Thoughts On Developing A Plan For Liberation

Notes for an address to a conference on
Nonviolent Struggle: A Challenge for Change in Cuba

Sponsored by Brothers to the Rescue and
Florida International University
Miami, Florida, 14-15 June 1996

Copyright: Gene Sharp
The following is a publication of Gene Sharp, Senior Scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
tel: (617) 876-0311, fax: (617)876-0837, e-mail:<

Reprinted by Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate) with the author's permission.


Thank you for inviting me. It is an honor to be here among persons committed to the liberation of the Cuban people and the development of a democratic society in a liberated Cuba

I am not here to tell anyone what to do, because I do not know Cuba well and I am not Cuban.

However, I do have some knowledge of dictatorships and resistance movements, and especially struggle with political, social, economic, and psychological weapons -- i.e. pragmatic nonviolent struggle. Lest there be any misunderstanding, this discussion has nothing whatsoever to do with pacifism. This is a discussion about struggle, power, and effective means of fighting.

I intend only to offer some ideas for consideration in thinking through the problem of how to end a dictatorship and planning how best to achieve a democratic society with freedom and respect for human dignity. Those are difficult goals to reach.

I hope that these ideas may be relevant for Cuba. However, that is your decision.

Determining the objective

A responsible movement which faces dictators and hopes for freedom, must decide what is its objective. Is it to make gestures of defiance, to express its hostility, to glorify freedom, and to identify one's self as one of the 'good guys'?

Or, is the movement seriously committed to the struggle to bring down the dictatorship and to establish a viable and responsible democratic political system based on freedom and democratic principles?

The gestures of defiance are relatively easy to make. To disintegrate the dictatorship and establish a lasting working democracy are harder goals to attain.

Requirements to succeed

To succeed in both of those goals requires that a responsible movement includes persons who think, evaluate, plan, prepare, and then act in ways that can be successful

Reflect on this century which is passing

We need to remember that this has been not only a century of dictatorships -- Nazi, Communist, Maoist, military, fascist, and others. It is easy to feel that the dictatorships are all powerful, and that to feel that people are helpless

We need also to remember that this has also been a century of liberation. It has been also a century of nonviolent struggle, popular empowerment with increasing strategic sophistication of nonviolent struggle, and disintegration of dictatorships.

Those who today struggle against dictatorships can be strengthened by knowledge that the future course of history is not pre-determined. Those who believe in freedom can help to shape the future by their choices of what to do and how to act.

There are grounds for realistic hope

Provided that the exponents of freedom: use their heads and think carefully, reject ideological dogma and doctrines, plan strategically, mobilize their own sources of power, learn how to undermine the dictatorship intelligently, build independent institutions outside the dictators' control, and implement their developed strategic plans with sound judgment and courage.

Rejecting dogmas

When developing a strategic plan for liberation, it is necessary to set aside past dogmas such as these:

Belief in the necessity of violence which produces defeatism, desperation, and disasters.

The presumption that answers lie in coups d'état, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, military adventurism, or foreign intervention.

Belief in the omnipotence of dictatorships. They actually may be fragile if action is taken to strike where they are weakest, where they are vulnerable, at the very sources of their power.

Temptations to a democracy movement which must be resisted

A democracy movement may be tempted to make promises or to take actions which may sound good at the time, but which may in the long-run only help present or future dictators.

These temptations include the making of excessive and undeliverable promises in efforts to get support during the struggle -- promises which later cannot be kept and will lead to disillusionment and even longing for a return of the dictatorship.

Another temptation is to try to fight with the dictators' best weapon: violence. This choice can lead either to (1) defeat of the democracy movement or (2) a new dictatorship by the "democratic military" or a coup d'état clique.

In focusing attention on the dictatorship there may be a temptation to ignore issue of social justice (economic, racial, etc.). The lack of attention to social justice often leaves that issue to the dictators (and hands them important supporters, which are lost to the democratic forces and who are betrayed by the dictators). This is very important.

There are several additional temptations which must be avoided by a democratic movement. There include the temptation
to idolize a democratic leader, who may therefore become a target for assassination or corruption, thereby weakening the mass movement on which victory depends

Another temptation is to be content with a pattern of reaction to the dictators' initiatives, This condemns the movement to weakness and ineffectiveness, and to fail to seize the initiative with careful action based on a wise strategy which has been developed for that situation.

Democrats may sometimes be tempted themselves to violate democratic standards, supposedly to increase their own effectiveness. The results can be tragic.

Two more temptations are common. One of these is to ignore the potential for a coup d'état conducted either to pre-empt the democratic struggle or to seize control of the state when the dictatorship collapses. A movement which has ignored this potential and failed to prepare to resist a coup d'état if and when it comes, may find that it faces a new dictatorship, potentially worse then the old ones, and one more difficult to resist.

When the dictatorship collapses, the democrats may then to fail to institutionalize a democratic system and may flounder in the early stages of a democracy. The result may be to discredit democracy, to create a longing for the 'good old days' under the deposed dictators, and to open the way for acceptance of a new dictatorship.

There are many democrats who lack confidence that an end to the dictatorship is really possible

Remarkably, there are in pro-democracy movements those who despite their words do not really believe the dictatorship can be destroyed and a new democratic system created. These persons really continue to believe in the omnipotence of the dictators and that the violence of dictators is the real power in the conflict.

Consequently, they are content with making only gestures of defiance and dissent against the dictators and denunciations of any who disagree with them. Gestures and denunciations are tragically all that they believe to be possible -- not actually ending the dictatorship and bringing in freedom.

Those persons may quickly deny that they believe in this way. Perhaps in their hearts they wish it were otherwise, but they see no realistic basis to believe that the goal of freedom can actually be achieved. The consequence is weak protest gestures, unrealistic or unambitious plans, and failure to prepare for bringing an end to the dictatorship and introduction of freedom

Is disintegration of a dictatorship and the institution of democracy really possible?

The answer is simple. It has already happened elsewhere.

Kenneth Boulding and one of the Greek philosophers both understood this, when they observed: "That which exists is possible."

"Lo que existe es posible." An insight which is not very complicated but is profound.

Extreme dictatorships have already been disintegrated.

Extreme dictatorships have already in recent years been disintegrated in several countries. This has usually occurred after some years of severe repression and the slow growth of noncooperation and defiance, which gradually escalated to shake the foundations of the dictatorship

Examples from recent years of this pattern of success include East Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland.

Examples of earlier years include El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944,

Additionally, nonviolent struggle has played important roles in the liberation of South Africa, undermining the military regime in Argentina, contributing to the liberation of Hungary, and freeing India from the British Empire.

Nonviolent struggle has been used in the United States civil rights struggles for the rights of African-Americans, in the Soviet Union for the rights of Jews, and in struggles for civil liberties and for environmental protection in several countries.

This type of struggle has been used, temporarily unsuccessfully, by Chinese democrats in 1989 and by Burmese Democrats in 1988

Symbolic protests, economic boycotts, labor strikes, many kinds of political noncooperation, disruptive demonstrations, sit-ins, and parallel governments have been practiced over the decades and centuries in many countries.

In the past few weeks we have seen the resurrection of nonviolent struggle in Burma by the National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi in brilliant moves which put the military dictators on the defensive and mobilized significant power from the supposedly powerless masses.

How is all this possible?

All this has been possible in the past and similar and more powerful actions will be possible in the future because:

First, dictators are never as powerful as they want you to believe. There are always some things they want to do but are unable to do.

Second, dictatorships contain important internal weaknesses, problems, and conflicts which are usually hidden from the wider public

Resistance needs to be carefully focused on these weaknesses and their dependencies in order to make the greatest impact

Principal lessons of past struggles include:

Never attack dictators where they are strongest -- in military power, because one will almost always lose.

Always attack dictators where they are weakest and are least able to respond effectively. This will increase the impact of the resistance and aggravate the dictatorship's problems and vulnerabilities.

Why should this be true?

This is possible because of this important insight: all dictatorships, and indeed all governments, are dependent on a constant supply of several sources of power.

Power is essential in all social and political systems.

Power is the combination of all influences and pressures, including punishments, available for use to control the situation, to control people and institutions, or to mobilize people and institutions for some activity.

Political power is intrinsic to politics, and is involved, directly or indirectly in all political action. Without effective power it is impossible to achieve one's goal, to defeat hostile forces, and to defend positive gains.

Political power is not intrinsic to those who wield it. Power comes from the society they rule, and there are specific sources of that power.

These sources of power include:

Authority (or legitimacy, belief in the right of some group or person to lead and give orders);
Human resources (who and how many people obey and assist the power holder);
Skills & knowledge (what kind and to what degree these are available to the power-holder)
Intangible factors (religious, emotional, and belief systems)
Material resources (economic, financial, transportation, and communications)
Sanctions (or punishments, violent or nonviolent)

The extent to which these sources are supplied to those who would wield power determines whether they are strong, weak, or only objects of ridicule.

These sources of power are supplied to the regime by various "pillars of support" in the society.

These pillars of support include:

Religious and moral leaders help in the case of authority

All sections of the population in the case of human resources -- people who cooperate, obey, and assist the regime

Specialists with particular abilities and capacities in the case of skills and knowledge

Acceptance of the pattern of submission and of beliefs which lead to obedience and help in the case of intangible factors

Cooperation in the functioning of the financial economic, transportation, and communications system in the case of material factors -- and

Fear and submission in face of threatened punishments by the regime, and obedience by the police and military of orders to inflict repression on those who disobey or refuse to cooperate

Yet, all of these sources of power are not automatically available because the pillars of support may choose not to provide those sources..

These sources of power can be restricted, their supply slowed, or outright refused.

Undermining and mobilizing power

Consequently, the regime will be weakened and at times subjected to political starvation. Without being "fed" by supply of the sources of power, the dictators cannot remain powerful.

If the acceptance of the regime, cooperation with it, and obedience to it are ended, the regime must weaken and collapse

This explains the phenomenon of 'people power' or nonviolent struggle, and the collapse of the dictatorships which we earlier cited.

Parallel with the weakening of the power to the regime by noncooperation and disobedience is the mobilization of power capacity by the general population, which has previously been thought to be weak and helpless in face of the regime's organizational and repressive capacity.


This struggle will not be easy or without cost. One must expect repression.

This disobedience and noncooperation will be not be welcomed by the dictatorship because it is nonviolent.

To the contrary, this resistance will be seen to be more dangerous to the dictatorship than opposition violence. The regime is likely to see this type of resistance for what it is -- a realistic effort to disintegrate the dictatorship.

Consequently the dictatorship will respond with denunciations, lies, imprisonments, violent repression, provocations to violence, and assassinations

Four important tasks

If one wants to attempt to undermine a dictatorship by these means, there are four important tasks which need to be undertaken:

(1) study the requirements, history, and strategic principles of nonviolent struggle;

(2) spread the knowledge of this type of struggle;

(3) develop a wise strategic plan for liberation based on knowledge of the specific situation and of the requirements and dynamics of nonviolent struggle; and

(4) mobilize the dominated population to correct its own weaknesses and increase its strengths, so that it is capable of dissolving the oppressive dictatorship and carry out a successful transition to a democratic system.

Strategies of liberation

Several strategies of phased campaigns are likely to be required to undermine a dictatorship and later to achieve its disintegration.

As the long-term struggle develops beyond the initial symbolic strategies into more ambitious and advanced phases, the strategists will need to calculate how the dictators' sources of power can be further restricted.

The time will come when the democratic forces can move beyond selective resistance at key political or economic points and instead launch mass noncooperation and defiance intended to disintegrate the dictatorship.

The combination of strong noncooperation and defiance and the building of independent institutions of civil society is likely in time to produce widespread supportive international action but one must not depend on that.

The dictatorship disintegrates

When confronted with the increasingly empowered population and the growth of independent democratic groups and institutions -- both of which the dictators are unable to control -- the dictators will find that their whole venture is unraveling.

Massive shut-downs of the society, general strikes, mass stay-at-homes, defiant marches, loss of control of the economy, transportation system, and communications, slow-downs and defiance by the civil service and police, disguised disobedience or outright mutiny by the military, or other activities will increasingly undermine the dictators' own organization and related institutions.

As a consequence of such defiance and noncooperation, executed wisely and with mass participation over time, the dictators would become powerless and the democratic forces would, without violence, triumph.

The dictatorship would disintegrate before the defiant population when these actions occur:

When the religious and moral leaders in the society denounce the regime as illegitimate,

When the masses of the people are disobeying orders and noncooperating with the dictatorship (and instead obeying the democratic leadership),

When journalists and broadcasters are defying censorship and issuing their own publications and programs,

When the transportation system operates only according to the needs of the democratic forces,

When the civil servants are ignoring the dictatorship's policies and orders,

When the police refuse to arrest democratic resisters

When the army has gone on strike

Then, the power of the dictators has dissolved.

The democratic forces should be aware that in some situations the collapse of the dictatorship may occur extremely rapidly, as in East Germany in 1989.

The democrats should calculate in advance how the transition from the dictatorship to the interim government shall be handled at the end of the struggle, so as to establish a viable democratic system.

The path should be blocked to any persons or group which would like to become the new dictators.

Advantages of this kind of liberation

Among the advantages of this type of struggle for liberation are these:

It is more likely to bring about an end to the dictatorship than violence, which may entrench the regime.

The struggle can be conducted self-reliantly without dependence on foreign governments, which may have their own objectives and be unreliable allies.

Potentially the whole population can participate in the nonviolent struggle for liberation, and not only a restricted group of the population.

The casualty rates, though potentially serious, are most likely to be significantly lower than in a violent resistance movement.

The struggle will require much lower economic costs than a violent struggle, because no military arms and ammunition will be required.

The society will not suffer massive physical destruction, as is likely in a civil war.

No group in command of military forces will be ready to impose a new dictatorship after 'victory".

Nonviolent struggle has strong democratizing effects through the process of diffusing power throughout the society and 'arming' the people with knowledge of how to struggle against future oppressors.


In conclusion, may I call attention to three main points relevant for planning a liberation struggle against dictators.

Knowledge of the nature and use of nonviolent struggle is power potential.

With new knowledge of this option and confidence in its capacity, people in situations in which they otherwise would passively submit, be crushed, or use self-defeating violence, can apply these forms of nonviolent struggle -- and wield power.

Knowledge of how to act, how to organize, and how to transform one's power potential into effective power through nonviolent struggle enables otherwise weak people to wield effective power and to help to determine the future of their own lives and society.

Copyright Gene Sharp
The above is a publication of Gene Sharp, Senior Scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
tel: (617) 876-0311, fax: (617)876-0837, e-mail:<

Reprinted by permission.