Pop quiz: Was the kind of thing that took place on January 6, 2021 an attempt to overturn democracy, and should those who planned and directed it be prosecuted?
If you’re a Democratic politician, the answer is apparently: “It depends on who does it, and where.”
It turns out there’s a pretty simple litmus test to follow. See, if it’s Donald Trump and the Republicans trying to do this in the United States, it’s a coup. Their claims about election fraud are obviously bunk, and both the high-level officials who planned the attempt and the random, low-level riffraff who they manipulated into assisting them should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law (though only the latter group will actually have the book thrown at them, of course).
If it’s Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters in Brazil, then it’s also a coup. Their claims about election fraud are also clearly bunk, and prosecuting Bolsonaro and his high-level accomplices is clearly the right thing to do — so clear that even centrist Democrats like Tim Kaine have preemptively called for the Biden administration to extradite Bolsonaro from Florida, if and when the request from Brazil ever comes.
But if it’s Bolivia? Well, there might be something to those election fraud claims coming from the country’s far right. The violent protests targeting the country’s politicians and institutions that led the winning candidate to flee for his life? Why that’s a grassroots revolt in defense of democracy that, if anything, shows how outdated these silly distinctions between uprisings and coups are these days. And attempts by the government to hold those responsible accountable? That’s yet another tragic example of the unacceptable authoritarianism that justified the coup — er, revolution in the first place.
The double standards of establishment discourse surrounding the Bolivian coup and its later copycats have been pretty well covered. But the latest addition to this record of incoherence is so glaring, it must be commented on.
Last Wednesday, at exactly the same time that Democratic officials were expressing entirely justified horror at what had unfolded in Brazil this past Sunday, a small group of them — including the Senate’s number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, and Senate foreign relations committee chair Bob Menendez — condemned Bolivian president Luis Arce’s arrest and prosecution of the coup-plotters in his own country as merely a “petty political vendetta.”
“Absurdly locking up political opponents represents a dangerous display of authoritarianism,” they wrote. “Bolivia cannot be a democracy if its opposition leaders compete in elections from behind bars.”
The rank double standards here are simply off the charts. The day after casting shade at Arce, Durbin sent a letter to president Joe Biden urging him to revoke Bolsonaro’s visa, noting he was “the subject of multiple criminal probes in Brazil,” and affirming that “the Brazilian people deserve an opportunity” to investigate Bolsonaro “and to hold him accountable for any crimes he may have committed.”
Menendez, just a day before condemning Arce, announced that he was “stand[ing] in solidarity with the people of Brazil,” and condemned Bolsonaro as a “demagogue” who had inspired an “unbridled assault” on Brazil’s “democratic institutions and constitutional order.” He further pledged his “unwavering support” for Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as he “pursues accountability for these acts of terror and seeks to defend democracy.”
A particularly notable name on this farcical statement is Tim Kaine, the same Democratic senator on the foreign relations committee who was quick to suggest that the United States should agree to extradite Bolsonaro. Kaine had, to his credit, cosponsored Bernie Sanders’s resolution last year on the eve of the Brazilian election, warning about Bolsonaro’s attempts to “question or subvert the democratic and electoral institutions of Brazil,” and urging the US government to “speak out against efforts to incite political violence and undermine the electoral process.” So why is Kaine now going to bat for those in Bolivia who tried to question or subvert its democratic and electoral institutions?
Let’s be really clear: There’s basically no difference between what happened in Bolivia in 2019 and in Brazil this past Sunday, other than that in Bolivia it actually worked, in no small part because of steadfast US support for the coup. When Bolivian president Evo Morales won the election fair and square, the far right baselessly alleged election fraud (subsequently disproven by multiple studies). They then organized days’ worth of violent protests, and Morales took political refuge in Mexico after the leader of the military suggested he step down. The only thing that remotely lends credence to the idea that Morales was some kind of autocrat in the middle of a power grab is that he relied on a court decision to let him run for a previously barred fourth term — a thin reed little different from Bolsonaro supporters’ claims that Lula’s win is illegitimate because he should be in jail.
Meanwhile, the Bolivian coup government, whose president Jeanine Áñez is now, to Democratic senators’ apparent regret, behind bars, never won an election and repeatedly delayed holding one, knowing it would lose. It also cracked down on the opposition, killing dozens in the process. The idea that subsequent punishment for these actions is the real authoritarianism is the kind of Orwellian nonsense we’re used to hearing from Donald Trump.
What accounts for this double standard? For one, you should never underestimate the ignorance of the people who hold positions of power. But the Democrats’ statement may hold another clue, tacking on to its condemnation of Bolivia’s coup prosecutions a final barb that “regularly siding with Russian military aggression in votes at the United Nations only further tarnishes Bolivia’s democratic credibility.”
On the one hand, this doesn’t make much sense. Lula, too, has taken a similarly neutral position that could be caricatured in Washington as “siding with Russian military aggression.” Lula has ascribed partial blame to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for the war’s outbreak, met with a Russian (and Ukrainian) delegation on the day of his inauguration, and stressed that “we will have relations with everyone.”
But the line hints at the politics at play here. Despite having a leftist president, Brazil is Latin America’s largest economy and even under Lula has had amiable relations with the United States in the past. The Washington perspective on Bolivia is, presumably, that as a smaller country that has for years had a president overtly hostile to what officials view as US interests, it can and should be pushed around a lot more easily.
Despite the hypocrisy at play here, Democrats’ widespread support for Lula and opposition to his rival is an important development that signals some encouraging shifts in both US domestic politics and in global power relations more generally. Even so, US officials would be wise to treat Bolivia with the same respect for democratic institutions that they afford to Brazil. Double standards like these don’t go unnoticed on the world stage and undermine US rhetoric about democracy in ways that could affect its own struggles with homegrown antidemocratic forces. Better to build a coalition in favor of democracy in the “USA’s backyard,” than to embark on a path of needless antagonism.