Uprisings in Venezuela and Ukraine: a Challenge to the US Left

By Jan Adams
February, 2014

En español

This month, War Times writer Jan Adams focuses on two areas of the world where the United States is clumsily attempting to control the outcomes of two very different uprisings: Venezuela and Ukraine. She argues that progressives and peace activist in this country have one real challenge in each case: to keep the imperial adventurers who run things here from making life even worse for ordinary people in those countries.

Jan would like readers to know that this article represents her own opinions, and not necessarily those of the entire War Times collective.

People flood into the streets, build barricades, denounce elected authorities that they believe have failed them; police and armies respond with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, even deadly sniper fire. What are leftists, anti-war liberals, and the peace movement to make of these eruptions? We recognize such popular uprisings as a frequent stage in the long struggle of ordinary people to assert themselves as actors in their history. More or less instinctively, we are sympathetic.

But these events take place in faraway countries about which we know little. Who are the "good guys" in these struggles? How do we understand who to support? Do we, as leftists, anti-war liberals, and the peace movement, have anyone to support?

This essay looks at those questions as they apply to February events in Venezuela and Ukraine.

VENEZUELA

Officially named "the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," this oil rich Latin American country has been an inspiring example to the peoples of the southern continent since Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1999. Chavez led a deeply unsettling and broadly popular effort to use the proceeds of Venezuela's oil to improve conditions for the country's majority of poor urbanites and peasant rural dwellers. Poor people who had never had medical care or access to education suddenly had a chance. Even the highly critical Associated Press recognized that, ”Chavez invested Venezuela's oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs.”

Despite the hostility of the United States (the US sticks up for oil companies and compliant oligarchies), Chavez survived US-supported coup attempts and repeated elections. After the charismatic leader died last spring, his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, a union leader, won the presidency. The Bolivarian revolution would continue.

And then came the mass protests we've seen in recent weeks, protests so clearly based solely in the middle class that the New York Times ran its story under the headline "Slum Dwellers in Caracas Ask, ‘What Protests?’"

But this is not the whole story. Unhappily, there are real problems in Venezuela. Even sympathetic observers like Professor Mike Gonzalez writing at Jacobin report a catalogue of social ills that undermine President Maduro's legitimacy:

Maduro won the presidential elections in April 2013. But this time the right-wing candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, came within 250,000 votes (under one percent) of winning. It was a clear expression of the growing frustration and anger among Chavez supporters. 2012 had seen inflation rates hovering around fifty percent (officially) and the level has risen inexorably throughout the last year. Today the basic basket of goods costs 30% more than the minimum wage — and that is if the goods are to be found on the increasingly empty shelves of shops and supermarkets. The shortages are explained partly by speculation on the part of capitalists — just as happened in Chile in 1972 — and partly by the rising cost of imports, which make up a growing proportion of what is consumed in Venezuela. And that means not luxuries, but food, basic technology, and even gasoline.

All of this is an expression of an economic crisis vigorously denied by the Maduro government but obvious to everyone else. Inflation is caused by the declining value of the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, itself the result of economic paralysis. The truth is that production of anything other than oil has ground to a virtual halt. The car industry employs 80,000 workers, yet since the beginning of 2014 it has produced 200 vehicles [emphasis added] — what would normally be produced in half a day.

How is it possible[?] … The answer is political rather than economic: corruption on an almost unimaginable scale, combined with inefficiency and a total absence of any kind of economic strategy. In recent weeks, there have been very public denunciations of speculators, hoarders, and the smugglers taking oil and almost everything else across the Colombian border. And there have been horrified reports of the “discovery” of thousands of containers of rotting food.

This is the context in which poor Venezuelans struggle to ensure that, "¡No volverán!"; (They [the oligarchy] shall not return.)

Meanwhile, these same Venezuelans are aware, even if we in this country are not that the United States wants to destroy the Bolivarian revolution. “There's $5m in the 2014 US federal budget for funding opposition activities inside Venezuela,” according to Mark Weisbrot, of the UK Guardian, “and this is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg – adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars of overt support over the past 15 years.”

With our government stirring the pot against the interests of the poor, it is obvious what the task of leftists, anti-war liberals, and the peace movement within the United States needs to be: we must demand that the United States let Venezuelans determine their own direction.

That's the easy part. But we do everyone, including Venezuelans, a disservice if, in supporting the Bolivarian experiment, we think we have to pretend that all is well. Although the protests against the Maduro government are clearly based among its class opponents, we should still acknowledge that Venezuela is in economic crisis.

We have to develop an ability think honestly about conflicts in countries where our government is meddling -- and then keep our eyes on the only task we can reasonably undertake: restraining our homegrown, ever-ambitious imperialists.

UKRAINE

It is easy relatively easy to envision a sensible stance for leftists, anti-war liberals, and the peace movement toward events in Venezuela — compared to Ukraine. However, as in so many world arenas of conflict since at least the end of the Cold War, events in Ukraine seem to offer no "good guys" at all.

But oh, the drama! Photos of this month's occupation have been mesmerizing: from the seesaw battles in the central square of Kiev (the Maidan) seen in the light of burning tires, to the revelation of deposed President Yanukovych's opulent palace.

As yet, no reliable, widely agreed, narrative of what has happened and is happening in Ukraine has emerged. It may be that the only point everyone seems to accept is that the country is deeply divided by multiple fissures. Strikingly, just about every media outfit I've consulted has published a similar array of maps showing the location of Ukrainian and Russian language groups, historical boundaries between national groups, the history of Ukraine's changing boundaries, and the distribution of voting majorities in Ukraine's 2010 election that put Yanukovych in office. Get your fill of maps here  or here.

In this complex and rapidly evolving situation, I'll pull out some milestones:

  • Located an ocean and half a continent away, people in the United States may be excused for not knowing the central facts of Ukraine's modern history. But Ukrainians can't. Here's Professor Timothy Snyder's concise summary:

Ukraine is less a country than a concentrated expression of the worst of the European twentieth century, a place where the realization of both Stalinism and National Socialism left behind killing fields of all sorts, multiple terrains of forgetting, full of pitfalls.… While Ukrainians in the west tend to forget the Poles and the Jews, inhabitants of the southeast forget the starved Ukrainians whose lands were sometimes taken by their parents or grandparents. In eastern Ukraine, service in the Red Army during World War II is generally considered heroic, and the nationalists who resisted the expansion of Soviet power to western Ukraine are seen as outsiders or criminals. Forgotten are the crimes committed by the Red Army itself…

  • Ukraine is broke, by anyone's definition. According to Ban Aris, editor of Business New Europe, "Economically, Ukraine is on the verge of collapse. The national currency has already fallen 20 percent since the start of the year. However, the EU is not going to be able to bail out the country alone."
  • In November, after prolonged negotiations, President Yanukovych chose not to sign an agreement with the European Union that would have oriented his country toward the rest of Europe. He had some reason to think the EU wasn't offering much of a deal; the EU offer amounted to something like, "We’ll take you only if you lower your standard of living" via austerity policies.
  • Although Russia's President Putin offered a partial $15 billion bailout in return for Ukraine's adherence to the Russian-dominated Eurasian Union, that deal was unacceptable both to the Kiev protesters who wanted a new election NOW! and to Ukraine’s oligarchs, who would have lost their piece of the action to the sitting President.
  • A mixed bag of protesters, through several distinct phases of struggle, chased Yanukovych out of Kiev and into Russia's arms. (If you can stomach a political scientist's dissection of how the Ukrainian president might have been able to repress the dissent, read this.)
  •  Once Yanukovych fled, opposition politicians claimed governing power for parliament. They called for new elections -- and also "passed a bill revoking the rights of Ukraine’s regions to make Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian. That outraged the Russian-speaking half of the country, and the ban was quickly lifted," according to Time World on March 1, 2014. This was not a parliament acting judiciously to increase its legitimacy after traumatic national events.
  • As of Sunday, March 2, Russia has taken over the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula without bloodshed -- not too surprising in an area where Russian is the majority language, Russia has large military bases, and Russian media provide the main Russian-language interpretation of events in that part of Ukraine.
  • Some observers such as Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Centre writing in The Observer believe the crisis in Crimea could lead the world into a second cold war. Others note that if Putin seeks to break Ukraine apart, it would likely become not only a geopolitical but also a military nightmare for Putin, on the order of Iraq or Afghanistan for the United States and (in the case of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union).

HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?

While the big powers -- Russia, the United States, and possibly Germany as the most significant EU actor -- engage in geopolitical posturing, the peoples of these countries as well as Ukrainians of all persuasions are rendered increasingly powerless spectators. 

So how can leftists, anti-war liberals, and the peace movement respond to events in Ukraine? I would say that we need to place ourselves on the side of ordinary people who are going to be hurt, and that is just about all the people in the region. None of the powers are offering anything to support.

As usual, the prime responsibility of US activists is to attempt to limit the damage that will be done by our own government. In this case, the task is somewhat clearer. For all President Obama's hand-waving about "costs" to Russia and John Kerry's talk of Russian "aggression," the war party here is led by all the usual suspects: neocons and base-pandering Republicans, Dick Cheney and John McCain. The Democratic president actually has try to run US affairs, which makes him structurally an ally for restraint.

The popular left must amplify all voices against war fever, not because we have a side, but because de-escalation is in the interest of ordinary people everywhere.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Jan Adams has worked with WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras since its beginning, coordinating distribution during the three years when the organization published an antiwar tabloid newspaper. She is a lifelong political activist who has worked for justice in Central America (Nicaragua and El Salvador), in South Africa, in the fields of California with the United Farmworkers Union, and for racial and economic equality with electoral and advocacy campaigns in many areas of the United States.

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