Propaganda plays a key role in maintaining power in authoritarian regimes. Previous research finds that overt, crude, and heavy-handed messaging, so-called hard propaganda, can be used to effectively convey government strength and deter citizens from joining anti-regime protests in relatively stable autocratic regimes like China. Yet, it is unclear if this is also true in more contested and unstable autocratic contexts. In these settings, citizens are more likely to question such messaging and prior beliefs of government strength vary more widely. We explore the perception of hard propaganda in one such difficult test case for hard propaganda: the crisis-ridden Maduro regime in Venezuela. We measure perceptions of hard propaganda among the public using an online survey that featured a choice experiment in which respondents chose between and rated different propaganda images against more neutral political communication. Our results show that respondents perceived hard propaganda images as stronger compared to neutral political communication. This holds true—contrary to our pre-registered expectations—regardless of whether respondents overall perceived the government as strong or weak. Moreover, respondents reported a lower willingness to join anti-government protests but, at the same time, had a greater motivation to challenge the regime. These results support and extend prior findings on the effectiveness of hard propaganda in deterring anti-regime activities to the case of contested and unstable autocracies. But they also suggest that this kind of messaging erodes regime legitimacy providing the first evidence outside of the Chinese case of the pathology of hard propaganda.