In the last two months, dictators in Sudan and Algeria were forced to step down because of popular pressure, demonstrating the power of nonviolent resistance to movements in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela. “When large numbers of people engage in various forms of noncooperation … that is where the real power of nonviolent resistance comes from,” says Maria Stephan.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Kent Klein:    Let us spend some time talking a little bit more about what is taking place internationally. Specifically addressing violence in countries. We've been seeing it in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, Algeria, Sudan, places like that but, what we are also seeing with this resurgence of authoritarianism is also a resurgence, if you will, of global protest movements. So, to explain that dynamic and to give us a better sense of what we are seeing at work in the world right now we have Maria Stephan with us. Maria is USIP, the United States Institute of Peace, nonviolent action director. Tweeting @mariajstephan, S-T-E-P-H-A-N. Maria welcome. Dr. Stephan I should say, welcome to the show.

Maria Stephan:    Thank you Kent, good to be on.

Kent:    People have heard about the violence in Venezuela more than likely, just because of the fact that it's been so public and the administration has been so much behind it. A little less, perhaps, Algeria, Nicaragua, some in Sudan. Give us a sense of what this violence, if there is a common cause for the violence we've been seeing in those countries in particular.

Maria:    Well, sure. I think what's been really interesting is within the past two months alone we've seen two authoritarian leaders who have used brutal violence and repression to stay in power. We saw them forced to step down due to mass nationwide protests, demonstrations, strikes and the like. So, those are just two examples of regimes that were pretty fragile, in the sense of staying in power through repression, marginalization and the like, that were facing mass protests and demonstrations from all different parts of the country and different constituencies and, in a matter of weeks, were forced to step down from power.

Maria:    Similarly, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, we have seen months of demonstrations, strikes, protests, targeting the authoritarian leaders in those countries, Maduro and Ortega. They have both managed to stay in power. They've endured the protests, the militaries have largely remained loyal to the two leaders, and so, the protests continue and we're kind of seeing a cat and mouse game between the governments and the peoples in those countries.

Kent:    Maria, give us a sense, you study this, what is it that gives people the sense of empowerment, that is, that they feel like it's worth it to go out and protest? Because, obviously, in an authoritarian government there's usually a quashing of any kind of public dissidents, and I wonder what makes them feel like, okay, this is important to do, number one, and on number two, I can do it and maybe it will succeed. What gives people that sense?

Maria:    Sure, you're absolutely right that, in almost all of these cases where populations challenge authoritarian governments, there is violence and there is repression that it used against the protesters. I think we see time and time again though that when people start to see other people go out into the streets, friends, relatives, mothers, professional groups, that builds their confidence.

Maria:    I was looking into some interviews with some of the Algerian youth who took to the streets, knowing very well that there were plain clothed police and police intelligence all around, and, at a certain point, they just said, “The fear has been broken, we have numbers, bring on the S.W.A.T teams,” kind of thing and almost a jubilant sense of, "It's time for us to take power." So, I think numbers and participation really, really matter.

Maria:    I think when we've seen in Sudan and we have seen in Algeria and elsewhere, that when a movement, and these movements form in different ways and the leaderships look different in all of these movements, but when they make a firm commitment to non-violent discipline, when they say, "We are going to fight for our rights, our freedoms, non-violently. This is how it's going to be done," it creates just a sense of focus and unity, and when violence is used against demonstrably peaceful protestors, the regimes in these places are more likely to pay the price. They lose support, they lose legitimacy, and that helps to build momentum and a sense of confidence in people, even in places where protests have been squashed in the past.

Kent:    Touch for a moment, if you will, on leadership. You mentioned it and I think about Nicholas, not so much Nicolas Maduro, but Daniel Ortega and the Anastasio Somoza regime which preceded him which was also authoritarian. You look at Fidel Castro, who wound up taking over after they had unseated the dictator, Batista, who was in place in Cuba, but replaced it with another authoritarian regime. Who’s to know, who’s to sense whether or not the leadership of these groups have ulterior motives?

Maria:    Yeah, I think you're seeing, certainly in Nicaragua, the discussion amongst some of the youth activists and those university students. Campesino leaders, with whom I've spoken, have said, “We are engaged in a struggle against this dictatorship, we don't want it to be replaced by another authoritarian or dictatorial regime,” and in fact, we're seeing exactly this realization in places like Algeria, in Sudan where, in both cases, the dictator fell, if you will, but the populations are persisting. They're keeping up the pressure to ensure that the military leaders who assumed control after coups in both countries are going to step down from power, and they're remaining mobilized, and they're putting pressure to push for a transition from military to civilian rule.

Maria:    So, I think it's definitely a risk in all of these places, but I think there's been a lot of learning by activists. They've seen what has happened in places like Egypt, where the military filled the vacuum after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. They're learning that you need to stay engaged, you need to keep up the pressure in order for there to be veritable democratic transition.

Kent:    Again, Dr. Maria Stephan is with us, USIP, United States Institute of Peace, nonviolent action director. How much should the United States be involved in this? There has been criticism, for example, under President Obama for not being a little bit more supportive of then President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring, but there's also criticism of the U.S. for having too heavy a hand in those efforts to unseat even dictators just because it is not the Unites States' responsibility to do that according to some people. I wonder what you think the proper role, if there is a proper role for the U.S., when it comes to intervening on behalf of those who are protesting?

Maria:    Well, what we know about successful nonviolent movements is that they succeed because they're able to attract mass popular support from various constituencies from within their own population, and when large numbers of people engage in various forms of noncooperation strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience that is where the real power of nonviolent resistance comes from. When it comes to the roles played by external actors, I think sometimes the most important role that government for sure can play is to focus and amplify the voices of some of these nonviolent protestors, to condemn human rights abuses and to use various means at their disposal to put pressure on regimes who use paramilitary forces, their own security forces, to crack down on peaceful protestors.

Maria:    I think it becomes risky when the foreign governments are seen to be out in front of the local protestors and the local activists, and then it makes it easier for the regimes in these places to say, "Oh, this is just a foreign backed coup," or, "This is a foreign operation,"  and so, I think being able to support, emphasize the respect for human rights, but without being seen as a driver of these movements because they thrive on their legitimacy, they thrive on trust and they thrive on participation, and outside actors need to respect those dynamics.

Kent:    And the million dollar question, of course, what if the support of those human rights is not in concert, if you will, with the best national security interests of the United States?

Maria:    Well, I think the abuse of human rights, as we've seen in places around the world, with Syria being the most blatant example and, frankly, in many dictatorships where you see fragile states lording power over their populations. These are very, very high risk threatening environments, and so, I think just emphasizing the respect for human rights is critically important. Supporting the civil societies and the activist groups in the youth societies is critically important and in acting in concert with other powers.

Maria:    When the case is Venezuela and Nicaragua, being in concert and in partnership with the O.A.S, with regional powers, so that they are seen to be taking the lead in condemning the abuses in these countries and using various sanctions and other mechanisms at their disposal, Magnitsky Act, in the case of the United States, to put pressure on perpetrators of human rights abuses, but it really is in the hands of the local populations’ activist organizers in these countries to lead their countries to democracy.

Kent:    Dr. Stephan, thanks for being here, thanks for the perspective.

Maria:    Thank you very much.

Kent:    Dr. Maria J. Stephan who directs the program on nonviolent action at the United States Institute of Peace. As we mentioned, there's a resurgence of authoritarianism, but also, we have seen a complimentary rise of protests against those and how do we look at that, and that was what she was laying out for us, and we thank her for that perspective. She is tweeting by the way @mariajstephan, S-T-E-P-H-A-N.

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