Rampage in Washington brings sense of deja vu for many

Robert S. Hays

As they watched rampaging Trump supporters push their way past police to storm the U.S. Capitol live on TV Wednesday, many across Latin America and in Miami who left homelands roiled by strife, and experts who have seen and studied political turmoil elsewhere, were struck by a sickening sense of déjà vu.

The riotous mobs besieging presidential palaces to overturn democratic elections. The strongman egging them on. Politicians and government officials under siege. Fear and shock abroad in the land.

To witness scenes like these unfold in one of the world’s emblematic democracies, in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress no less, was until now unimaginable to most Americans, immigrants and even foreigners.

“It surprises me, when I see the United States starting to look like every other country in the world,” said Robenson Geffrard, the lead political reporter for Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste newspaper and its Magik9 radio station in Port-au-Prince, who has covered similar scenes at home.

“When you see what’s happening, someone can very well ask, ‘Is this where democracy has arrived? Is this American democracy?’ ”

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U.S. Capitol Police with guns drawn watch as protesters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. J. Scott Applewhite AP

As overwhelmed Capitol police gave way to the Trump mob, many sporting red MAGA hats and flying Trump banners and Confederate flags, a joint session of Congress underway to finalize the presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden was halted in what observers of all stripes described as an attempt to overthrow the results of a U.S. presidential election.

If immigrants and refugees who came to the United States were forcefully reminded of the traumatic political turmoil they came to this country to escape, Americans are getting a quick and painful lesson in the vocabulary of political instability all too common around the world: Insurrection. Mob rule. Coup d’etat. Putsch. Autogolpe.

And the consequences for the U.S., which has long positioned itself as a moral authority and the world’s policeman, will be felt at home and abroad, experts say.

“This very easily could have happened in Latin America,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow for that region at Chatham House, an independent think based in London. “You have longstanding distrust in institutions that makes political compromise and change difficult, especially when one leader wants to stoke that division.

“We saw that in Bolivia recently. We’ve seen it in Nicaragua. The United States has always liked to believe it was above mob rule, the question of armed insurrection, but we clearly aren’t. The U.S. moral standing to be able to legitimately back popular mobilization in say, Venezuela, or denounce more insidious popular mobilization in places like Colombia, has been deeply, deeply tarnished.”

If Americans were shocked by what they saw, the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, who have been accustomed to U.S. interference in their elections and domestic politics, were aghast.

As the former top anti-corruption prosecutor in Guatemala, Thelma Aldana helped topple a sitting president and most of his cabinet. Her justice crusade garnered praise among the Central American nation’s poor. But it also won her a lot of enemies, from gang leaders to drug traffickers to Guatemalan elites. Last year, Aldana was granted political asylum and now lives in Washington, D.C.

“The chaos at the U.S. Capitol reminds me of the civil war in my country,” she said. “One leaves their country precisely because of this: lack of security and democracy.”

She added: “A day like today reminds immigrants and asylum seekers like me what we’ve lived in our own countries: Civil wars. Armed coups. Gunshots. I’m staying inside because it’s the safe thing to do today.”

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Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó climbs a fence to reach the National Assembly building in Caracas on Jan. 5. Federico Parra Getty Images

But some Latin American leaders took the opportunity to dish out to the U.S. the kind of treatment Washington has given them in the past.

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza issued a government statement in a tweet, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “Venezuela expresses its concern over the acts of violence that are taking place in the city of Washington, USA; condemns political polarization and hopes that the American people can blaze a new path toward stability and social justice.”

Meanwhile the fracas made the front pages of newspapers across Latin America, with headlines reading “Tension in the United States of America,” “Our democracy is under attack — Biden,” and “Biden denouncing the attack.”

“This coup really makes the U.S. feel like home,” Venezuelan comedian Joanna Hausmann said on Twitter, summing up feelings shared across the region.

To many Venezuelans, the events on Capitol Hill reminded them of the violence that has surrounded numerous protests staged in the South American country in recent years, some of which have ended with a heavy toll of dead and injured and property damage.

Aquiles Este, a Venezuelan political consultant in Miami, said the events in the U.S. capital on Wednesday recall those in less politically developed nations.

“We are behaving as a banana republic, showing no respect for the institutions and showing that after all is said and done we inhabit a country where there are no sacred institutions,” he said.

And as experience in those other unstable countries has shown, that’s a dangerous step that usually leads to a spiral of worsening consequences, he said.

“The image and standing of the United Sates in front of the world and in front of the nation itself has been deeply wounded today,” Este said.

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Documents lay on the floor of Parliament after it was ransacked by opposition lawmakers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

To some, the images of law enforcement on the House floor with guns drawn and the violence inside the U.S. Capitol recalled turmoil at Venezuela’s National Assembly. Others recounted more recent events, like when hundreds of protesters broke into Guatemala’s Congress in November, burning part of the building during demonstrations over budget cuts.

“This is heartbreaking,” said Eddy Acevedo, a Miami native and one-time senior congressional aide to former Republican U.S. Rep Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “To think of the countless times I was on the House floor with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to denounce similar behaviors in other countries that resembled what we saw today on our House floor is both appalling and infuriating.”

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Like Wednesday’s events in Washington, Sabatini said, instability in Latin America is typically rooted in sharp social and political divisions and deep distrust of politicians, government institutions and elections.

And if the turbulence in the United States does not come close to the Spanish Civil War or bloody coups in Chile and Argentina — facile comparisons many were making on social media — it holds lessons Americans should heed, the analyst said.

In Chile, for instance, a democratic constitution after years of military rule brought a lengthy period of stability and economic prosperity for some, but ultimately has not been enough to halt political upheaval as many Chileans feel left out, Sabatini noted.

“In many ways, we confront the same dilemma as Latin America, and there is no road map out. How do you rebuild political institutions? We don’t know how you rebuild that trust. This is unprecedented,” he said.

For many in the region, used to stern lectures from American officials about democracy and respect for free elections, Wednesday’s elections brought a frisson of irony.

Venezuelans shared manipulated images of a suited-up Trump trying to climb over a fence being blocked by riot police, recalling opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s attempts to access the national legislative palace last year. In Haiti, people shared doctored images on social media of U.S. no-travel alerts and a 2019 clash in the legislature during which senators threw furniture to stop the vote of a prime minister.

One lawyer shared this satirical message in French on a political chat group, mocking what the U.S. reaction would have been had Wednesday’s unrest occurred in Haiti:

“The Republic of Haiti warns Donald Trump and his supporters to respect established laws. If not, the Haitian nation will send its troops to American soil to uphold the constitution and the truth of the ballot box.”

He concluded: “In the meantime, the Ambassador of the Republic of Haiti to the United States has been asked to start a dialogue between Trump and Biden.”

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Mobs of Trump-supporting white radicals breached the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 as a joint session of Congress met to certify the election of President-elect Joe Biden. Getty Images

Antigua’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States, Sir Ronald Sanders, issued several tweets during Wednesday’s chaos condemning the lack of response from the OAS, which eventually did issue a statement, saying it “condemns and repudiates the attack against institutions being carried out today in the United States.”

“What’s happening in the United States is a complete violation of every democratic norm and also of the rule of law in a flagrant attempt to remain in power,” Sanders said. “Had that occurred in any developing country, indeed in any country of the world, the United States would have been the first to roundly condemn those people, to apply sanctions against those countries and to take action in the name of human rights, democracy and civil rights.“

Last year, Sanders noted, the Trump administration issued visa sanctions against members of the Guyana government when the country’s then-president David Granger refused to accept the outcome of the South American nation’s presidential elections and used the court system to try and overturn the vote.

“The circumstances are almost identical,” he said. “The United States government applied sanctions, applied threats and claimed democracy was at risk and demanded all sorts of concessions by parties in Guyana, all of which were right.

“I think all of those things were necessary, but you cannot apply it to other countries and not apply it to yourself. If you apply a double standard, you lose the authority to tell anybody anything when they do wrong.”

El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Antonio Maria Delgado and Miami Herald Staff Writer Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.

Profile Image of Andres Viglucci

Andres Viglucci covers urban affairs for the Miami Herald. He joined the Herald in 1983.

Profile Image of Jacqueline Charles

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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