A shared threat to democracy

The incoming Biden administration should address democracy issues in the US as part of a hemispheric shared responsibility.

Yesterday, the hemisphere’s biggest political risk event occurred in Washington DC. At least four people died after Donald Trump directed his supporters to march on the Capitol building while the Congress certified the presidential election victory of Joe Biden.

I spoke with a lot of people around Latin America yesterday who were very focused on the events in the US. Without diving too deep into US politics, here are some unstructured thoughts for what it means for Latin America and US-LatAm relations.

Both inside and outside of government, US-based analysts who watch Latin America should take yesterday events in DC to approach analyzing events in other countries with a bit more humbleness. The US Capitol Police budget is larger than the annual budget for the entire Guatemalan military and they let a mob overrun the one location they are dedicated to protect. It’s an embarrassing failure of security, but it’s also a lesson for the next time you see a major protest somewhere else in the world. Perhaps that protest or riot is not as easy to stop as it seems from thousands of miles away. 

In addition, as I often write in this newsletter, police violence escalates protests. While security should have been better at the Capitol, a violent repression of the protest could have led to worse outcomes. When in a losing position, allowing a little property damage is sometimes a better approach (and that’s a philosophy that should apply to all protests; the imbalance between how the pro-Trump and BLM protesters have been treated by security forces in the past year is going to be an issue moving forward). As bad as yesterday was in the US, it was far from the worst case scenario. Similar to all protests in the hemisphere, working towards peaceful and democratic solutions while de-escalating the tensions is important.

Here is a list some cliche analysis and comments I read (and may have been guilty of making myself) yesterday:

  • US commentators noting that the scenes from the capitol look like they’re from Latin America.

  • People pushing back on the implicit racism of some of those comments.

  • Latin Americans acknowledging there is some truth to those comments.

  • Latin Americans mocking the events in the US.

  • Comments comparing the disruptions in US democracy to various protests, insurrections and coup attempts that the US has been behind or blamed for in Latin America.

  • A wide debate over whether the terms protest, riot, coup, autogolpe, insurrection and others should be used and whether they’d be used if similar events occurred in Latin America.

  • Comparisons of Trump and his followers to various Latin American authoritarians and populists.

  • Snide and self-serving comments from antagonistic regimes about the problems in the US.

  • Expressions of real concern from allies and partners in the region about the state of US democracy.

  • Concerns about similar rhetoric, violence and attacks on democracy being repeated in Latin America under certain pro-Trump leaders.

  • Doubts about the credibility of the US on issues of democracy promotion following the events at the Capitol building.

It’s that final point that I want to dwell on. The US may lose some credibility in the short term, but the bigger issue is how the US acts moving forward.

The US will have a transition of power in two weeks due to a combination of strong institutions and the the luck of facing an incompetent authoritarian-wannabe who fails at most things he attempts. We should dismiss neither aspect of that previous sentence. The US does have strong institutions and a culture of democracy that is holding on. But there is also an element of luck involved in the fact we’re going to successfully get through this threat. Not every Latin American country that has faced a demagogue has gotten so lucky.

The events in the US should serve as a reminder to the incoming Biden administration’s foreign policy team that authoritarianism, populism, democratic decline, disinformation and strategic corruption are not Latin American problems that the US can fix. Instead, we share a common problem. We have a shared responsibility to work towards solutions as equals.

Thanks for reading

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