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Trump’s ‘coup’ is not a US first

January 6, 2021, Washington Dc, District of Columbia, United States: Rioters clash with police using big ladder trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors. Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. Police used buttons and tear gas grenades to eventually disperse the crowd. Rioters used metal bars and tear gas as well against the police. (Credit Image: � Lev Radin/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire)
January 6, 2021, Rioters attempt to enter break in to the Capitol building through the front doors. (Credit Image: � Lev Radin/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire)

Donald Trump’s attempt at a coup was not the first staged by a US president – just the first on US soil.

The bizarre, deadly and highly symbolic storming of the US Congress and Senate by Trump supporters, bearing fascist insignia and waving Confederate flags to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory, made headline news across the world.

Leaders of friendly nations expressed alarm at the sudden fragility of US democracy. Enemies – often with little claim to democracy themselves – expressed the same, but with ill-concealed delight.

President-elect Joe Biden lamented the incursion as ‘an assault on the citadel of freedom’. Others called for the immediate removal of Trump from office.

During the siege, Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher pleaded: ‘This is banana republic crap! Mr President, you’ve got to stop this! Call it off! The election is over.’

But anyone with a glancing interest in Latin American history will probably know that US presidents have been involved in coups to subvert democracy for several decades. They just did it abroad.

Like in Guatemala. In 1954 the democratic government of this …er banana-growing republic was the victim of a CIA-orchestrated coup. The Left-leaning president Jacobo Árbenz was ousted, to be replaced by a military junta, the first of many, thrusting the Central American country into decades of genocidal violence. The interests of the United Fruit Company, a US corporation, were protected; Guatemalans paid with their lives. Human rights groups estimate that between 1954 and 1990 more than 100,000 civilians were killed by successive military regimes. The US leader who authorized the covert action to overthrow Guatemalan democracy: President Dwight D Eisenhower.

President Trump had clearly not thought though ‘deniability’ as he was egging on his supporters last week

Or take Chile. In 1973 the democratically elected Marxist president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a CIA-instigated coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, leading to more than a decade of brutal dictatorship and the imposition of Chicago School economic neoliberalism. Or Argentina, three years later, when the democratically elected Isabel Perón was overthrown in a military coup supported and endorsed by the US. The regime went on to kill 30,000 citizens. In both cases President Richard Nixon was in charge, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger doing most of the dirty work.

The list of US governments and presidents involved in coups to subvert democracy in Latin America is long and varied.

Here are a few more: Brazil in 1964 (John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson), Bolivia in 1971 (Richard Nixon), Uruguay in 1973 (Nixon, again). And, of course, there were the failures, like Venezuela in 2002 (George W Bush).

One reason there was not more uproar in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was because these rightwing military coups were happening during the Cold War in what the US considered its ‘backyard’. Another is the strategy of ‘deniability’.

The CIA, operating covertly, offered an unusually high level of government and presidential deniability. Things happened. Maybe the US was behind it, maybe not. Maybe a CIA operative did something illegal, like assassinate Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1966. Whatever happened the US president must not be implicated. Deniability was key.

While many around the world suspected American involvement, the full extent of US orchestration of coups was only revealed many decades later, with freedom of information requests and the release of classified CIA documents.

President Trump had clearly not thought though ‘deniability’ as he was egging on his supporters last week, like a commander-in-chief preparing his troops for battle, using speeches and tweets to repeat his groundless fiery rhetoric that the election had been ‘stolen’ from him, from them; stoking their feelings of loss and anger, urging them to ‘fight’.

The real shock to the system was that Trump was so blatant in his instigations. And he was fouling the democratic nest at home, not somewhere else, in another country. Later attempts to distance himself from the assault, and its deadly consequences, fooled no-one.

Vicious, racist, sexist and dangerously delusional, Donald Trump has not been fit for office as the president of the USA in many ways that are glaringly obvious. And in others that are not quite so immediately apparent....

The next issue of New Internationalist, available in print and digital format, will focus on Democracy in Crisis.


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