The Biden Summit – The Many Faces of Democracy

Image: Sandro Sandroni Lazzarini


The United States has had an inconsistent history of promoting democracy around the world.

“Eeeee! Let's go back, back, back. Let's go back!”, shouted thousands of people on December 10 in Plaza de Mayo, celebrating in Buenos Aires another anniversary of the end of the dictatorship that ruled the country between 1976 and 1983. On stage, President Alberto Fernández and former presidents Lula, from Brazil, Mujica, from Uruguay, and Cristina Fernández, now vice president of Argentina, celebrated the return to democracy.

“Democracy is the best way we have in society to live together, but democracy without justice and equality is not democracy,” said Alberto Fernández. For Mujica, democracy is the best way that human beings have invented to live together. With many defects, which he attributed to “human defects”, not to democracy. A system that, in his opinion, is never finished, it is always being perfected.

For his part, Lula considered democracy as “the best and most important form of government”. It allows plurality, divergence and diversity. Democracy, he added, “is not a pact of silence, but an effervescent process through which society seeks to build a just, more solidary, fraternal and humanist world”. But the economic and political elite appropriated democracy, distorting justice to defend the interests of the rich rather than the poor.

Each claimed its own democracy. They are not the only ones. 57 years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, there was “a real threat to peace and democracy,” said General Walter Braga Netto, appointed Brazil’s defense minister by President Jair Bolsonaro (and who aspires to be his vice-president in the elections November of this year), in an “Order of the Day” referring to the coup d’état that brought the military to power in Brazil on March 31, 1964. “The Armed Forces assumed the responsibility of pacifying the country, facing the wear and tear of reorganizing it. lo and to guarantee the democratic freedoms that we enjoy today”, said Braga Netto. It's his democracy. It was Bolsonaro, a former army captain, who was committed to rescuing the military coup, which Fernando Azevedo e Silva, Braga Netto's predecessor in office, had said was "a milestone for Brazilian democracy". It is certainly the same democracy as Braga Netto.

The 1964 coup, which overthrew President João Goulart, established a military regime that lasted until 1985. US documents declassified in 2018 revealed that, during this period, the arrest, torture, death or disappearance of dissidents were often decided in the presidential palace. Democracy then used all its weapons. “Gregorio Bezerra, a black communist from Pernambuco, was arrested and dragged through the streets of Recife (state capital) tied to a jeep with a rope. It was a way of showing what the new regime was willing to do with anyone who resisted the dictatorship”, recalled Brazilian political scientist Emir Sader in an article published on the last anniversary of the coup, last March 31. “Brazil lived, during the military dictatorship, the worst moment in its history”, he said.

The 1964 coup, contrary to what Braga Netto and Bolsonaro claim, “interrupted democracy and was an event that divided Brazilian history. Only 19 years after the resumption of democracy, in 1945, the armed forces took power, destroyed Brazilian democracy and remained in power for 21 years”. The Brazilian state was militarized. “There was widespread repression of the popular movement, parties and social movements, unionism, left-wing intellectuals, universities and left-wing militancy in general. Thousands of Brazilians were arrested, tortured (torture became the systematic form of interrogation), murdered, exiled. Thousands disappeared”.

Vladimir Herzog, communist militant and director of the journalism department at TV Cultura, decided to report, in October 1975, to one of the most recognized centers of repression in São Paulo. He wanted to clarify his situation and put an end to the harassment he was subjected to. He didn't get out of there alive. “They finished him off the next day. Among the names that have always been considered among his executioners are those of Pedro Antônio Mira Grancieri, a police inspector who confessed in an interview to the magazine This is in the early 90s, and Colonel Audir Santos Maciel, one of the coordinators of the interrogations. The former coined the phrase 'Communists have to piss and shit blood', while kicking detainees in the kidneys. The second ordered that they be given the same injections with which the horses were sacrificed,” according to the report by journalist Víctor David López, published in The Journal from Spain, on August 5, 2018.

After he was murdered, the military staged a fake suicide by hanging, which the justice system at the time validated. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has condemned Brazil for this crime and is still waiting for the reopening of the investigation into the case. For Braga Netto and the current Brazilian government, however, it was a movement to “pacify” the country.

Bolsonaro received at the government palace the wife of Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a recognized torturer who died in October 2015, whose name he evoked when casting his vote as deputy in the coup procedure against then-President Dilma Rousseff. Ustra tortured her in the 70s. It was his practice to take his sons to see their mothers being tortured.

For the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), “to celebrate the installation of a dictatorship that closed democratic institutions and censored the press is to want to drive, looking in the rearview mirror, down a dark road”. In Latin America, after a couple of decades of military dictatorships in the second half of the last century, democracy was the term used to describe the regimes that replaced them.

In 1973, the US government decided that democracy was in danger in Chile. Almost 50 years later, the history of democracy has just written another page in that country. “Who could be interested in celebrating a regime that mutilated people, that made its enemies disappear, that separated families, that tortured so many Brazilian men and women, including pregnant women?”, asked the OAB. History gives us the answer: for those who believe that this is how a democracy is built, kicking the “communists” in the kidney.


And then, suddenly, boom!

More recently, the struggle for democracy has plunged the world into different conflicts. In November 2006, then US President George Bush Jr. said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's death sentence was "an important achievement for Iraq's young democracy". When he was executed, he issued a statement saying it was "an important milestone in Iraq's direction towards becoming a democracy".

President Donald Trump's account of the January 3, 2020, assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at a private fundraising dinner is another example of democracy in full working order. The story goes like this: "They're together, sir", the soldiers in charge of the mission, who were watching everything from miles away, told him. "Sir, they have two minutes and 11 seconds." No emotion. “Two minutes and 11 seconds to live, Lord. They are inside the car, in an armored vehicle”. “Sir, they have approximately one minute to live. 30 seconds. 10, 9, 8…” Trump narrated over dinner. “Then suddenly, boom!” “They're gone, Lord. Hanging up”, said the president about that moment.

The prisoner's cages at the Guantánamo base, the stories of torture, all this is part of the many faces of democracy. To evaluate current democracy, it is not necessary to go back to texts over 300 years old, nor to compare today's political regimes with the models developed by think thanks American conservatives.

Alexis de Tocqueville, French thinker, politician and diplomat, to describe democracy, went to observe the one that was born in its own cradle, almost 200 years ago: the United States, where it was born without the legacy of a feudal past. Today, we no longer need to look back at this long history, spanning more than three centuries, to assess the many faces of democracy. It teaches much more than reading Locke. We are talking about real democracy.


Democracy as an instrument

The doubt was raised, among others, by Bruce Jones, director of the Project on International Order and Strategy, a Washington-based program that analyzes changes in the international order and their implications for US interests. He had doubts that Biden could summon the most powerful democracies to his project, launched at the Summit for Democracy last December 9 and 10. He cited goals for the project that he saw as contradictory: a revival of democracy as a key element of US foreign policy; an attempt to restore the damaged American democratic system; and an opportunity to consolidate a bloc against China's growing influence in the world. “Biden's rhetoric leaves room for all these interpretations,” he said.

For your colleague Brookings Institution, Thomas Pepinsky, Biden’s Democracy Summit was an opportunity to highlight the importance of civil liberties, freedom of conscience and peaceful dissent, “at a time when democracy is in a fragile situation around the world”. This is happening precisely when Julian Assange faces formidable political harassment from the United States to secure his extradition from Great Britain and set an example to the world that the exercise of freedoms has its risks. Pepinsky acknowledges that "the United States has had an inconsistent history of promoting democracy around the world."

The Biden administration sees the summit as an occasion to build strategies to strengthen democracies in the face of authoritarianism. But it has a larger geopolitical ambition: building a global coalition of democracies "to counter China's expansion and Russia's continued aggression." With NATO troops advancing on its borders, in violation of the agreements negotiated when the Soviet Union collapsed, the West presents Russia as the aggressor. But Russia operates on its borders and denounces the installation of nuclear-capable missiles just four minutes from Moscow.

In these circumstances, it is impossible to forget the missile crisis of 1962, when the United States launched a naval blockade against Cuba and demanded the dismantling of the bases that the Soviet Union had installed in that country. Pepinsky was also not optimistic about the goals and results of the summit. Among other things, because it would not provide an answer to the problems of administration and economic development, which are – for him – the ones that most interest people all over the world.

He recalls that the economic performance of the countries he describes as “authoritarian” – citing China, Vietnam and Singapore – makes it difficult to defend the idea that democracies are more effective in terms of economic development. For Pepinsky, however, the case for democracy is simple: it is the only political system that institutionalizes the protection of minorities, the rights of journalists, citizens and opposition leaders.

An affirmation that, as we have already seen, does not withstand the slightest confrontation with reality. Just as in the XNUMXth century the colonial system was built from the European conception that the white race was in charge of bringing civilization to blacks in Africa, in the XNUMXth century, in the United States, the idea prevails that they are in charge of to impose its political order – democracy – on the world. Latin Americans know better than anyone the dramatic consequences of these aspirations, which have also never been separated from a deep dose of racism.


Democracy as a system

The debate on democracy can go a little further and deepen the nature of the concept. A debate sparked by both Russia and China, in response to Biden's call. Days before the opening of the summit, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released two reports. The first – on “The State of Democracy in the United States” – began with a chapter on “What Democracy Is”. “Democracy is a common value shared by all humanity”, says the document. “It is the right of all nations, not the prerogative of a few. It has different forms, there is no model that fits all”. That of the United States, he adds, “is plagued by deeply rooted problems”, chaotic practices, with disastrous consequences every time it tries to export its vision of democracy.

As early as 2006, Thomas Carothers, then director of the project on democracy and the rule of law at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had indicated that the United States would spend more than a billion dollars that year, in more than 50 countries, on programs to promote democracy. These were the so-called “color revolutions” that broke out mainly in North Africa and Asia, a model that they are now trying to apply in Latin America as well.

Just to finance the “independent press”, Biden announced more than 400 million dollars. Carothers already spoke of support for “independent civic groups, which often include dynamic student organizations”. Support for electoral participation by these opposition groups, which they also trained and sometimes provided with equipment or other material assistance “to help them run an effective campaign”.

In a second, longer document – ​​“A democracy that works” (China: democracy that works) – the Chinese government analyzed its own political system and the nature of its democracy. Democracy “is not a decorative ornament, but an instrument to face the problems that worry people. A country is democratic when the people are the true owners of the country. A theme on which they dwell at length later. “The United States claims its right to decide what qualifies as democracy and what does not. This is cynical, pathetic given the state of democracy and human rights in the United States and the West in general,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Specialists in foreign policy, the most visionary, as Ted Piccone, researcher at the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, always wanted to build a grand alliance of democracies that would facilitate a realignment of the international order in favor of liberal democracies and offer the world a convincing alternative to what he calls the “Chinese authoritarian model”. In Piccone's view, the United States and Europe have been relatively successful examples of such a model of democracy. But, in reality, this is the model of democracy that is based on the economic and political order of the United States and the European Union, as Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon state in their article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, "The real crisis of global order”.

While both acknowledge that "the defense of liberal democracy has produced appalling excesses in the past, including ugly repression and horrific violence." In any case, Branko Milanovic, a Serbian-American economist and former head of the World Bank's Research Department, warned that the Summit for Democracy was "a misguided idea". “All great conflicts start with a great ideological justification”. “What they are doing is the opposite of a cosmopolitan peace-seeking, compromise-building approach, which requires looking for an area of ​​common understanding across systems and countries,” he said. This grandiose new project, if it survives, Milanovic added, will eventually reveal its goals: to serve only as a thin covering to achieve much more mundane goals.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

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