regional window opening.  Studies show the three, top material benefits sought by Venezuelans are access to health care, education benefits, and infrastructure improvements while the most important democratic characteristic sought remains citizen participation.[16]  Food and medical availability remains an issue, for example, from Jan. 2016 to June 2016, Venezuelans eating three meals daily dropped from 70% to 40%.[17]  A 75% increase in 2017’s malaria infection rate has resulted in prices jumping to an ounce and half of gold per pill, roughly $1800 U.S. or anywhere from 6-60 times normal pricing depending on the medication.[18]  High inflation rates impact currency exchange and price controls as key barriers to government provided services.

The OAS is a regional organization addressing Western hemisphere issues.  U.S. State Department representatives have often espoused the OAS fills critical and constructive roles to help guide Venezuela during crisis.[19]  The OAS charter includes six pillars; promoting democracy, defending human rights, ensuring a multidimensional security approach, fostering development and prosperity, and supporting inter-American legal cooperation.[20]  The two Venezuelan protests impact almost all OAS pillars.  First, the OAS promotes democracy.  Extended protests indicate a democratic process failure when problems remain unsolved through constitutional means.  While individual protests show dissatisfaction and seek increased public awareness, extended protests increase government and civilian clashes demonstrating more severe challenges.  Increased protest duration shows motivation where frustrated government forces may abuse human rights through direct suppression including mass arrests.  In OAS’s prosperity pillar, if human rights are abused, improved economic opportunity may also disappear.  Lengthy market disruptions caused by protests will accentuate Venezuela’s food and medical shortages while international trade, including oil, also suffers. 

OAS’s multi-dimensional security approach focuses on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics concerns.  Over the past few years, Venezuelan problems drove 77,000 refugees into Brazil.  Brazil does not digitally track immigrants and admits to poor official records leaving even those numbers are estimates.[21] Refugee flows could hide terrorist and criminal threats beneath confused border registration processes and inadequate personnel tracking.  Finally, OAS sponsored security improvements tie directly to their last pillar, fostering inter-American legal cooperation.  The OAS prefers cooperative relations though mutual agreements may lag when leaders disagree.

Since 2013, U.S. leaders identify continuing Venezuelan challenges as; human rights, energy, counter-narcotics and terrorism.  Each topic is a foreign policy factor.  As a democratic country, the U.S. advocates speech and expression freedoms at home and abroad.  In energy, the U.S. imports oil, and while overall imports declined since 2010 from 4.3 billion barrels to 3.4 billion barrels, 10% of those originate in Venezuelan.[22]  Venezuela has the world’s largest, proven oil reserve at 300 billion barrels.  Oil exports dropped in half between 2014 and 2015, sliding from $29 billion to $14.5 billion, coincidentally tied directly to Maduro’s rise.  In both years, 95% of exported oil totals went to the U.S.[23]  Venezuela’s oil export dependence means a 1$ drop in oil costs per barrel equates to a $700 million/year Gross Domestic Product (GDP) loss nationally.[24]  

In addition to petroleum profits, Venezuela next export option is the several preferred drug-smuggling routes emerging from South America through their country from various supply sources.  In 2015, several Venezuelans were sanctioned by the U.S for narcotics involvement.[25]  The last U.S. regional factor for Venezuela is terrorism.  In June 2016, the U.S. State department stated Venezuela maintained a permissive environment enabling several terrorist groups to operate including FARC, ELN, and Hezbollah.[26]  The Chavez administration had maintained close ties with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.  Since the former’s death and the latter’s departure from office, terrorist connections have weakened although changes have not trickled down to all groups operating the area.[27]

Venezuelan Protests

The two examined Venezuelan protest periods highlighted complaints about government treatment of the population.  The 2014 period occurred over living conditions, and the 2017 protests against the Supreme Court’s March decision to dissolve the National Assembly and return power to the executive branch, meaning Maduro, removing several basic freedoms.  Each event shows numerous factors from local citizenry, outside nations and international organizations to accomplish various objectives during protests.  These factors demonstrate actors that soft power attraction, including items supported by cyber techniques, can create effects and support positive outcomes nationally and regionally.   Directing soft power against factors adjusts motivations to create new and persistent societal behaviors.

2014 - Protests Against Regional Insecurity

On 4 February 2014, students from Los Andes University initiated protests against President Maduro’s inability to provide regional security after a reported campus rape.[28]  The protests lasted approximately 100 days, with 43 killed and 3,351 arrested from over 800,000 protesting.[29]  A key contributor to the early protest cascade was the first death, student Bassil De Costa’s assassination by government forces and subsequent YouTube transmissions, also showing social media impact.[30]  The 2014 protests showed the first widespread Venezuelan social media protest usage through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to broadcast information denied by the national government through other channels.  The protest took two paths, one group advocating street protests to remove Maduro and the other group bolstering opposition party support (Mesa de Unidad Democratica, Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD)) for December 2014 elections.[31]  The Maduro government launched an authoritarian and physical counter protest response.

Externally, very few international organizations officially recognized or supported protests which probably accelerated the harsh, government responses.  While individual OAS, UN members, and even Pope Francis condemned the violence, official support was limited.  The organizations who did speak, advocated dialogues between Maduro’s government and opposition without suggesting any means to accomplish objectives.  Two, March 2014, OAS meetings decided not to support any Venezuelan response.  The first suggested issuing condolences to protestors, and the U.S., with twenty-two other nations, voted against.  The second session was closed with no published results.  In April and May, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) took over discussions, hosting talks between parties.  UNASUR also stated increased economic sanctions against Venezuela would be harmful and those maintaining nonintervention principles should limit their actions to improving dialogue.[32]

Possible influences do appear for actors, motivation, and factors during the 2014 protests.  Several actors appear; student protest leads, the MUD political party, Maduro’s government, OAS, U.S., the Papacy, and UNASUR.  Motivations begin with campus security issues and transition into expressive freedoms without government protest suppression.  External actors support Venezuela’s freedom of expression but no consensus appears for any intervention.  The only external change factor emerging was the secure dialogue generated by UNASUR meetings.  Secure dialogue, between sides, and from internal to external actors, will likely be critical in future, effective social media interactions.  

2017- Protests against Supreme Court’s Dissolution of the National Assembly

The second protest set started in late March 2017 and lasted through the Constituent Council’s late August appointments.[33]  Hundreds of thousands protested with thousands of injuries, 5,051 detentions and over 147 people killed.[34]  The initial spark was the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolving the MUD opposition-controlled National Assembly and returning law-making powers to the court.  At the time, the Assembly was the only counter-balance to Maduro’s political desires.   The court also supported an earlier, October 2016, State of Emergency power seizure, also Assembly opposed.[35]  In April 2017, Maduro ordered courts to reverse their October ruling after numerous internal and external objections.  The protest cessation followed the July vote and August installation of Maduro’s Constituent Council to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, likely in line with Maduro’s own desires.[36]  The protest’s end should be considered mid-August, possibly 18 Aug, as the constituent assembly gave itself legislative powers then as an end-run around an opposition-controlled congress.[37]

The protest’s external actors were the U.S. and OAS. The U.S. will fund $10M of humanitarian actions and regional actor support if U.S. Senate Bill S.1018,” Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance Act” had passed.[38]  S1018 confirmed 2015’s sanctions of Venezuelan officials involved in illegal narcotics under an Obama administration Executive Order.  Additional U.S. sanctions targeted eight Venezuela’s Supreme Court members in EO 13692 based on their undermining the National Assembly’s authority.[39]  Other DoT actions expanded sanctions to thirteen other government members, the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, the National Center for Foreign Commerce and even President Maduro.[40]  The OAS debated multiple times on Venezuelan options and their Secretary-General publicly condemned the Maduro government.  An OAS speech described collusion between OAS and the Catholic Church designed to influence Maduro to free political prisoners, open humanitarian aid channels, introduce a new electoral calendar, and respect the National Assembly’s autonomy.[41]  No action accompanied any OAS proposal although the largest combined pressure between the U.S. and the OAS was to cancel the constituent assembly.[42]  Clearly, delaying or denying the constituent proposal failed to stop the Assembly’s investiture.  Since installation, external options may have lost their most important opportunity to create normative change.

Maduro’s success against challenges suggests uncoordinated efforts are likely insufficient to change future outcomes.  Despite deaths and injuries, the government strategy remained largely unchanged, suppress protests, and wait until energy for reform dissipates.  For now, the strategy is working.  One analyst suggests Maduro actively models his behavior after China’s Tiananmen or current Syrian regimes, however, he has neither the economic power for China, nor the outside backing for Syria.[43]  Domestically, Maduro’s wrecked economy caused protests to spread to, and influence, poor neighborhoods which once exclusively voted for Chavez.[44]  Maduro’s planning included snipers and other military force as an option if other controls had slipped.[45]  Economically, the Venezuelan Bolivar was pegged last April (2016) at 10 to the dollar and the official rate varies little.  Since protests began, black market rates, which do demonstrate market fluctuations, vary widely from 3,200 to 7,984 so $1 in Bolivars on 29 Mar is only worth .40 today.[46] These economic difficulties make protester’s ability to sustain actions even more difficult.   Last year, Maduro increased the minimum wage 454% to offset inflation with no apparent effect on the overall crisis.[47]

Several influence factors are possible; supporting protestors, acting directly against Maduro, or actions against government institutions.  Supporting protesters encourages more civilian participation through increasing protest volume, monetary or supply support to increase sustainability, or messaging by meme transfer influencing motivations. Factors featuring Maduro should focus on his removal through revolutionary actions, supporting democratic opposition during elections, or changing his coalition support basis.  All three counter-Maduro areas could use structured social media messaging to improve success rates.  The first category, revolutionary actions, would require the most caution.  The Maduro government’s sudden fall could result in a Latin-American failed state and create still more regional problems.  Chavez’s frequent complaints about U.S. coup attempts during his regime have merely continued during Maduro’s reign and any poorly coordinated efforts to affect the regime’s survivability could affect those outcomes.[48]  Supporting institutions would focus on generating disconnects between Maduro and his government through expanded food and medical aid, organizational support through social media, or preemptive contract sanctions.  Preemptive contract sanctions place restrictions on the current government, declaring any new government established will not be bound by contracts or loans to the previous, and illegitimate government.[49] These preemptive contracts could offer all new oil contracts to Venezuelan oil exports once Maduro was ousted.

Comparing Protest Events

The two protest’s events primary actors are similar with only UNASUR, remaining the same.  Each actor develops differently when responding to factors and motivations requiring careful message construction when creating behavioral change.  Identifying key actors improves motivations when focused on policy-maker desired outcomes.  Effecting norms about freedom of expression would be one area, improving internal economics through food and medical availability another, and broader regional cooperation a third.  Well-scripted messaging could blend multiple items although each effect desired should strive to ensure properly structured messages are distributed. 

Useful dialogue between the government and protestors remains essential to resolve conflict.  Without external mediation, and incentives to cooperate, effective conversations about conflict resolution will not occur.  The government perceives no advantages to discussion without an end to protests and the protesters see no advantage to discussion without an end to authoritarian actions. The Constituent council’s appointment and protest dissolution removes any government inclinations to negotiate as their goals are achieved. Dialogue between protestors and external agencies can also create options.  Encouraging communication through financial support to protesters may aid as the main complaint remains pitiful economic standards creating a low quality of life.  Transactions in non-Venezuelan currency would bolster local markets and increase stability.  Ideas suggested earlier to improve protest success included reducing government media suppression, for example, using guaranteed media sources to transmit protest messaging.[50]  Improving quality of life could happen with food and medical delivery improvements including branding as external sources or working through international organizations to stabilize financial systems through combatting inflation and improving employment. Wider access to micro-loans may also be a possible alternative.

The key for changing behaviors through actors and factors lies in modifying underlying motivations.  Both protest cycles began as an initial event and continued long after singular events fade.  The underlying Venezuelan societal vulnerabilities cause protest events to persistently occur, and popular dissatisfaction creates their resilience.  Even as current protests fade, Maduro’s overall inability to lead suggests not much time passes before further protests begin.  The government’s inability to engage the people and create mutually beneficial improvements encourages the cycle.  Even Chavez’s temporary fixes were sufficient to change underlying motivations sufficiently to thwart protest cycles.  Maduro lack’s Chavez’s charisma or historic appeal.  Paradoxically, improved expression to support Maduro will not appear until legal constraints restricting expression disappear.  This suggests increased social media availability and messaging will reduce expressive restrictions without formal changes.   Both protest cycles indicated two areas to improve before the cycle breaks; increased freedom of expression and decreased economic instability.

Way Ahead

Changing a nation’s behaviors through coercive actions like sanctions or military show of force are often first suggestions to U.S. planners or international organizations like OAS.  While not always easy to implement, these common actions show clear effects and are relatively simple to understand.  However, employing traditional sanctions or suggesting kinetic action might derail Western objectives rather than create desired outcomes.  Attractive, soft power paths can be more difficult to plan and describe.  However, in Venezuela, no advanced options appear to have been suggested, considered, or framed for any implementation.  When a population protests for internal change, soft power techniques altering behaviors through social media, foreign aid, or economic relief offer alternative options to increase those movements chances of reaching desired ends. Recent world events demonstrated how Russia aggressively used social media to successfully advance Crimean objectives.[51] Both Venezuela protest events established the population’s desire to reduce an authoritarian government’s controls to install a more democratic society, movements falling just short of creating successful change.  The first question in choosing strategies should establish priorities as; the safety and security of the Venezuelan people, U.S. national interests, and improving Latin American regional harmony.

U.S. Objectives

Soft power techniques advancing U.S. objectives in Venezuela should match corresponding policy goals in human rights, energy, counter-narcotics and terrorism.  The following three lines of effort would advance those goals; increasing diplomatic channels, relieving popular suffering, and alleviating common grievances.  Public conflicts between police and civilians as well as food and medical availability plague Venezuela. The current crisis’ magnitude suggests soft power efforts should be prioritized over hard power’s more damaging means to minimize collateral effects. Efforts like military intervention or sanctions would increase local difficulties, decrease food and medical availability, and further devalue the currency.  Each line of effort requires associated planning to show specific factors susceptible to change.  The two cases showed where government and population factors exist and are vulnerable.  Once a protest ends, factors lose effectiveness as the motivations, and potential cascade, dissipates.  While matching short-term U.S. and regional objectives may prove difficult, changing Venezuelan behaviors can only benefit our long-term efficiencies.  For example, U.S. objectives match closely to OAS standards like promoting democracy, advancing human rights, and improving prosperity.

Maximizing Influence Opportunities

The first question in maximizing factor and actor influences is where effects are desired and what those effects mean.  The identified protest factors show potential effect options. Widening planning options could consider broader social media and engagement factors to leaves manipulation means possibilities wide open.  A suggested method above used social media techniques to influence behavior and create change.  For example, protest engagement opportunities occurred through international money from GoFundMe sites and Generosity as well as publishing Amazon wish-lists of protest gear on Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp.  The #RegalaUnaMascara, or “Gift a Mask” link allowed expats to gift gas masks to protesters who struggled against better-armed police forces.[52]  Both actions attempted to outfit protestors to alter environmental interactions through delaying government effectiveness in disrupting events and allow more time for protest effects to change behaviors.  Adding other items to wish-lists, increasing available funds, or other associated actions all may advance objectives.  One proposed method could be to provide protest shields with preprinted slogans for camera visibility, or perhaps anti-Maduro shirts with RFID tags, allowing outside sources to track individual movements including government arrest and transportation of protestors, something not publicized outside Venezuela.  The social feedback from unifying protestors to defy government officials provides a factor to change popular motivations and can be initiated by carefully designed social media influences. 

Social media availability and foreign aid caps should be viewed as constraining limitations, not the initial starting point for engagement.  Social media’s use does not condone artificial news or propaganda, rather, using existing channels to spread an accurate message containing desired memes. The first and foremost U.S. goal should be maximizing Venezuelan popular influences and stabilizing the economy away from socialism and oil-dependence.[53]  While oil remains valuable, as over 90% of the GDP, small market fluctuations drastically effect national, and hence popular, economic stability.  When oil prices rise, income rises, and inflation drops as the dollar supply increases but those effect are temporary.  For lasting change, the U.S. should attempt advertising or education to grow other Venezuelan economic sectors.  As mentioned before, microloans underwritten by international aid could help spur Venezuelan development in other sectors.  Simultaneously, offering a guaranteed oil price for a pre-determined quantity of U.S. sales could provide stability to a turbulent market.  Demonstrating techniques and providing foreign aid to change exports through emphasizing availability and sustainability on social media outlets could improve mirror holding effects on the population.

After changing oil outcomes, one must improve interactions between the population and the government.  While violent at times, neither protest appears equivalent with Arab Spring events leading to internal revolutions nor should the U.S. support an open revolution in South America.  This limitation means internal improvements through attractive soft power to modifying protest outcomes may be the most viable means to generate changes.  Coordinating OAS and U.S. activities to deliver the Venezuelan population information on regional support will help.  Protecting media outlets from Maduro’s shut downs through cybersecurity techniques to guarantee the protesters message reaches the world is another.  Secured transmission outlets through encryption, or guaranteed channels tunneled through other networks will all reduce government media control and improve freedom of expression, both key protest goals.  Secured message outlets show increasing value in modern society and providing multiple communication paths for a protester’s message allows those images to distribute virally.[54]  Individual actions will not guarantee immediate improvement but will incrementally improve the path to those goals.  As the economy improves, the population’s ability to communicate accurately, and open windows to others, may improve situations without continuing or considerable, U.S. foreign investment.

The final option would be generating a means through which the U.S. and the OAS could help alleviate common grievances through existing institutions. Offering timely assistance to organize more effective aid and food distribution, localized training to create economic opportunity, and anti-corruption training to Venezuelan agencies could be effective.  In the past, elder statesmen have helped create influences where others have failed. Perhaps, sending a U.S. politician who has previously praised Venezuela such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) could help put them on the right track.[55]   A team with open goals, and social media support, could create popular changes supporting U.S. objectives.  Another common face to mitigate Venezuelan crises could be the Catholic Pope, or similarly high-ranking church figure who would be well received in the largely Catholic society and possess traditional authority.  Supporting those messages through social media could help facilitate alternative solutions.

Likely Outcomes 

The July 2017 constituent referendum succeeded, despite fraud allegations.  The subsequent Constituent Assembly’s installation and power assumption appeared to wrench the spirit from any further protests.  The successful referendum allows Maduro to rewrite the constitution and may possibly render many previously lawful protest actions illegal when the Assembly finishes their constitutional rewrite.  If the constitution no longer delivers a freedom of speech, when or why the people demonstrate will be less relevant since all will all be subject to mass arrest.  Any challenges, even attempting attractive outcomes through social media, would require substantial resource investment and desire from U.S. policy makers in Maduro’s new Venezuela since their acts may be illegal and subject to prosecution.  Even the OAS, as the regional organization, showed only a limited interest in actions to mitigate previous protest root causes.

The Constituent assembly is composed almost entirely of Madruo allies, rendering it difficult to create change.  Those who once protested now wait, watching to see if anything will remain for them to influence in the new Venezuela.  The fall season will likely see increases in world oil prices as temperatures fall with some associated mild economic relief.  Hurricanes during 2017 in the Caribbean Gulf including Harvey, Irma and Maria caused some oil price fluctuations to Venezuela’s benefit.  If the constituent assembly advances overly controversial topics, increasing government authority or reducing speech freedom, protest cycles may begin again. Subsequently, U.S. chances to influence Venezuela will also increase.  The real question will become, how much change will be necessary to generate protest?  Here too, carefully modulated social messaging could better align Assembly outcomes towards U.S. objectives.  Overall, any immediate national change is unlikely without external intervention. 

If the U.S. desires Venezuela to become more democratic and open in the long run, we should employ soft power, attractive techniques through social media manipulation and other referenced techniques to create behavioral change for Venezuelans.  As intermediate objectives, we should aim to reduce their oil dependence, support regional speech freedoms through enabling secure regional communications, and moderate negotiations between Maduro and his opposition to alleviate common grievances.  Above all, we must engage Maduro’s national leadership to expand popular opportunities without perceived internal risks, slowing the Constituent Assembly from writing the Venezuelan people out of their own constitution.  Leadership decisions advocating social media usages to transmit desired memes can help foster norm emergence and behavioral change, enabling a popular opinions cascade, and allowing the overall Venezuelan culture to internalize a transition away from Maduro and communism.


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End Notes

[1] A meme is a compressed thought transmitted between individuals.  While commonly seen as a social media comedy item, the real definition is the one describing a thought transfer as a communication method.

[2] United Nations Human Rights, “Human rights violations and abuses in the context of protests in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela from 1 April to 31 July 2017” Geneva, Switzerland: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (August 2017),, 28.

[3] Virginia Lopez, “On the frontline of Venezuela’s punishing protests.” The, (25 Mar 2017) (

[4] Andrew Rosati, “Cash from America is Crucial to Venezuela’s Protestors”, (2 Jun 2017),

[5] Maria B. Nogueria, and Maiara Folly, “Brazil’s refugee policy needs a radical overhaul in response to Venezuela’s crisis,” The Guardian, (15 Jun 2017);  Fabiola Sanchez, “Venezuela walks out of Americas summit in Mexico,” The Associated Press (19 Jun 2017), 

[6] David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas, “The Venezuelan crisis, regional dynamics and the Columbian peace process,” Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, (Aug 2016), 2-3.

[7]Christopher Holshek, “National Strategy on a Dollar,” In Soft Power on Hard Problems, ed. Ajit Maan, and Amar Cheema, Lanham, (MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 75-96; Joseph Nye, Soft Power, (Cambridge, MD: Public Affairs, 2005).

[8] Mark Peters, “Cyber Enhanced Sanction Strategies: Do Options Exist?,” Journal of Law and Cyber Warfare 6, no. 1 (Summer 2017), 112.

[9] United Nations Human Rights, “Human rights violations and abuses,” 28.

[10] Ruud Koopmans, and Dieter Rucht,. “Protest Event Analysis.” in Methods of Social Movement Research, ed. Bert Klandermans and Suzanne Staggenborg, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2002), 231-259.

[11] United Nations Human Rights, “Human rights violations and abuses,” 28..

[12] Elizabeth S. Clemens, and Martin D. Hughes, “Recovering Past Protest: Historical Research on Social Movements,” in Methods of Social Movement Research, ed. Klandermans, Bert and Suzanne Staggenborg. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2002), 201-230.

[13] Pushter and Stewart, “Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage ,”.

[14] Gustavo Adolfo Vargas Victoria, “The Bolivarian Spring: What are the Possibilities for Regime Change in Venezuela?” Journal of International Affairs, (Fall/Winter 2014) 269-283.

[15] John W. Creswell, 2007 Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007) 73.

[16] Pascal Lupien, “Ignorant Mobs or Rational Actors? Understanding Support for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution,” Political Science Quarterly 130 no. 2 (2015), 329, 333.

[17] Smilde and Pantoulas, “The Venezuelan crisis, regional dynamics,” 5.

[18] Maria Ramirez, “Venezuelans suffer as malaria outbreak spreads in drug-short nation,” (24 Nov 2017),

[19] Kaitlin Lavinder, “No Resolution on Venezuelan Crisis as Asylum Seekers Flee to U.S.,” The Cipher Brief, (20 Jun 2017),

[20] Organization of American States, “Organization of American States,” Organization of American, (22 Jun 2017),

[21] Nogueria and Folly, “Brazil’s refugee policy,”. 

[22] Unknown, “U.S. Oil imports over the past 15 years,”, (23 Jun 2017)

[23] Mark P. Sullivan, “Venezuela: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, (23 Jan 17), R43239, 42.

[24] Jose R. Cardenas, “A Nation Divided: Venezuela’s Uncertain Future,” World Affairs, 51 (Apr 2014)

[25] Barack Obama, “Executive Order 13692: Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela,” White House, (8 Mar 2015), 3295-F5-P,

[26] Sullivan, “Venezuela: Issues for Congress,” 46.

[27] Ibid., 48.

[28] Victoria “The Bolivarian Spring,” 269.

[29] Thabata Molina, “Who Died in Venezuela’s 2014 Protests?” PANAM Post, (11 Feb 2015); Laurie Blair, “Venezuela: New Military Authority to Curb Protests,” Human Rights Watch, (12 Feb 2015);

Lugo-Ocando, Hernadez, Marchesi, “Social Media and Virality,” 3787.

[31] Barry Cannon Winter 2014, “As Clear as MUD: Characteristics, Objectives, and Strategies of the Opposition in Bolivarian Venezuela,” Latin American Politics and Society 56, no. 4(Winter 2014), 49.

[32] Sullivan, “Venezuela: Issues for Congress,” 15.

[33] Nestor Rojas Mavares, “Is the crisis over in Venezuela?” Havana Times, (29 Sep 2017( (

[34] Andrew Cawthorne and Brian Ellsworth,. “Venezuela hunts rogue police attacker, Maduro foes smell rat,”, (28 Jun 2017),; United Nations Human Rights, “Human rights violations and abuses,” 20, 10.

[35] Nicholas Casey and Patricia Torres 30 Mar 2017. “Venezuela Muzzles Legislature, Moving Close to One-Man Rule,” New York Times,(30 Mar 2017),

[36]Ezequiel Abie Lopez, 13 Sep 2017. “Venezuela government opposition officials discuss new talks.,” Associated Press, (13 Sep 2017),

[37] Brian Ellsworth and Corina Pons, “Venezuela’s constituent assembly assumes power to legislate.” Reuters, (18 Aug 2017),

[38] Benjamin Cardin, “S.1018Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act of 2017.” 115th Congress, (3 May 2017)

[39] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Eight Members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, (19 May 2017),

[40] U.S. Department of Treasury,  “Treasury sanctions 13 current and former senior officials of the Government of Venezuela,” Press Center, (26 Jul 2017),; U.S. Department of Treasury, “Venezuela-related designation,” Resource Center, (7 Jul 2017),

[41] Luis Almagro,  “Message from the Secretary General on Venezuela,” Organization of American States, Media Center, (12 Jun 2017), S-010/17,

[42] Ryan Mallett-Outtrim, 1 Jun 2017. “Venezuela Declares Victory at OAS and UN,”, (1 Jun 2017), https://venezuela

[43] Fiallo,“Maduro’s Dismal Strategy,”.

[44] Roger F. Noreiga, “What the Trump administration can do in Venezuela to hasten the Maduro regime’s demise,” Washington Examiner, (25 Apr 2017). (

[45] Fiallo,“Maduro’s Dismal Strategy,”.

[46] Unknown, “Venezuela Econ,” Venezuela Econ, (27 Jun 2017),

[47] Girish Gupta, Corina Pons, “Venezuela says inflation 274 percent last year, economists say far higher,”, (20 Apr 2017) (

[48] Smilde and Pantoulas, “The Venezuelan crisis, regional dynamics,” 2.

[49] John Hurley, Kimberly Ann Elliot, “Time to apply a New Sanctions Tool to Venezuela,” Center for Global Development, (14 Jun 2017),,.

[50] Mark Peters, “Cyber Enhanced Sanction Strategies: Do Options Exist?,” Journal of Law and Cyber Warfare 6, no. 1 (Summer 2017),129-130.

[51] Gary D. Brown,“The Cyber Longbow & Other Information Strategies: U.S. National Security and Cyberspace,” Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs 5, no. 1 (Apr 2017), 15.

[52] Andrew Rosati,“Cash from America is Crucial to Venezuela’s Protestors,”, (2 Jun 2017),

[53] Francisco Toro,“The great currency swindle” Chatham House (2017),

[54] Mark Peters, “Cyber Enhanced Sanction Strategies: Do Options Exist?,” Journal of Law and Cyber Warfare 6, no. 1 (Summer 2017),129-130.

[55] Bernie Sanders, 5 Aug 2011. “Close the Gaps: Disparities that threaten America,” Valley News, (5 Aug 2011),

About the Author(s)

Lt Col Mark T. Peters II is the Operations Division Chief for the 625 Operations Center at Joint Base San Antonio- Lackland. He is an active duty Air Force officer specializing in Intelligence and rated for cyber operations. Among other accomplishments, he holds a Doctorate in Strategic Security from Henley-Putnam University and a forthcoming book, “Cashing in on Cyberpower” from the University of Nebraska addressing economic cyber activity by state and non-state actors.