Scholarship on Venezuela has long cast the first decades after the founding of democracy in 1958 as a period of popular passivity, when citizen demands were effectively channeled through elections and state institutions before these broke down in the late 1980s. This article complicates such a reading and considers the role that street protest played in expanding the meaning of democracy among urban popular sectors to include a more dynamic interplay of institutional and extrainstitutional, legal and illegal protest. It focuses on a weeks-long hijacking of public service vehicles in the early 1980s by residents of Venezuela’s largest urban housing project, the 23 de Enero in downtown Caracas. Coupling archival data and oral history interviews, the article reconstructs the protest and its context to show how residents balanced a formerly contradictory experience of electoral support for the democratic regime on one hand and violent antiestablishment opposition on the other to mobilize the state around their demands. In particular it considers how residents seized on new discourses of accountability and participation emanating from political elites to lend their protest legitimacy, showing that the process to recalibrate Venezuelan democracy involved greater interaction between popular and elite-level actors than hitherto recognized.

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