The Declaration of Independence was the first truly revolutionary document, its ideals a model for democracies ever since.
But other American governing inventions aren’t worth celebrating. Our genocide of the American Indian became a model for dictators worldwide. Our Constitution was designed to enshrine slavery. The idea of eugenics, that certain people were genetically inferior and deserved to be eliminated, became Hitler’s model for the Holocaust.
A later invention is now threatening to undo all the work of the Declaration. That’s the Monroe Doctrine.
On its face, the doctrine written by John Quincy Adams and pronounced by James Monroe is nothing but beneficial. It proclaimed that Europe should keep its hands off the Americas. But it didn’t promise that this country would keep its hands off.
Since the doctrine was first promulgated, in 1823, the United States has treated the rest of the hemisphere as its empire. We invaded Mexican, seizing the larger half of it. We created Panama to build the canal there. We acquired Puerto Rico in a war and still hold it.
Private interests have also played a part. The original filibuster was an American slaveowner who briefly controlled Nicaragua as a personal fiefdom. The phrase Banana Republic (coined by O. Henry) referred first to Central American countries like Honduras dominated by the United Fruit Co.
As I write this, a Honduran immigrant’s company is preparing to refinish our floors. He says American dominance there continues. In a recent election 60% voted for a reformer, then the lights went out. When they came back on again, the reformer was out.
America has directly invaded several Latin American countries. We tried to make the Dominican Republic an American state under U.S. Grant. We overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s. We fought a war on behalf of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Samoza in the 1980s. The victor in that war, Daniel Ortega, claims to be a leftist but rules more like Samoza.
This is the Caudillo model of government, practiced throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Democracy is a sometime thing. It is subject to an American veto. Military leaders routinely overthrow civilian governments, ostensibly in the name of stability but often with the connivance of American interests. Even today our government is actively trying to overthrow the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.
The Caudillo model has generally guaranteed right-wing government throughout the hemisphere. It has created a false choice, between fascism and collectivism. Both represent dictatorship. Neither represents true democracy. A true democracy is a continuous negotiation, among leaders representing different segments of society. Laws are respected, elections are sacred, norms once established are honored.
The Caudillo model is what gave the musical “Evita” its frisson. Originally a military leader and coup plotter, Juan Peron was elected as a leftist and bankrupted what was once South America’s wealthiest economy. Since then his party has returned to power several times, each time driving it deeper into debt. The primary alternative has been military dictatorships that murder their own people and have no more clue how to run an economy than Donald Trump.
My point here isn’t to argue history. It’s to state, as plainly as I can, that the major “achievement” of Trump has been to import the Caudillo model to the U.S.
As I write this, the 2020 election is not yet decided. Trump has spent the Pandemic year trampling every norm that has governed this country since 1789. He loudly claims the Caudillo role, saying he will rule until he dies and be succeeded by his idiot sons. If he were to remain in office through 2021, I have no doubt his dictatorial ways would certainly destroy our democracy
What’s more frightening is how tens of millions cheer this. The most disquieting aspect of the recent election returns was Trump’s strength among Latin American immigrants. They became convinced the election was a false choice, between the stability of Caudillo rule and Castro-like communism. They voted for stability, which means they voted for fascism.
Because of the Caudillo model, Latin America has few real democracies. Most are subject to an American veto, and to military overthrow. The most stable democracy in Latin America today is probably Mexico, because three different parties have ruled it without military intervention this century. The rightist National Action Party (PAN) ruled under Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled under Enrique Nieto. The current President, Andres Obrador, represents the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
What marks a true democracy is a peaceful transition of power and a true political choice. Trump has been threatening a peaceful transition for months now. It’s why the election was conducted in such a desperate manner. More frightening is how many millions of people cheered his destruction of our democratic norms. Rule by executive decree, ignoring laws like the Hatch Act, cronyism, claims of absolute immunity, the list goes on and on.
Because Trump has proven so popular, the Caudillo model will remain here for some time. I can’t vote for a Republican, any Republican, for any office, because they might support that model. This means my check on the power of Democratic officeholders is much weaker than it should be. There’s literally nothing to stop Democrats from creating that false choice, becoming as extreme in their own way as Trump has been in his.
Nothing has threatened democracy in America more than ideas America itself has created. Nothing threatens it so much today as the Caudillo Model of government we first exported with the Monroe Doctrine.