The Price of Democracy

The mob which invaded Capitol Hill on January 6th threatening the lives of Vice-President Pence and Senator Pelosi was clear proof that democracy is always fragile, easy to be shaken by an uncontrolled group moved by a delusional president. Until then, overturning governments in this continent had been a Latin American tradition.

The sight of an unruly violent crowd storming the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn the results of a democratic election shows the evils of intervention whether domestic or foreign-inspired. This action evokes what the French did in Indochina, the Chinese in Tibet, the Belgians in the Congo, the British in China, the Russians in Crimea, the Italians and the Dutch in Africa, the Japanese in China and the U.S. in the Middle East and Latin America, among many others.

In 1961, João Belchior Marques Goulart assumed as president of Brazil after the resignation of the president. He was a proponent of economic and land reforms and democratic rights. However, the U.S. government pressured him to impose a program of economic austerity. When Goulart refused to follow the U.S. dictates, the U.S. developed a plan called Operation Brother Sam (no sense of irony here) for the destabilization of Brazil’s government. Brazilian military officers took power and General Humberto Castelo Branco was installed as president in 1964. He immediately declared a state of siege and arrested more than 50,000 political opponents within the first month of being in power. The U.S. government approved the coup and reinstituted economic aid to the country.

In 1955, a mob incited by Argentina’s President Juan Domingo Perón proceeded to set fire to seven Catholic churches in Buenos Aires. Instigating the crowd from the balcony of the La Casa Rosada, “the pink house,” (Argentina’s government house), Perón shouted, “Why don´t you start beating them up yourselves?” (“Porqué no empiezan a dar leña ustedes?!”), an eerie prelude to the recent events in Washington D.C. (“And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell you are not going to have a country anymore…Let’s march to the Capitol.) said our former president, with his usual insouciance, while he continued watching the events on TV.) Nor we can forget the 98 dead following the assault to the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, Colombia, carried out by the M-19 guerrillas in 1985. The guerrillas held the Supreme Court hostage, intending to hold a trial against President Belisario Betancur. These are a few cases, among hundreds, evidencing that respecting democracy is an every-day job and responsibility.

What happened on January 6th should move us to reflection. How was something like that possible in one of the most stable democracies in the world? Well, the borderline is very easy to move as we have seen in the Weimar Republic, in Italy’s Fascism, in Putin’s Russia, in North Korea, in Venezuela, among many other cases.

What makes the latest episode in the U.S. even worse is that American citizens, including lawmakers and active-duty military officers were unlawfully rebelling against their own government. That some House representatives and U.S. senators contributed to threatening their colleagues’ lives, and to the assassination of innocent citizens, is a sad commentary on the state of democracy in the U.S. That some lawmakers who were victims of these events refuse to acknowledge their gravity is beyond comprehension.

To be a member of a modern, dynamic, and democratic society involves rights but also duties. The French revolutionaries called this the social contract: we give up anarchy and the enjoyment of absolute rights in exchange for basic standards of tolerance and decency in order to be part of civilized society. We owe it to ourselves to affirm and defend those values bequeathed by this country´s Founding Fathers.

César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina. Alberto Zuppi is an international attorney and a former Argentine Secretary of Justice.