Protests in Focus: Venezuela and the Ukraine

Friday, February 28, 2014

The popular uprisings in Venezuela and the Ukraine have both gotten really ugly, really fast. They were sparked and perpetuated by different factors, but both have received somewhat spotty media coverage (which occasionally even mixes up the two). American meddling has also been heavily implicated in the two (which is as likely true as not). There are so many neglected crises in the world right now (the Central African Republic comes to mind), but I thought I would close the week by shining a light on two of the newest ones.

The unrest in the Ukraine, now popularly referred to as Euromaidan ("Euro" being short for Europe and "maidan" refering to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in Kiev), began last November in response to the Ukrainian government walking back on plans to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU. According to Wikipedia and most major news outlets, the Ukraine has been tugged back and forth between Europe and Russia, which has historically had very close ties with, and a lot of influence in, the country. The agreements with the EU were supposed to be first steps toward European integration. However, the Ukrainian government put the brakes on after Russia halted the importation of all Ukrainian goods and after receiving an offer for an IMF loan with harsh terms.

The protests began at the end of November and grew in December, with tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets in increasingly violent demonstrations. At the end of January, activists began taking over and occupying government buildings. After enough politicians defected, the opposition finally had enough votes in parliament to oust President Viktor Yanukovich, as well as remove police from Kiev, cancel anti-protest operations, restore the 2004 constitution, and free political prisoners. According to documents recently obtained by journalists, Yanukovich, who fled Kiev on Friday, was planning to use deadly force to quell the demonstrations.
Although its authenticity could not be confirmed, parliamentary deputy Hennadi Moskal, a former deputy interior minister, published a document online detailing a plan to surround Independence Square – the cradle of the uprising – with snipers and open fire on the protesters below.

Armoured vehicles and about 22,000 police would have been involved, including about 2,000 Berkut riot police, if it had been fully enacted, the document showed.
There have been at least 79 people killed and 570 injured, according to the Wikipedia article. There is now an interim president, with elections scheduled for this May. Somehow I feel like we have seen this before.

La Salida, the protests in Venezuela, could not be more different. The country's monstrously high inflation (currently the highest in the world) and severe shortages of basic household goods have been in the news for weeks. Economic hardship combined with high crime rates and ruthless oppression of free speech and press boiled over in early January. In Venezuela, however, President Nicolas Maduro is carrying the torch of the Chavez personality cult, which has resulted in equally large pro-government rallies and clashes between pro-government and opposition protesters. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez (who tried to seize power in a 2002 coup) was arrested at the culmination of a highly publicized opposition protest.
Valencia, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Twitter.

Maduro has been shutting down media and using paranoia and scare tactics to try to control the country. He removed the Colombian channel NTN24 from public cable after it covered opposition protests, denounced AFP for "manipulating information," and tried to eject three CNN journalists. Opposition news channels have had their licenses revoked. They even shut off internet access for a million people in San Cristóbal. Alas for Maduro, the repression seems to only be making things worse.
And while the demonstrators condemn a wide range of perennial problems, including rampant crime, high inflation and shortages of basic goods like sugar and toilet paper, the intensity of the protests has been fueled by something more subtle and perhaps stronger — a sense that the spaces to voice disagreement with the government are shrinking and disappearing.

“You have a government that increasingly, since the time of Chávez but even more with Maduro, has practically closed the channels of communication,” said Margarita López Maya, a historian who studies protest movements. “If you have a society that has no institutional channels to raise its complaints, make demands, form policy, the tradition in Venezuela and in Latin America and I think throughout the world is to take to the streets.”

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