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Russian, Venezuelan leaders distract people from real issues

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 | 10:36 a.m. CDT

On Monday, Sept. 22, a Russian navy squadron set sail from Severomorsk, Russia, en route to Venezuela, according to The Associated Press. The ships were to participate in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy. This comes after Russia lent two bomber planes to Venezuela on Sept. 10 and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made his second trip to Moscow this year.

So what does this mean? Should America be worried about Russia intruding on our hemisphere, once marked off-limits by the Monroe Doctrine, in acts not seen since the Soviet Union had troops in Cuba?

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In President Hugo Chavez and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, we have two of the biggest publicity opportunists in the world. Hugo Chavez never misses a chance to try to embarrass the United States. After Katrina, Chavez offered to give the residents of New Orleans oil. In 2005, Chavez offered discounted heating oil to the residents of the Northeastern United States. Prime Minister Putin after the Georgia conflict — which began on Aug. 7 and heavily reduced foreign investment in their economy — tried to turn the tables on the U.S. and pleaded its case that it was America that was at fault for the altercation in the first place.

When leaders such as Putin and Chavez are giving the appearance of moving forward with such fervor, it is because of their realities moving backward. These two countries are dependent on their energy trade. Russian shares have declined more than 50 percent of their value since May, according to the International Herald Tribune. On Sept. 16, Russia shut down trading in its RTS and MICEX markets after they fell 12 and 18 percent, respectively, in one day.

Even without the rampant corruption in Russia, much of this decline was due to the lower price of gas that began July. In just three months, Russia's economy went from looking like the Hulk, to shriveling up to the size of Bruce Banner.

And for these two commodities-based economies, the falling energy prices are hurting them greatly. More troubling for Venezuela, Chavez's power in OPEC is waning. At the annual OPEC meeting on Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia walked out, refusing to withhold supply to inflate oil barrel prices above $100, according to the New York Times.  Saudi Arabia vowed to meet the market's demand. This comes also as Indonesia leaves OPEC, and Angola is still slowly being introduced to the cartel. Brazil estimates that the oil field it discovered off its coast in 2007 has between 5 to 8 billion barrels of light oil, Venezuela's South American oil dominance is threatened.

Chavez also is dealing with waning poll numbers. Caracas based newspaper El Nacional conducted a poll in March that showed his support at just 34 percent, close to half of what he received in 2005 polling. On Dec. 2, 2007, Chavez narrowly lost a referendum that would have allowed him to run for another term. Economically, Venezuela is dealing with soaring inflation, The Christian Science Monitor reported that "In 2008, Venezuela's inflation rate is expected to be 25 percent, second only to Zimbabwe's."

In cases where they cannot justify their leaderships economically, these two leaders lead by fierce nationalism and fear. Putin, after fierce global criticism for Russia's dealings with Georgia, has blamed the U.S. for encouraging Georgian aggression, and in retaliation has looked to improve its influence in South America. Chavez, dealing with a falling economy and low popularity, is gathering up fear about the powerful U.S. Navy. On Sept. 23, Chavez reported that he thwarted an assassination attempt.

Leaders such as Putin and Chavez want to control the image and narrative of their countries. The image of a growing military power is supplanting their image of growing economic power.

Their actions parallel those of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the North Korean government. After reports came out that Kim Jong Il had possibly suffered a stroke — and would then appear weak — North Korea refuse to let UN inspectors in to see their nuclear reactor on Sept. 24, according to pbs.org. North Korea takes a perception of weakness, and swing the narrative to an appearance of strength.

Russian aggression is a real issue. Venezuela is crucial to our oil supply. The impression of another cold war, however, is a mirage to gain relevance and popularity. The louder Chavez and, in Putin's case, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev talk, the more likely it is that they are trying to distract the world and their people from critical issues.

Ben Magnuson is a journalism student at MU and former Missourian reporter and copy editor. He can be reached at btmn8c@mizzou.edu.


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