Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Bolivarian Spring: What Are the Possibilities for Regime Change in Venezuela?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Bolivarian Spring: What Are the Possibilities for Regime Change in Venezuela?

Article excerpt

Based on rational choice theory, this essay develops a theoretical approach to explain how an individual's expected utility of protesting is affected by the probability of having a new government, together with the expected costs, expected benefits, and the probability of retributive consequences for protesting. The essay argues that the probability of having a new government is positively correlated with the opposition's ability to coordinate. By modeling how these variables interact, this essay revises the concept of a "threshold," or point where the expected net benefits exceed the expected costs of joining a rebellion. The concepts of "bandwagon" and "reverse bandwagon effect," introduced by traditional models of collective behavior, are integrated to explain the dynamics of a revolution and how popular disaffection may lead to regime change. The resulting theoretical framework is then applied to analyze the unexpected escalation in the number of protests and the movement's subsequent dissolution that took place in Venezuela during the first months of 2014.

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On 4 February 2014, students from Los Andes University in San Cristobal city, Tachira State, Venezuela initiated a set of protests that threatened to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro. The conflict began when students started protesting the high levels of insecurity in the region, after a student from the university was the victim of an alleged attempted rape. (1)

The strong police response to suppress the protests was met with an even stronger reaction from students. Additionally, students from other universities in Caracas joined the protests, demanding the release of the first protesters. (2) Protests continued in the country, attracting more people tired of the economic situation, the continuous shortage of food and basic goods, and the increasing insecurity that had made Venezuela one of the most violent countries in Latin America. (3) Opposition leaders quickly joined the movement, and within days it became a national campaign against President Maduro and the Chavistas in power. (4)

On 18 February 2014, the protests peaked when the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez from the Voluntad Popular political party turned himself in to the police following an arrest warrant requested by Maduro's government. (5) By mid-April, the government and some members of the opposition coalition, led by Henrique Capriles, head of Venezuela's Democratic Unity Roundtable, initiated a series of meetings to end more than two months of antigovernment protests. (6) By June, the number of protests in Venezuela had returned to pre-February levels, before the start of the movement, without any significant change of the country's regime. (7)

The rapid escalation of these unexpected events and their subsequent dissolution raise interesting questions. Namely, why did the protests begin at that particular point in time and not before? And why did the movement not succeed even when public demonstrations against the incumbent Maduro regime seemed to reach an unprecedented level? Based on rational choice theory, this essay approaches these puzzles by analyzing how the expected utility of protesting is affected by the following variables: the probability of having a new government, the probability of getting caught and receiving punishment when protesting, and the expected costs and benefits of doing so. The first section presents relevant literature about models of collective behavior that explain how popular disaffection may lead to regime change. The second section presents a mathematical model that describes how the interaction of the aforementioned variables affect the expected utility of protesting. The third section analyzes the outcome of Venezuelan national and regional elections from 1998 to 2013 and argues that coordination of the opposition parties translates into a higher voting share for the opposition, which increases the probability of having a new government. …

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