For those of us who have lived or worked in Latin America, Donald Trump's authoritarian temptations and pompous photo-ops seem suddenly familiar.
In fact, Latin American journalists are well trained to deal with someone like the current president of the United States. We have had to deal with a long list of leaders who abuse their power and use soldiers for their own benefit.
Democracy in the United States is being tested. The president asked in a Tweet if the presidential elections in November should be postponed because of alleged fraud in mail-in voting. To start with, there is no fraud. And Trump cannot make a decision that belongs to Congress. Trump is behind in all the polls and a delay in the balloting would mean that he would remain more time in the presidency, just like many authoritarian leaders have done in the past in Latin America.
Beyond illegally extending his time in power, another worry is the Trump administration decision to send federal agents to Portland, Oregon, to control the protests of the past two months. The majority of the 2,000 agents mobilized are members of an elite unit of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. But local leaders believe their presence is counter productive and only increases tensions with protesters who are complaining precisely about police abuses and racial inequality. “This is an attack on our democracy,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told the New York Times.
A lawsuit filed by the Oregon state attorney general against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the CBP describes events that remind me of the darkest practices by totalitarian systems in Latin America. The complaint says federal agents “have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland, detain protesters, and place them into the officers' unmarked vehicles, removing them from public (places) without either arresting them or stating the basis of an arrest.”
I've heard about this type of abuses against civilians by state security agents in Venezuela and Nicaragua and the so-called “segurosos” in Cuba, but not by U.S. government agents. “This is a blatant abuse of power,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told The New York Times.
With less than 100 days to go before the presidential elections, Trump has threatened to send federal agents to other cities, such as Albuquerque and Chicago, which have Democratic mayors and high crime rates. It's no secret that behind his “law and order” message is an explicit drive to win reelection. To win votes through the use of force.
This is not new. On June 1, after Trump hid in the bunker under the White House, National Guard and police units used rubber bullets and irritating gases to disperse hundreds of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park. And all just because the president wanted to cross the park and stage a photo opportunity with a bible in hand while standing in front of St. John's church.
Gen. Mark Milley, the nation's highest ranking military officer and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later issued an unusual acknowledgment that he was wrong to accompany Trump on that walk. “I should not have been there,” Milley said in a video. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Ordering the military to perform police duties within the United States is not common. We have to go back to an 1807 law, The Insurrection Act. And even Defense Secretary Mark Esper, contradicting the president, said the military option should be used only “as a matter of last resort,” adding, “We are not in one of those situations now.”
Despite that, 1,600 active duty soldiers from Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Drum in New York were ordered to the outskirts of Washington D.C., according to a New York Times report. They were never used to control the protests. But about 5,000 members of the National Guard did arrive from several states to protect the capital.
All this has sparked enormous concern. “We have a military to fight our enemies, not our own people,” retired Admiral Mike Mullen declared in an interview.
What Trump has done is very rare, and destroys any vestige of “American exceptionalism.” But in Latin America, some rulers did order troops and federal agents into the streets to impose their will and attack their opponents. And the results were disastrous.
Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro uses his military to kill, repress and keep himself in power. Amnesty International complained last year that “the police and army continued to use excessive, and in some cases intentionally lethal, force against protesters.” Many years earlier, under President Carlos Andrés Pérez, Venezuelan soldiers were responsible for at least 276 deaths during the so-called Caracazo, according to official figures.
The military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile were specially violent and cruel with civilian opponents during the 1970s and 80s. In Mexico, the army murdered dozens and perhaps hundreds of students during the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. And in Guatemala, the Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the armed forces were to blame for 85 percent of the human rights violations and violent events from 1962 to 1996. Although a large majority of Latin American countries are now functional democracies, there is a long and sad history of soldiers used for ideological or partisan goals.
Trump's much criticized decision to send federal agents to other cities – and his Tweeted idea to delay the elections – are a significant challenge to U.S. democracy. To keep the country from falling into that “fundamental predisposition” for “constraining the individual freedom” that Prof. Karen Stenner wrote about in her book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, we require a vigilant news media, a well informed and unbiased majority, a professional and apolitical military and a totally independent Congress and Supreme Court.
In the end, I am convinced the United States will survive Trump's authoritarian temptations. It is, perhaps, my optimism as an immigrant. This country is still much more powerful than any individual with false dreams of greatness.