Tensions escalate as a soldier is fatally shot in the head during a clash with protesters. Government forces seize a hotly contested public square long occupied by demonstrators, only to see opponents of the regime return in reconstituted form. The country's economy teeters on the edge of collapse under the weight of deep corruption and profoundly intrusive state policies. And the nation's posturing, yet elected, leader points to a powerful foreign government as the source of his regime's problems of legitimacy and basic competence.
Welcome to…Ukraine? No, this is closer to home: Venezuela under the rule of President Nicolas Maduro, a leader every bit as thuggish as his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, but with even less charm. With Venezuela in our own hemisphere, why venture to the fringes of Europe to find a heartbreakingly divided and failing nation that defies easy solutions by Americans?
President Obama may talk about the need "to support Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity; to help Ukraine stabilize its economy and conduct fair and free democratic elections," but with Russia as the well-armed neighboring giant biting off a piece of the country, there's little that officials in the United States and other nations can do but make official protests and threaten personal and economic sanctions against Russian officials and interests.
Venezuela comes pre-sanctioned. The government's impressively inept socialist policies have created shortages of such staples as flour, cooking oil, butter, milk, and diapers. In response to complaints about high prices (caused by soaring inflation and currency restrictions), the government essentially looted electronics stores to temporarily buy off the mob. Unsurprisingly, many businesses closed after the feeding frenzy.
Obama and company could just proclaim such economic wreckage to be the goal of American sanctions and declare victory—it's more effective than the official policy is likely to achieve in Ukraine. Not that regime change or even policy change is a likely outcome of U.S. efforts in either place. Both countries are mired in difficulties, the solutions to which don't clearly emanate from Washington, D.C. Fixes in either nation are almost certainly going to have to be locally sourced.
Part of the problem in both Ukraine and Venezuela is democracy. That is, both places suffer the aftermaths of elections that, however troubled, demonstrated strong popular support for inconvenient and even awful outcomes.
Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was the winner of the last round of balloting, however unfortunate his victory might have been. His preferred-by-the-West successors gained office via means of questionable constitutionality, to the extent that matters. And while the near-unanimous results of Crimea's vote to join Russia seem a tad…dubious, even granting the limited options offered, it's highly likely that the region, with historical ties to Russia, would have voted to realign its borders even if the voting had been conducted by more rigorous standards.
Likewise, Nicolas Maduro may enjoy gaming the system just as much as his predecessor did, with press restrictions and arrests of opposition leaders, but that's not the same thing as saying he lacks popular support. As with Hugo Chavez, Maduro and his supporters continue to win most electoral battles—albeit, with a thumb on the scale and a willingness to submit to ballot decisions largely dependent on the likelihood of victory.
Which is to say, plenty of the locals are perfectly happy with the conditions that American leaders want to change. And plenty of the locals are really unhappy with those conditions, too. Intervening in any way is just a recipe for brewing more conflict and strife.
If we're going to pick an unfortunate country suffering under questionable political leadership, divided by popular differences of opinion, and unlikely to resolve its issues simply by going to the ballot box to do the urging of U.S. officials, we don't need to focus our attention half-way around the world on Ukraine. Much closer to home, Venezuela also has problems that can only be solved locally, although American politicians bluster about them and potentially make them worse.
Certainly, a country in our own hemisphere rates as much impotent attention as one so far away.