On the Border of Freedom: Ukraine and Venezuela

On the Border of Freedom: Ukraine and Venezuela

Shoshana Bryen
SOURCEGatestone Institute

In a thoughtful piece on conservative internationalism last year, Professor Henry R. Nau postulated that “American foreign policy should seek to increase the number of regimes that are democratic, not just to preserve global stability or defend national borders. But it would seek to do so primarily on the borders of countries where freedom already exists, not in areas such as the Middle East (Iraq) or southwest Asia (Afghanistan).”

The map is clear and so is the metaphor. Neighboring countries, whether on the line of Western Europe/Central Europe, or Central and South America/Mexico/United States, or the “Asian Tigers,” share trade and media. They share history, culture and language even across artificial borders; East and West Germany were both Germany. It should not have been a surprise that the fall of communism came from Central Europe rather than Central Asia and that the two spheres developed differently over the past 20-odd years. Israel, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, shares trade and politics to its West; Lebanon, in the same geographical space, shares to its East, with all that implies for the differences in their political development stemming from European liberalism or Middle Eastern religious retrogression. Attempting to insert democracy, or democratic norms in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or even Egypt is tilling not only in rocky soil, but in a desert — metaphorical and physical. Maybe Tunisia and Morocco’s physical proximity and shared historical (including colonial) and trade ties made them among the more stable players in the “Arab Spring.”

Ukraine, then, is crucial. It sits precisely on the East/West divide, and even internally is divided east and west between primarily Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers. Vladimir Putin fervently believes he needs to recapture it because a) it is part of the Russian homeland; b) it would restore a large Slavic population to Russia to mitigate the effects of Slavic decline and Muslim rise in population — as part of a larger Russian effort to present itself as the “protector of Slavs” wherever they reside and whatever citizenship they hold; and c) as he said the breakup of the USSR constituted “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” in his eyes.

Syria is important, Sochi was important, but Empire is the prize.

Anti-government rioters throw firebombs at riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, in January 2014. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/ Mstyslav Chernov)

It is vital, however, that the West pull Ukraine in tighter because a) Ukrainians believe in their nation — even Russian-speakers value independence. The Ukrainian experience inside Russia has forged nationalism that goes well beyond the flabby and bureaucratic “cultural diversity” of the EU and, increasingly, America. Ukrainian nationalism is hard for Jews to applaud wholeheartedly, but its fight for liberty and independence is worthy of support; b) democratic norms have grafted tentative roots there; to lose them is to lose a battle in the bigger war; and c) if not in Ukraine, where will “Europe whole and free” make its stand against the repressive forces of the Russian Empire? The Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, and Austro-Hungarian Empires are gone – but Putin believes the Russian one can re-emerge. The West cannot allow it. Hence the so-far able EU (primarily Polish, French and German) diplomacy that has pulled down most of the Russian-oriented government, in working with the opposition and even a few government supporters to put forward the vote of no confidence in the government and demand the release of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.

With elections apparently to be held in May, this is where the United States and Europe can do what they have always done best – be there: broadcast real news all the time; use social media at every level; show pictures; elevate the conversation; be firm about the requirements for international election monitors, voting registration and security at the polls and after; stand behind the people; keep the spotlight on. This is a fight for the futures — theirs, Europe’s, ours — and essential to America’s long-term security as much as in the days we sent Patton and his army to fight.

There is the danger of more violence – including from the nationalists – but unlike the no-good-guys violence in Syria or Iraq, violence in Ukraine is being perpetrated mainly by people on “their” side against people mostly on “our side.”

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Venezuela sits on a different border with freedom. Central and South America and Mexico have worked hard over the decades to find democratic, free-market solutions to old junta-based military governments, communist insurgencies, and drug cartels. According to Freedom House, all of the countries rank either as “free” or “partly free,” except for Cuba, with notable movement of countries from the “partly free” to “free” category over the past 20 years. Venezuela, long labeled “partly free,” is falling rapidly backwards. The once-elected, twice-inaugurated government of Hugo Chavez was redistributionist in its economic nature, thug-like in its treatment of dissent, and it cheated in elections. But that is nothing compared to the government of Nicolas Maduro, a bus driver with no experience in anything, it seems, except political repression. When Chavez’s redistributionist schemes failed to provide Venezuelans with physical security, basic services, and toilet paper, the Maduro government blamed “speculators,” “Americans” (specifically President Obama) and hinted widely at a Jewish conspiracy.

The increasing protest and increasing violence were inevitable; the dispatch of armed government troops to shoot their fellow citizens was not. The government sent paratroopers to San Cristobal, where the Mayor is from the opposition. Pro-government vigilantes on motorbikes have attacked protestors, and at least eight people have been killed. The government calls the dead “terrorists,” and said the government was taking “special measures” to restore order. Mayor Vergara said the government killed peaceful protestors and cut off vital services from much of the city.

A 22-year-old college student and local beauty queen was killed by a sniper during a demonstration in Caracas; Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-trained economist and opposition leader who has been leading the protests, has been arrested; and CNN reporters have been thrown out. But major new demonstrations have been called for the next several days – and there are fabulous pictures of what appear to be tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens marching peacefully in protest in Caracas Sunday.

Now, having discovered that blaming the United States has not pacified the people he is currently shooting, Maduro now wants a meeting with President Obama.

So far, the President has been admirably firm in his denunciation of government-sponsored violence. But the point has come at which he has to not only denounce the government, but offer moral support to the protestors. He will have to plant the United States on the side of those who want their voices heard, whether they are insisting on better economic strategies or simply insisting on the right to be heard. It will not be enough to be against government-sponsored violence – the United States will have to say what it stands for.

In both Ukraine and in Venezuela, there is no choice for freedom-loving people other than to be for the people in their protest against their governments: To be for the people on the borders of freedom.