When the actor Jared Leto paid tribute to protestors in Ukraine and Venezuela at the recent Oscars ceremony he continued a long tradition of Hollywood stars speaking out on political issues. But while there are interesting parallels to be made between the current crises in Ukraine and Venezuela they are not as straightforward as Leto’s comments suggest.
The current crisis in Ukraine began last November when protesters took to the streets in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a trade deal with the EU in favour of closer relations with Russia. These protests soon became the vehicle for the expression of long-standing resentment towards a corrupt, authoritarian ruler in the form of Yanukovych. The protests were met with increasingly violent repression, but nevertheless emerged victorious when Yanukovych was toppled from power in February. These events, in turn, precipitated the Russian intervention into the Crimean region of Ukraine, supposedly to protect Ukrainian citizens of Russian ethnicity.
Protests in Venezuela began just as events in Ukraine were coming to a head when students in the west of the country began demanding greater security from crime, as well as venting anger at high inflation and shortages of basic goods. The protests spread to the capital, Caracas, following the arrest of some of the students and quickly escalated when three protestors were shot dead during a demonstration on 12th February. While the culprits of the shootings remain unclear, the official opposition in Venezuela (the Table for Democratic Unity) has since joined the protests with some calling for the resignation of the President, Nicolás Maduro.
While imperfect in many ways, the government in Venezuela is not in the same category as the deposed regime in Ukraine. The mainly middle class protests against the government in Venezuela have been met with strong counter-demonstrations of support. Taking part in these pro-government rallies are the same poor Venezuelans who voted for Maduro in March 2013 on the basis of the vast improvements in living standards they witnessed under his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez. The opposition contested the election result, but it was widely deemed to be fair by international observers. The students protesting in Venezuela have legitimate concerns. Their struggle is not, however, comparable to that of the Ukrainians who fought to bring democracy to their country.
But while there are vast differences between the current crises in Ukraine and Venezuela, there are instructive comparisons to be made, particularly when considering the role played by hegemonic powers in the respective regions: Russia and the United States. From Vladimir Putin’s perspective in Moscow, the toppling of Yanukovych represented the removal of a reliable ally who had long secured Russian interests in a part of the world regarded as vital to Russia’s security – its ‘near abroad’ as the region on Russia’s western border is known in the country. By sending troops into the Crimean peninsula Putin was aiming at a minimum goal of protecting Russia’s vast naval base at Sevastopol with the added possibility of destabilising the new regime in Kiev.
In this respect Russia’s actions closely mirror the way the United States has traditionally acted in its own ‘back yard’: Latin America. When threats to its strategic and economic interests have emerged in that region the US has consistently intervened to thwart them – often overriding the democratic will of the people of Latin America in the process. The US did this in Guatemala in 1954, when the CIA aided the overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz’s left-leaning government; in Chile in the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger worked tirelessly to ensure the demise of Salvador Allende’s socialist government; and in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan aided counter-revolutionary death squads in undermining the progressive Sandinista government.
Lest we think such activities are confined to history, the US has maintained this attitude towards Latin America in more recent times. This brings us back to Venezuela. The US has long aided opposition groups in Venezuela intent upon removing the socialist government from power. This support took its most prominent form when the US collaborated in an attempted military coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002. Similarly, US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to exploit the situation in Venezuela following the 2013 election by initially refusing to accept the result. This year’s US federal budget includes $5 million in aid to opposition groups in Venezuela and Congress is currently considering imposing sanctions on the country in light of the protests.
When Russia carries out the kind of actions currently underway in the Crimea it sees this as no different from the way the United States acts in its traditional sphere of influence in Latin America. None of this in any way justifies Russia’s actions. It does, however, perhaps go some way towards explaining them, as well as highlighting the hypocrisy of US condemnations of Russia.
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Dr Thomas Mills teaches on our BA Politics and International Relations programme.
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