The events of January 6, 2021 in the United States ended, once and for all, with the idea that the American country is exceptional and some of Donald Trump’s comparisons to America’s worst populist and semi-authoritarian presidents. . Latin seems valid.
The events in Washington ended with the myth of the superiority of American democracy, showing that the system is full of institutional weaknesses and that it has a dysfunctional political class.
As Americans, but professors specializing in Latin American politics, we look to our regional knowledge to understand what this insurgency means for democracy in the United States.
The region’s history, often punctuated by violence and right-wing military coups that ended all appearance of constitutional government, provides lessons and warnings for the United States.
First, Latin America teaches us that social uprisings are a long-term danger signal, and the events on Capitol Hill are likely a reflection of the ongoing attacks on social peace in the United States.
In this sense, we want to warn that the crowd inspired by President Trump should not be compared to other protests, in the United States and elsewhere, inspired by legitimate causes.
However, it is essential to understand that the polarization that led to the takeover of the U.S. Capitol will not be easily reversed.
Chile can be a good mirror. Before the 1973 coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, there were years of attacks on his government. Truckers crippled the country with a strike (backed by the United States government), congressional lawmakers refused to consider presidential proposals, and violent street disputes between supporters on both sides of the political divide became currency current.
As a final parallel, a pre-coup election which tipped the scales in favor of Allende supporters fueled the fires of discontent within the opposition. While the revolt in the United States has been reduced, the divisions that spawned it are more alive than ever.
Second, the history of Latin America teaches us that polarization leads to social upheavals and crises of democratic government, often resulting in military coups or the total destruction of democracy.
Venezuela in 2002 seems to be an adequate comparison.
Business leader Pedro Carmona mobilized a crowd to face a previously called government march. He hoped to use polarization and confrontation to justify the overthrow of the Chávez government. In the 36 hours he actually served as president, Carmona did not attempt to install a thriving democracy, but, among other “reforms,” he closed Congress and suspended the Supreme Court.
Third, there are parallels in the supposedly revolutionary words of the American insurgent leaders.
This gives us a clue as to what Trump thinks is going to happen. In pushing the crowd to start the storm, Trump reminds us of Chavez’s famous quote: ‘We failed [apenas] for the moment; We will never give in! “. And, like Castro, Trump’s version of “history will absolve me” was “we didn’t lose the election… don’t give in… we won’t accept it anymore!”
While Carmona and the right-wing dictators set out to save democracy by shutting down Congress and unleashing waves of arrests, torture and murder, Trump backed the crowd by branding political opponents as enemies, which he called described as “encouraged radical democrats”.
Although Trump’s megalomania provokes comparisons with dictators and populists, we do not intend to draw a parallel between the insurgency of Trump supporters and social movements that have championed legitimate causes in Latin America.
There are reasons to protest in the United States – informed by extremely peaceful protests in recent months – but it has nothing to do with the Capitol riots.
Here the source of the protest came from above, from leaders anxious to lose power and privilege. They built resentment over racial hostility, as evidenced by the Confederate flags the mob carried during their occupation of Congress. This contrasts sharply with the social movements that have advocated political inclusion, social progress and economic justice.
Another lesson that emerges from Latin American history is what to do with insurgent leaders. Some came out of the rubble, stronger and, perhaps like Daenerys Targaryen, from Game of Thrones, with dragons controlled.
Castro and Chávez provide clear examples, as both spent their time in prison or exile drafting manifestos urging followers to mobilize later. Others, like Carmona, have disappeared from history (he became a learned minor in his Colombian exile).
Latin America offers lessons on transitional justice, on who to prosecute (hierarchies or private soldiers) and how the process can contribute to a “quick” or “slow” demise of democracy. Rioters who entered the United States Capitol will suffer severe consequences.
But what about Trump and the leaders who instigated the protest?
For years, they have deliberately spread lies that have inspired millions of people to denigrate those who think differently, then used this chasm of discontent to ignite supporters – relying on a new lie about a stolen election – to jump over the cliff in search of a glorious revolution. .
If Trump and his supporters, including his official advisers, face no consequences, there will be no deterrent to further attempts and the door opens to a slow erosion of democracy. The experience of Hungary, Poland and Russia demonstrates this.
The alternative, imposing harsh punishments on insurrectional leaders, has led some former autocrats, such as Chile and Argentina, to threaten the new democratic regimes with revolts and a rapid demise of democracy.
In this way, putting Trump to the test can generate new mobilisations and violence. However, this seems less dangerous than subjecting the United States to a slow demise of democracy, in which populists, demagogues and insurgents see immunity to one of their actions.
The next lesson we learn from the Latin American experience is that of contrast. While acknowledging the continuing threat from Trumpism and the representative weakness of American democracy, existing institutional controls have prevented Trump from successfully stealing an election.
Even with state election officials and the Supreme Court filled with Trump supporters, both have dismissed the president’s election fraud claims.
Indeed, when the Supreme Court had to rule on electoral irregularities in Pennsylvania, it rejected them in a single line: “The request for a precautionary measure submitted to Judge Alito and addressed by him to the Court is rejected”. Such guarantees have too often failed in Latin American history.
The role of the US armed forces is also crucial. As Latin American Americanists, we are aware of the brutal death toll inflicted on the region by the armed forces of the United States and its allies. Nonetheless, and although Trump has imposed his elected officials on leaders, the US military has repeatedly distanced itself from politics.
Responding to concerns raised about the military’s support for Trump’s intention to stay in power, Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen , a tyrant or dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual ”.
He went on to say that “in the event of a dispute over any aspect of the election, under US law the courts and Congress are required to resolve any dispute, not the US military.”
This is not to assert that the country is an exceptional democracy, but these statements demonstrate the apolitical role of the United States armed forces and how, in combination with institutional controls, its attitude is fundamental to democracy.
In terms of more promising Latin American lessons, by forcing the Piñera government to agree to a process of writing a new constitution, Chile’s social eruption in 2019 shows potentially positive effects derived from destructive social violence.
This result, however, was sparked by citizens demanding social and economic justice, not by a leader who stirred a crowd with false conspiracy theories.
We are not trying to suggest a correspondence between the two situations, but we cite Chile in the hope that the sequence of shocking events in the United States may lead to an assessment of the situation and, later, to the adoption of measures to remedy the many weaknesses of American democracy. .
There is a certain intentional irony in our comparison of Trump with Chávez and Castro, and we don’t want to downplay the glaring differences in the legitimacy of the complaints. The lessons of these cases, as well as those of other countries and periods, however, show us the gravity of the situation.
Latin America has continually faced populist and authoritarian threats, with anti-heroes like Pinochet claiming they need to overthrow democracy to save it from itself.
Despite the differences with Latin America, the United States is not exceptional in its vulnerabilities. Now let’s wait and see if you are exceptional in your reactions and your consequences.
www.latinoamerica21.com, a pluralist medium engaged in the diffusion of critical and true information on Latin America.
Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima