By Narrelle Gilchrist
The streets are in chaos. Armed police terrorize marching protesters, killing young men, women, and children. The government denounces these rebels as fascist and corrupt, but they march on. Ordinary citizens in two countries on opposite sides of the world fight for their futures. Calling for change, these rebels in Venezuela and Ukraine implore their government to listen to the pleas of their people. In Venezuela, the situation has plunged into an endless cycle of violence. In Ukraine, the persistence of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators has led to a new government, one that answers to the will of its people.
Venezuela, an oil-rich nation, has endured numerous revolutions, military coups, and dictatorships since it won independence from Spain in 1811. President Hugo Chavez, elected in 1998, oversaw a significant shift towards socialism in Venezuela. Elected on the dreams of the working class, Chavez quickly dashed hopes for a better future, instead instilling another regime tainted by corruption that did nothing for the people. Despite numerous protests, an election recall, and an attempted coup, Chavez became a prominent figure in the region and was reelected twice more. Denouncing “evil” capitalism and imperialism, Chavez called U.S. President George W. Bush the devil and maintained close ties with communist Cuba. Chavez ruled for fourteen years, a rule many described as autocratic, until his death in March 2013. His vice president and handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, narrowly won the election to succeed him.
Since then, civil unrest has grown, as citizens became discontented with economic shortages, domestic violence, and the suppression of free speech. Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in the world, and the law and justice system continuously does nothing to quell violent crime. For years, rampant crime, from rapes to murders to robberies, has gone unchecked by police and 90% of murders have gone unsolved. In 2013, approximately 25,000 people in Venezuela were killed, a death rate of 79 per 100,000 people. Rapid inflation, the third highest in the world at a rate of 56.2% , has made basic everyday needs, like milk, chicken, and eggs, far too expensive for the average citizen to afford. Meanwhile, fighting crime and inflation remains low on the government’s list of priorities, and government-controlled news outlets report next to nothing about the desperation felt by the public.
In February 2014, students nationwide took to the streets, fighting for change. Joined by political opposition leaders, the protestors began calling for regime change, but President Maduro, who will not be up for reelection until April 2016, swore that he would never resign. The protests gained international attention on February 12th when three people were killed during a confrontation with police. Police charged opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with murder, terrorism, and conspiracy, blaming him for instilling violence that led to the three deaths. Lopez soon emerged from hiding to turn himself in.
In front of a crowd of supporters, Lopez climbed onto a mound to extemporaneously deliver a rallying speech to his people. “This struggle is for those who have been repressed; this struggle is for those who are imprisoned,” he cried, “If my imprisonment helps awaken our people, then for me it will have been worth it… We will prevail.” Among cheers of “Freedom!”, Lopez walked straight into a crowd of National Guard and surrendered. From behind bars, he has continued to rally his supporters by sending them messages to keep fighting. While the charges for terrorism and murder have been dropped, Lopez faces as many as ten years in prison for arson and conspiracy.
On the international stage, most countries are trying to remain neutral while discouraging violence in every way possible. United States government officials urged both the government and the protesteers to refrain from violence, but have otherwise refused to publicly take sides. Maduro, meanwhile has accused the United States of backing the protesters in an attempt to overthrow his government. Saying, “Yankee, go home,” Maduro gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.
As of Monday, February 24th, protests in Venezuela have led to as many as 13 deaths and over 150 injuries. The National Guard has used tear gas on crowds of protesters in order to quell the resistance, often injuring innocent bystanders as well as anti-government demonstrators. At one rally, police shot rubber bullets into the crowd, killing a 23 year-old student. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested, including numerous opposition leaders. The country remains deeply divided as government supporters take to the street as well. Many attest to Maduro’s legitimacy as the democratically elected president, while others denounce him as a dictator who has done nothing to help average citizens. Violence continues to erupt, and a solution seems far out of reach. Although Maduro has begun to call for peace talks, a line of dialogue between the government and the protesters seems impossible, as Maduro refuses to listen to or even acknowledge the people’s grievances. Comparing them to a disease, President Maduro has denounced the protesters as fascists and right-wing conspirators plotting to overthrow the government. The nation’s tumult cannot long stay unresolvable. Sooner or later, either the protesters will be forced to back down or President Maduro will be forced from power. People all over the world are pleading that, whatever the solution, this violence will end and lead to a better future for the people of Venezuela.
On the opposite side of the world, protests in Ukraine have led to a fleeing president and a new interim government. Over the past few weeks, Ukraine has seen its deadliest days since the dissolution of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago. The roots of this conflict began in November 2013, as President Victor Yanukovych negotiated a historical political and trade agreement with the European Union (EU). A former Soviet republic, Ukraine is deeply divided between those who favor closer ties to Russia and those who support increased democratic freedom and closer ties to the EU. This deal, which would have generated economic growth and increased Ukraine’s ties to its western neighbors, was widely popular with pro-western Ukrainians. On November 21st, however, Yanukovych suspended talks with the EU at the last minute. Yanukovych had been pressured to stop the agreement by Russia, who had hoped to form a customs union with Ukraine and wanted to keep the nation in its pocket. The EU had also demanded that Yanukovych release his political rival former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, something Yanukovych refused to do. Tymoshenko had been jailed two years previously for abuse of office, an arrest widely seen as politically motivated. Following Ukraine’s withdrawal from the talks with the EU, protestors took to the streets, calling for Yanukovych to reverse his decision. Many Ukrainians had seen the deal as a beacon of hope for a future of economic prosperity for their nation, and they were greatly angered when Yanukovych tossed this prospect aside in favor of closer ties to Russia. More than 300,000 demonstrators turned out in the streets of Kiev, seizing City Hall and calling for Yanukovych’s resignation. Tensions increased in mid-December when Yanukovych flew to Russia to announce a $15 billion bailout with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As demonstrations continued, police cracked down on dissenting students, arresting hundreds of protesters, but these attempts to quell the resistors only strengthened them. Protesters occupied government buildings for weeks. On January 16th, Yanukovych and his supporters adopted sweeping anti-protest laws that, among other things, made the slander of government officials a punishable offense and barred protesters from setting up tents and electronic equipment. These laws were seen as grievous violations of the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly and were met by outrage. On January 22nd, three protesters died during a confrontation with police, marking the first casualties of the rebellion. Parliament rushed to repeal the anti-protest laws in order to defuse the conflict. By that time, however, protesters had begun to demand constitutional reform. The opposition called for the government’s power structure to be altered so that more power rested with parliament than with the executive branch. In an attempt to appease the opposition and end the conflict, Yanukovych offered opposition leaders key positions in the government, including the post of Prime Minister, and promised to explore the issue of constitutional change. The opposition, however, denied the offer, alleging that the government had hardly backed off from its position and swearing that they would finish what they had started. On February 16th, the government and opposition negotiated a new deal consisting of amnesty for arrested protesters in exchange for the vacation of government buildings by demonstrators. More than two hundred detainees were released as protesters left the buildings they had occupied for nearly three months, but hope for an end to the conflict quickly vanished when violence erupted on Tuesday, February 18th. In the deadliest day since the protests began in November, at least twenty-six people were killed. A truce called on Wednesday quickly failed, and at least twenty people died on Thursday when gunfire erupted at a demonstration in Independence Square. By Friday, death tolls ranged from 70 to 100 people as police gunned down protesters. Yanukovych made another attempt at a deal with the opposition on Friday, this time promising to schedule presidential elections for December 2014. Enraged, protesters refused to accept that Yanukovych would stay in power until December, and the deal quickly died.
On Saturday, February 22nd, Yanukovych left his presidential offices and fled the capital. Parliament voted to remove him from the presidency and set presidential elections for May 25th. In a televised interview, Yanukovych insisted he was still in power, calling the actions of the opposition a “coup d’état”. He has not been seen or heard from since. Parliament also voted to release Yanukovych’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. In an emotional speech following her release, Tymoshenko praised the protesters as heroes. An arrest warrant for mass murder was issued for Yanukovych, but his whereabouts remain unknown. On Sunday, Oleksandr Turchynov, the former speaker of parliament, was named the interim President of Ukraine. Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, has already promised to strengthen ties with the EU. Meanwhile, opposition leaders, including Tymoshenko, gear up for presidential elections in May that will decide the future of Ukraine.
Despite this significant progress, Ukraine remains deeply divided. Eastern Ukraine, where Russian remains the dominant language, is both geographically and politically closer to Russia, while the west is filled with Ukrainians longing to join the European Union. The most daunting challenge the new government faces will be to fortify a united leadership in which all divisions of the country are equally represented. A split Ukraine remains a possibility, but members of all parties have expressed a desire to remain one united nation.
The Ukrainian conflict has been further complicated by tension between the western nations and Russia, each of whom has different hopes for Ukraine’s future. Would Ukraine become a flourishing democracy and a member of the EU, or a socialist state secured under the wing of its menacing eastern neighbor? The flight of Yanukovych seems to have indicated the former, much to Russia’s frustration. On Sunday, February 23rd, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev denounced the new government as illegitimate and expressed concern over the threat to Russian citizens. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice warned Russia against intervening militarily in Ukraine, saying it would be “a grave mistake.” “The United States is on the side of the Ukranian people,” Rice said, “and the Ukrainian people have indicated from the outset…[that the] decision to turn away from Europe was not the choice of the Ukrainian people.” Despite international pressures, ultimately it was the Ukranian people alone who shaped the future of their nation. Three months of courage and perseverance led to the formation of a new government chosen by the people. In the days to come, the Ukranian people will make their own decisions on what they want for their future, and they will pick the path their nation will follow.
Three centuries ago, French philosopher Locke formulated the idea of a contract between a government and its citizens. According to his philosophy, when that contract was violated, the people had a right to overthrow the government. In 2014, citizens of two countries are exercising this right by standing up against leaders who have violated their rights. The ideas that sparked the American and French Revolutions, the notion that the people, not the leaders, are sovereign, have persevered to the twenty-first century. These struggles today are fueled by the desire for an economically prosperous future, one with higher standards of living and broader freedoms. In Ukraine and Venezuela, the people are taking control of their own destiny. They are deciding their nations’ future. Long after government leaders are gone, the people will continue to persevere, free from oppression.
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Figure 2: http://ireport.cnn.com/topics/1083731
All images were found using Google Images.
About the Author: Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.