Latin America: Impact of the January 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

By Ilka Treminio Sánchez, Fábio Kerche, and Esteban De Gori*

Tear gas outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021/ Tyler Merbler/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

AULABLOG invited three Latin American experts to comment on the impact of the events in Washington, DC, last month on U.S. relations with the region.

Ilka Treminio Sánchez*

During the Trump Administration, the United States revealed regrettable signs of institutional erosion and democratic backsliding. The political engine that allowed and promoted these actions was based on polarizing political discourse that shaped a hostile atmosphere toward Trump’s and his supporters’ opponents. This behavior escalated to the point of attacks on the electoral results and the violent assault on the Capitol by Trump’s followers on January 6, the day Joe Biden’s victory was certified. The insurrection failed as institutions upheld the legitimacy of the electoral process and the popular will of the citizens.

For Latin America, and for Central America specifically, this episode signifies the rupture of the myth of democratic exceptionalism in the United States. It reveals U.S. fissures and defects that are characteristic of the hemisphere’s weakest democracies. Central America has many times experienced authoritarianism, populism, violence against the adversary, social violence against ethnic groups, attacks on Congress, and attempts to alter electoral results. The Trump Administration’s actions have seriously damaged the United States’ image as a country that guarantees democracy – and its future governments could lose moral authority in the region on this matter.

  • The January 6 assault could give new life to undemocratic “zombie ideas” in Central America, undermining progress in political and civil rights made in the last decades. It could further embolden efforts to weaken election processes and increase presidential authoritarianism already present in the region.

Fábio Kerche*

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and President Trump’s campaign to overturn the electoral results were a sad scene for more than just the United States. Democracy is the regime in which a government can be defeated in an election and then leaves office peacefully. The events in Washington revealed that, even in a country in which democracy was a consolidated regime, it is vulnerable – with profound implications for younger and more fragile democracies worldwide. This includes Latin America and particularly Brazil.

  • It is important to remember that the Brazilian political crisis started when the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections challenged the results. Fortunately, the U.S. political institutions were still strong enough to overcome the impasse in Washington. The United States’ most recent crisis gives Latin Americans cause to consider what should and should not be done to protect and consolidate democracy across our continent. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to reproduce Trump’s style, the failure of the U.S. Capitol insurrection – and the triumph of the country’s Constitutional order – should discourage any imagining that there is a way out of democracy.

Esteban De Gori*

The insurrection was undoubtedly shocking for South America. No government and no citizenry had imagined that a group of persons could occupy the U.S. Capitol as they did, nor that challenges to U.S. electoral processes could be so intense. Among the most powerful events: persons supported by the President overrunning the building and deepening the runaway polarization; the struggle of the democratic system to overcome the challenges to the electoral competition; and, perhaps most profoundly, the erosion of popular faith in the system. Leaders in most of Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela and perhaps others, showed concern and surprise. A crisis afflicting a great geo-economic player in the context of a pandemic and trade war with China could bring greater uncertainties and risks and, especially now, few opportunities.

  • The insurrection and the singularly belligerent government of Donald Trump are not the only things driving reassessment of the United States as a promoter of democracy and the rule of law. Since 2008, to take the financial crisis as a point of reference, doubts about the effectiveness of the country’s political system have deepened. That discomfort helped bring Trump to power as it eroded faith in the political system and its ability to balance desires and demands. The early statements and actions of the Biden Administration suggest awareness of this discomfort and willingness to begin addressing it.
  • The events (and Biden’s efforts to overcome them) do not appear likely to significantly change the U.S. relationship with Latin America. The pandemic and other challenges to democracy have placed extraordinary pressure on the region’s leaders, for whom the images of U.S. insurrection may have engendered even a certain empathy. They now know that parliaments and democratic institutions can be illegally occupied; that debate can go horribly awry; that polarization can seriously deepen in any country of the hemisphere.
  • More than the turmoil in Washington, the pandemic and its economic consequences appear likely to influence U.S.-Latin America relations. Joe Biden will probably remain focused on the country’s customary interests in the region – no great changes – although with less belligerence than Donald Trump. China, the other great regional power, will continue to promote its position without big conflicts or stridency. Even if the United States retains its economic edge in Latin America, its problems – and China’s gradual expansion in the region – put Washington on the downward path typical of a great power in decline.

February 11, 2021

* Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.
* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.
* Esteban De Gori teaches sociology at La Universidad de Buenos Aires and is a researcher at Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET).