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How Trump and the Capitol riot aftershocks can be felt in Latin American countries

The president's terrible example could contribute to a backslide erasing decades of progress in the region’s many young democracies.
An opponent to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro protests outside La Carlota air base in Caracas, Venezuela, on April 30, 2019.Ariana Cubillos / AP

Last Wednesday, President Donald Trump made a mockery of our rule of law. His baseless denial of the results of the presidential election, his refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power and his subsequent incendiary language have brought us to this chaotic moment. The shocking images in Congress, where I began my career over 20 years ago, will have far-reaching consequences — not only for Americans, but for those across the world who draw on the American example to fight for their right to democracy.

After a series of constitutional crises and waves of social unrest, Chile and Peru are especially vulnerable to the rise of anti-democratic trends.

The harm could be particularly severe throughout Latin America, where the devastation of the pandemic, dire economic straits and the growing impact of climate change have shaken public confidence. Amid these challenges, the spread of misinformation and disinformation throughout the region has created the perfect environment for a democratic backslide that could erase decades of progress in Latin America’s many young democracies.

And for countries aspiring to democracy but not yet succeeding — chief among them Venezuela — Trump’s actions are particularly destructive. In 2017, the United States led the international community in condemning the fraudulent elections that kept Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro in power and in standing behind Venezuela’s democratic forces. Over the past three years, the United States has taken a hard line against the Maduro regime’s abuses, rightly refusing time and again to accept anything less than the free and fair elections the Venezuelan people deserve.

Trump’s actions undercut that effort. The president of the United States cannot condemn dictatorships like the Maduro regime in one breath, then seek to unilaterally overturn American elections in the next. In light of Wednesday’s insurrection, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement the day before condemning Maduro’s manipulation of recent legislative elections rings hollow. It’s difficult to decry Venezuela’s rigged vote when — only a few blocks from his office — Pompeo’s boss is attempting to overturn the will of U.S. voters.

In doing so, Trump aligns himself with despots like Maduro rather than the great American presidents of past and future. On Wednesday afternoon, Venezuela’s foreign ministry issued a short but mocking statement: “With this unfortunate episode, the United States is experiencing what it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression.”

The United States’ embarrassment on the world stage has real consequences for those living under dictatorships such as Maduro’s. Despite a complex humanitarian emergency and the Maduro regime’s appalling abuses, including reported crimes against humanity, Venezuelans continue to stand up for their right to democracy. They do so with the support of the international community, led by the United States. But when the U.S. president incites an armed insurrection, U.S. backing loses some of its legitimacy and the fight against Maduro’s dictatorship becomes more dangerous.

In practical terms, Wednesday’s insurrection gave Maduro ammunition to further undermine the United States’ credibility, giving the regime cover for more crackdowns. Maduro will feel freer to consolidate power because he will feel less threatened by the potential consequences.

Venezuela’s democratic opposition, at greater risk of persecution since Maduro and his cronies regained control of the National Assembly, could face arrest or worse, and have lost the moral boost that America has their back if they keep up their dangerous push for democracy. The regime is also likely to further inhibit the activities of humanitarian organizations and independent media outlets working on the ground in Venezuela­­; Maduro’s persecution of journalists has already escalated sharply since Wednesday.

Venezuela is not the only country where Trump’s inconsistencies could have a destabilizing effect. Though Latin America’s democratic institutions have proved remarkably resilient under the circumstances, the coming months could be pivotal. Chile, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador are all set to hold presidential elections this year.

After a series of constitutional crises and waves of social unrest, Chile and Peru are especially vulnerable to the rise of anti-democratic trends. In 2019, mass protests in Chile prompted an October vote to rewrite the country’s dictator-era constitution. If Chileans’ high expectations for the new constitution are disappointed, public disillusionment could create an opening for dangerous fringe candidates.

In November, Peru went through three presidents in 10 days, a worrying sign that, after multiple military coups in the 20th century, relative democratic stability could be put to the test amid the hardships of the pandemic. And there is little reason to expect elections in Nicaragua to be free or fair; a law passed in December prohibits many opposition candidates from running.

Furthermore, with severe lockdowns devastating the region’s economies and largely failing to slow the spread of the virus, the region’s political class as a whole has watched approval ratings plummet. In an increasingly hostile political landscape, those fighting to defend democratic institutions could face growing pressure from outside challengers. And Trump’s rabble-rousing has given anti-democratic leaders an updated playbook: use social media and other alternative information sources to spread misinformation to stir loyal followers, and then use those tools to organize a violent attack on the heart of democratic institutions.

We face a new challenge on top of the pandemic, the economic crisis and existing chronic problems: proving to the international community that American democracy is strong.

To mitigate the damage in Latin America and the world, President-elect Joe Biden will need to re-engage with allies and rebuild America’s reputation by openly acknowledging the healing needed after the chaos of his predecessor.

In the coming months, we face a new challenge on top of the pandemic, the economic crisis and existing chronic problems: proving to the international community that American democracy is stronger and more resilient because it has been tested.

We, as a nation, must recommit to the values that have made American leadership mean something more than our capacity to use force. And we must remember that our actions domestically have consequences beyond our borders. Trump has given Maduro and other dictators help in upending the democratic order. It is up to America to use this moment as an opportunity to strengthen democracy.