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Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega among the masses.

How Trump is becoming a model of excellence for banana republic autocrats

How Trump is becoming a model of excellence for banana republic autocrats

Some say Trump's latest moves have made the United States resemble Nicaragua, led by strongman Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega among the masses.
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega among the masses.

It may seem hard to remember these days, but there was once a time when the United States was viewed by some as a model for liberal democracy in the hemisphere.

Back in the ante-Trumpian days, many people in Latin America—a region that has experienced more than its fair share of authoritarianism, revolution, and tumult—looked to the U.S. as a pillar of stability, liberty, and rule of law. Sure the U.S. had a nasty penchant for interventionism and economic expansionism, but its 200-plus year run with representative democracy was a streak worthy of admiration.

Then Trump came along and flipped the script.

After more than 100 days of insulting the press, threatening political opponents, bullying union leaders, attacking judges, banning immigrants, signing decrees like a king, and sacking top judicial officials who were investigating his ties to Russia, Trump is looking like a banana republic autocrat without the epaulettes or dark aviator sunglasses.

"The U.S. under Trump is showing increasing signs of illiberal democracy, and autocrats may well feel empowered by a sense that the U.S. simply does not care about protecting safeguards," says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Shifter says many people in Latin America never actually looked up to the U.S. as a model for democracy, rather as a "hypocritical" and "paternalistic power up North." Still, he adds, under Trump "the U.S. is losing whatever credibility it had on the democracy question."

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Tio Sam's image suffered another serious blow on Tuesday, when Trump suddenly axed FBI Director James Comey—a move that former CIA chief Mike Hayden says makes the United States look like Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega returned to power democratically in 2007 and then spent the next decade systematically dismantling the country's constitutional democracy and consolidating power in a family rule. "With three high profile firings in quick succession, it's beginning to feel a little bit like Nicaragua around here," Hayden penned in an op-ed for The Hill.

Some Nicaraguans say that's something the U.S. probably wants to avoid—for everyone's sake.

"Trump's vision of power isn't just a problem for U.S. democracy, it could lead countries like Nicaragua to adopt worst practices," says Gabriel Alvarez, a Nicaraguan professor of constitutional law at American University in Managua.

Alvarez says that anti-democratic leaders like Ortega are watching Trump from afar and thinking: ‘If the U.S. president can get away with that, why not me?’

Not that Ortega needs much encouragement. He's been doing the strongman thing much longer than Trump, and he's way better at it. But thanks to Trump, anti-democratic leaders are now in important company.

"Trump is a problem for countries with a deficiency in democracy," Alvarez says. "Heads of state are looking at United States and thinking that their own governments are no longer looking as dictatorial as the critics say."

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The lesson from Trump, he says, is that "a dictator can do whatever he wants within the framework of an alleged democracy."

There is, however, one big difference, Alvarez says. The U.S. has much stronger institutions and a separation of powers that will prevent Trump from consolidating control like a Latin American strongman.

"Trump still can't do what Ortega has done in Nicaragua," Alvarez says. "But it won't be from a lack of trying."

Yet not all Nicaraguans think the former CIA boss' comparison is accurate.

"It's not comparable—the situation in Nicaragua is far worse," says former Nicaraguan Attorney General Alberto Novoa.

Novoa would be in a position to know. He was appointed by former President Enrique Bolaños to lead to high-profile corruption probe in the early aughts, but similar to Comey, he got fired by the president when it looked like his investigation was starting to bear fruit.

Yet despite knowing how Comey felt when he woke up this morning, Novoa says the United States still has "a long ways to go" to catch up to Nicaragua.

"You haven't even started yet!" Novoa told me with a laugh.

Then again, neither has Trump.

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