It can happen here: Latin America's lessons about autocrats unpunished
Botsford, a contributing editor, for The Fulcrum, has spent most of his career providing strategic advice to more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies doing business in Latin America.
Living and working in Latin America most of the time since the 1970s has meant living through dozens of governmental switches — among democratic, communist and fascist systems.
Witnessing the forces that ebbed and flowed with the political winds, democratic institutions created in the early 19th century were repeatedly assaulted.
And in recent weeks, I've become afraid the United States has chosen to follow that region's sorry lead. It's a fear that will not go away any time soon — even though Donald Trump is at last safely far from the White House and, in Joe Biden, the Oval Office is once again occupied by someone totally committed to upholding democratic norms and the rule of law.
Not even an American president can single handedly, let alone quickly, reverse the toxic national creep toward autocracy we have suffered the past four years.
That's why witnessing the insurrection in the Capitol on live TV this month, and the memories that have haunted us all since, brought me back immediately to my life south of the border. The similarities are striking.
In Latin America, bloody insurrections are the currency of ruthless political ambition.
The call to come to Washington to hear the executive's command for a march on the legislature was reminiscent of other regimes' call for rallies in their capitals — from Brazil in 1979 to Peru in 1992, Mexico in 1995 to Argentina in 2016.
The people heeded those calls out of coercion and in fervor.
Many get coerced through the threatened loss of government benefits, always tempered with free food, merchandise and even transportation. And because casting a ballot is a legal (if generally pointless) obligation across the region, local organizers not only delivered people to the rallies but then made sure they deliver their votes.
Fervor is readily achieved at these rallies, and no more easily than when the marquee speaker is a pathological liar. Trump's technique was startlingly reminiscent of how earlier autocrats — think Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega since the 1980s and Ecuador's Rafael Correa for a decade ending in 2015 — combined blatant falsehoods and grievance politics to concoct a convenient enemy. (The news media as "the enemy of the people" is always first in line.) The strongmen invent facts and concoct conspiracies in order to brainwash or gaslight their core supporters so they can be kept under the leader's command and control.
But, to be fair to the Latin American leaders of the past, their words have usually been more nuanced (or coded) than the blatant orders issued by Trump and his allies on Jan. 6. And, once the throng he exhorted had arrived on Capitol Hill, they found alarmingly little resistance — so reminiscent of "free zones," as they're called in Latin America.
Those are when demagogues utilize loyal civilian armed militias to intimidate the masses, often by embedding them within the crowds at their rallies to incite passions and perform the dirty work. The strongmen use these militias to give themselves plausible deniability. Law enforcement is told to stand down, or to offer only the most perfunctory resistance, so the militias can operate in these free zones.
Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, for example, has used such paramilitary mobs to his benefit since 2017, ever since his party lost elections. Just last year he had them occupy the Palacio Federal Legislativo in order to block access by the majority of legislators opposed to him.
Free to act, the autocrats escalate. They find excuses to lock down Congress whenever their party loses power at the ballot box. To prevent that from happening again, they rig the elections and suppress the vote to assure their party wins — and Congress reopens, with opposition leaders imprisoned and the political rights of the people denied.
Another lesson from the region's history: Trump is out of power, but maybe not for long unless there's accountability for his and others' role in fomenting a coup against a legitimate democratic government. All who were involved in whipping up the base, and aiding and abetting the lies, must be called out.
If not, either Trump or future dictators will feel empowered to advance their agenda. That's what's happened across Latin America over the past half-century when out-of-control regimes went unpunished.
Accountability can take different forms. The political sort can be swift, but the judicial kind takes more time.
And so the autocrat must be stripped of power immediately. In this, we are fortunate Trump's time was up just two nerve-wracking weeks after the Capitol siege. But the Senate should still follow the House and send a message to his followers that there are consequences for his actions.
Concern that following through on impeachment will only enrage and infuriate his followers is naive at a minimum — and a form of complicity from those who now aim to victimize, distract or obstruct.
There is no difference between the terrorist mob and those who enabled and unleashed it with the Big Lie. Apologetic rhetoric now is too late.
Trump left office with his allies still laying the groundwork for reclaiming power in 2024 — replicating exactly how dictators I've lived under assured their return. (It took only four years on the outs before Cristina Fernandez returned to power in Argentina last year.) That many years go by very fast in a country where an autocrat's opponents focus only on putting out the most obvious fires left behind.
The time for finding remedies can come later — and the solutions will be the same as those offered up to Latin American nations when their democracies were imperiled. Strengthening institutions is where it must always begin.
But the history of that region shows very clearly that there must be accountability right away, or the United States will not be able to successfully move on from these events. If Trump and his allies still in authority face no consequences, then Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered as only the beginning.
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