It appears that the further we get into the 21st century, the closer we are coming to a repeat of the Central American wars of the 1980s.
Back then, the Soviet Union and Cuba were sending arms and money to the Communist guerrilla movements that threatened pro-U.S. regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador, and had taken power in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas took over that country in 1979 and forced the dictator Anastasio Somoza to flee.
Speaking for the Trump administration, John Bolton said in an interview with The Miami Herald this week that “This Troika of Tyranny”—referring to the regimes of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela—“is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere.” That’s why the United States, he continued “is taking direct action against all three regimes.” As in the 1980s, he called for free elections in Nicaragua that could end the reign of Daniel Ortega, who had once held power as “Comandante” until the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1989, only to return to power in 2007, when he again was elected president.
Bolton also said that the tyrants ruling these nations “fancy themselves strongmen and revolutionaries, icons and luminaries. In reality they are clownish, pitiful figures…‘Three Stooges’ of socialism;…true believers [who] worship a false God.”
Bolton is not incorrect in that characterization of the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In Nicaragua, the Washington Post reported recently, Ortega’s army “launched a wave of repression against civil society groups and journalism outlets that is choking off what little remains of democracy in this Central American country.” The government is closing down civil society groups, seizing their asserts, and has charged some editors with conspiring to commit terrorist acts. Jamie Chamorro, who now runs the opposition paper La Prensa, said the attacks on the media are worse than those in the Sandinista heyday, when an actual war was being waged against the government by the “contras,” who were supported by the Reagan administration. There is also little doubt that Ortega is supported by both Iran and Russia and is trying to make deals with the Chinese government.
But while Bolton blasts the proto-totalitarian nature of these “leftist” governments and condemns the repression of its people, there is a danger that by allying with right-wing authoritarian regimes in order to defeat the evil “troika,” the administration will give them a green light and look the other way on civil rights and human rights abuses, much like it is doing with MBS and the Saudis.
This is likely to be the case with Brazil, where the country’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, was sworn in on New Year’s Day. The president enthusiastically supported him and sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to attend the inauguration. Afterward, Pompeo said that Bolsonaro seeks “to reinforce our shared commitment to democracy, education, prosperity, security and human rights.”
This is highly questionable, to put it politely. Bolsonaro is a hard-right figure with strong authoritarian tendencies. He easily won the national election due to the loss of support for the previous era of left-leaning administrations, whose once popular leader, Lula da Silva, is now in prison for 12 years after being convicted of corruption and money-laundering. Bolsonaro resembles strong men like Juan Peron in 1940s and '50s Argentina, a “populist” who had the support of the people and reigned in opponents of his regime, and today with the government of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who uses extra-legal means, including the killing of drug dealers by the police. Bolsonaro, as Eli Lake has pointed out, sees Duterte as a role model, and looks fondly at Brazil’s military dictatorship that existed from 1964 to 1985.
Bolsonaro’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, also gives lip service to respecting human rights. He also considers “climate change” a Marxist conspiracy and has praised “illiberal” governments such as Poland and Hungary as models for Brazil. Bolsonaro’s vice president and other government ministers are all former military officers. Bolsonaro himself has said that he regretted the military governments during the dictatorship did not torture still more leftists than it did. When he cast a vote in 2016 to impeach the leftist President Dilma Rousseff, the Washington Post reported, “he did so in the name of the military commander who had presided over her torture in 1970. He and his allies have cheered the junta’s grisly program that saw countless leftist activists disappeared, brutalized, raped and murdered.” Bolsonaro has promised to give the police “carte blanche to kill,” as Duterte has in the Philippines.
Pursuing strategic cooperation with Brazil in its attempt to curb China’s economic incursions is a valid goal, but that does not mean that the United States should remain silent if Bolsonaro takes the thuggish actions he has all but promised against real and imagined opponents. An American left-wing academic, Benjamin Fogel, writes in Britain’s Independent that “fascism has arrived in Brazil,” and that Bolsonaro’s government will be “worse than you think.” Perhaps Fogel, a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at New York University is somewhat wide of the mark in declaring Brazil fascist before Bolsonaro has had a chance to do very much. But he is correct to write that Bolsonaro “is openly hostile to democracy and will probably be the most extremist elected leader in the world.”
Today there is no Soviet Union threatening to take over nations in our hemisphere, but the threat of authoritarianism is a very real danger to the people of Brazil and Nicaragua. There is no need for U.S. officials and the Trump administration to unequivocally welcome Jair Bolsonaro as if he was the kind of true democratic leader the U.S. has an affinity with. In 1981, when Elliott Abrams was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, he noted that the U.S. cut off military aid to the Lucas Garcia government in Guatemala, which he says really deserved to be called a “fascist murderous regime.” And when the military overthrew the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, replacing it with the brutal military rule led by General Augusto Pinochet, Abrams told Secretary of State George Shultz that “we have to protest this publicly, we have to condemn it.” He understood that for a human rights policy to have credibility, it had to also protest those of U.S.-backed governments, not just those of the Castro communist government. Abrams said that Shultz’s policy, and his, was not “to support any authoritarian dictator who is pro-American. It [was] rather to try to figure how to support moderates, pro-American centrists as the alternative.”
President Trump has already nominated Robert Destro, a law professor at Catholic University, for the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Should the Senate confirm Destro and he takes his post, he should start his tenure by requesting a thorough briefing from Elliott Abrams.