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Populists, Violence and Democracy

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By Francisco Santos*

In our region, there are all kinds of populists. From Bolsonaro and Trump on the right to Chávez, Castillo and Petro on the left. What happened a few days ago in Brasilia, reprehensible from every angle, is the other side of a coin that Peru is experiencing today with the violent protests against the legal decision of the Congress to remove the president from office.

Both types of violence must be condemned. They seek to create political conditions for change or against change through such actions. Regardless of whether the change is legal or legitimate as in Brazil or Peru. It is necessary to use violence to create the conditions to return to a situation or to set the stage for those who promote it.

These protests are not spontaneously generated like the ones in Brazil, Peru or Chile, Ecuador and Colombia in 2019 and 2021. They have leaders, funding and organization. Burning a subway line in one night as happened in Santiago requires as much organization as taking over the Congress, the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court in Brasilia.

And, being both criminal acts that should be condemned equally – in the justice system as well as in the public opinion – unfortunately, they are met with different responses. Those of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru have great defenders and promoters. And few critics. Is destroying a billion dollar subway line justified as a product of a social explosion? Or is burning 15 police stations in one night in Bogota in a coordinated manner legitimate?

Those of us who believe in freedom and order never see countries, secretaries of state or foreign ministers speak out emphatically against these acts of vandalism whose consequences, to this day, are strongly felt in Santiago and Colombia. Moreover, to this day, the United States remains silent in the face of the violent acts in Peru to reverse a constitutional decision that prevented a dictatorship.

We know, although much information is still needed, how the Russians rented accounts of Colombians to finance the violent acts of 2021. Moreover, today a mother asks President Petro for the release of her son captured in the protests and roughly tells him: we did it with you and we elected you, now comply. Certainly, President Petro issued a decree to release the captured vandals, in many cases for violent acts involving injuries and deaths.

Boric’s arrival in Chile and Petro’s in Colombia were preceded by these acts of violence. With no international condemnation, and the release of the criminal perpetrators, they show a way to create ungovernable conditions to facilitate the arrival of the opposite party to power. In the past it was the left and the question we all ask ourselves is: is it now the right’s turn?  

But the silence, contrary to the reasonable and justified reaction to Brazil, is inexplicable. If in New York 15 police stations were burned in one night the American government would remain silent? If in one night, alleged vandals set fire to a subway line in Toronto in a violent act, would we all remain silent? Or if two years ago Trump decided to stay in power, the Supreme Court and the Congress impeached him and there were violent protests in the country’s heartland against this decision by Congress and the National Guard repressed them, should we not support American institutions?

Is there a line that justifies violence? Or does it depend on who perpetrates it? Because for now it seems to be so and that not all violent acts are condemnable. It depends on who commits it and against whom it is carried out. In an unstable world, with social media easily mobilizing public opinion with lies, being unclear about this generates great uncertainty and risk.

We must not lie to ourselves. Democracy in Latin America is tremendously threatened. Although Brazil and Peru are the latest examples, today Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia with Russia and Iran generate a discouraging scenario. If we also add discredited electoral systems, what happened a week ago may be just the beginning of a revolution against electoral results and electoral systems that may end up withering the fragile democracy of the continent.

We have already seen in Mexico a change in the rules of the electoral game that citizens do not accept and are mobilizing. And in Colombia something similar is happening that destroys the electoral system’s legitimacy. A law promoted by a registrar (the one in charge of the electoral system) with all kinds of accusations of corruption, generates such an electoral imbalance that it fundamentally changes the rules of fairness in the system.

Nothing justifies what happened in Brasilia. But neither does anything justify what happened in Colombia in 2019 and 2021. Or in Chile in 2019. Or what is happening today in Peru. If the democrats of the continent do not agree that violence has NO justification and that it must be condemned regardless of political color (which is not happening today), we are going to condemn the region to authoritarianism. And that Democratic Charter that the United States promoted in the OAS and that today we see as almost a dead letter, will go down in history as a great example of good intentions which in the end were useless.

*Francisco Santos is a journalist and the former Vice President of Colombia and Ambassador to the United States.

This article is part of an agreement between El American and the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.