Just when it seemed that the protest movement so prevalent in the Arab Spring was a distant memory, we have new, powerful civil protests in Ukraine and Venezuela to remind us of the power of “protests movements.” What is most interesting is not the reasons per se for the protests but the way in which, like in the Arab Spring, the failures of leaders to stay ahead of a crisis in today’s Twitter, Facebook, internet news world, mundane events quickly spiral out of control and can engulf an entire government. Ukraine presents a good example of how one can go from a fairly run of the mill event to a full-scale street revolt in a matter of weeks or months.
It was in November of 2013 that former President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine announced that it would abandon an agreement that would strengthen ties with the European Union and instead sought a new strategic alliance with Russia. Within days of that decision, protesters take to the streets, and on December 1 staged a rally with 300,000 people against the proposed realignment and asking for greater ties with the West. In spite of, or perhaps in reaction to, Yanukovych announces a 15 billion dollar finance deal with Russia.
The protests continue unabated and in mid-January register their first deaths during violent confrontations between protesters and the police. By the end of January, the government begins to make concessions and starts negotiating with “opposition leaders,” and, eventually, the Prime Minister resigns on the 28th of the month. But the protests still do not end, in spite of pronouncements about truces and deals with the opposition coming from the government. Under a European-mediated plan, protest leaders and Yanukovych agree to form a new government and hold early election, and again it is announced that the protests are over. The people on the street, however, continue their protests. By mid-February, Parliament slash the President’s powers and votes to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. With protests continuing and the presidential palace under siege, and with Yanukovych on the run, he is voted out of office by the Parliament in Kiev.
Which brings us to the not so unexpected case of Venezuela where the Chavista government of Nicolas Maduro is facing the most violent protests since the election of Hugo Chavez as president. Although Venezuela has experienced large rallies and popular movements against the Chavista governments the violence that began last Thursday (20 Feb 2014) is without precedent. In that antigovernment rally, which was called to protest rising crimes rates and inflation, three anti-government protesters were shot dead in the capital, Caracas. Following the protests, authorities issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges of conspiracy and murder in connection with the protests. Lopez surrendered to the authorities and is currently in custody.
However, the anti-government protests have continued and as of today the death toll sits at thirteen as a direct result of the protests and clashes between pro and anti government elements. Each side has accused the other of inciting and promoting violence, and each has mounted vigorous online and media campaigns to control the public opinion, internationally and domestically. More protests have been called in spite of President Maduro’s calls for dialogue and claims of a soft-coup being promoted by his enemies in Venezuela and the United States.
As these events drag on in Venezuela one begins to sense the quickness with which tides shift and popular protests begin energized and take on a life of their own despite the efforts of “conventional leaders” to control events. Regardless of what Washington may want or even opposition leaders in Venezuela may desire, the true test of the power of the street in Venezuela will be the intensity with which people continue to demand vindication for their grievances as evidenced in Ukraine. The Arab Spring is not just series of isolated events, the power of the street helped by unfettered communications is here to stay.