As extremists scaled the wall of the U.S. Capitol, I sat less than four miles away, staring at my computer screen and trying to follow the news reports covering what some called an attempted coup.[1] Sirens wailed faintly in the background, and I kept refreshing my social media feeds, the news websites, the chats with friends, the livestreams.

The prevailing reaction I saw was that of shock and disavowal. Former President George W. Bush compared the insurrection to how disputes are resolved in a “banana republic.”[2] Rep. Lowenthal of California said it felt like a “coup in a third world country.”[3] Pundits and armchair commenters compared the scene to Syria or Bogotá, while President-elect Biden made a public speech saying the riots “do not represent who we are.”

The assumption in all of these statements is that political violence or rejection of democratic norms happens elsewhere, that the existence of such actions in the United States is not an outcome of inflammatory rhetoric or racialized division but an anomaly, as unpredictable as it was unavoidable. Careless statements that the U.S. was “joining Latin America” leaned on essentialist depictions of Latin American countries that reduced them to their democratic shortcomings and ignored the United States’ own complicity in these countries’ weakened governments.

I’m no stranger to the “banana republics” politicians love to cite. In November 2017, I sat at home under an imposed curfew in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, scrolling through news and election reports until my eyes blurred. I tried to understand how the sitting president, who was only able to run for reelection after the Supreme Court he nominated rewrote the Constitution, had propelled himself to victory after early counts saw him trailing. Unlike the 2020 U.S. election, where multiple reviews have discovered no evidence of widespread fraud, this election was “characterized by irregularities and deficiencies with very low technical quality and lacking integrity,” according to the Organization of American States. But the Honduran president’s impulse to hold onto power, to reject, perhaps, the will of the people in favor of the benefit of the elite—this is a theme I see repeated in the United States.

It’s true that Honduras, like other countries in the region, suffers from extensive corruption. Its health and education budgets are decimated by graft, leaving some schools with no walls and some hospitals with no medicines. The brother of its president sits in jail in New York for drug trafficking. In 2009, it saw a military coup that marked a slide into more extreme violence and impunity.  

But Honduras’s democracy barely stood a chance. Colonized first by Spain and then de facto by U.S. companies Standard Fruit and United Fruit, Honduras survived decades of military dictatorship and emerged as a democracy only in 1983, by then already a transit stop for illegal narcotics destined for U.S. consumption. Like so many other former dependencies, colonialism in Honduras gave way not to strong democracy but to a sort of oligarchy where those with power and wealth bent the law to their purpose—and when that failed, acted outside of the law with impunity.

The United States has been largely complicit in the weakness of Latin American governments, from supporting a 1954 coup in Guatemala[4] to refusing to acknowledge that the ouster of the president of Honduras in 2009 was in fact a coup. The U.S. has praised corrupt leaders who sign the right sort of trade and immigration deals and has failed to take responsibility both for the U.S origins of gangs and firearms and the overwhelming U.S. demand for illegal drugs.

By condemning coups and violence as something reminiscent of other countries, we in the United States fail to see how those countries hold up a mirror to ourselves. We succumb to the heresy of American exceptionalism, which says that our actions are right precisely because they are ours.[5] As Yousef Munayyer wrote in the Washington Post, “Americans are no less prone to political violence than any other peoples on earth. If anything, we might be more prone to it, precisely because we convince ourselves that when we do it, it is justified and when it isn’t justified, it is not really us.”

As others have noted, “this isn’t who we are” rings false in a country that has yet to fully wrestle with its original sins of colonization and slavery and its ongoing sins of racism and imperialism. Acknowledging how the United States has fomented division and violence is a necessary first step into imagining a better way to be.

We can start by looking outward, to the “Bogotá”s and “Tegucigalpa”s of the world where there is hope, solidarity, and resistance alongside pain and violence. When I think of love for country, I think of my Honduran friends who, in the words of Wendell Berry, “denounced the government and embraced the flag,” loving their neighbors, celebrating their culture, and demanding that their government fulfill its mandate.

The United States, like any country, contains both light and darkness: peaceful protests and violent riots, the election of Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator days before white supremacists stormed the building where he now serves.  

As those of us in the U.S. consider the violent attack on the Capitol building, we have the opportunity both to see ourselves reflected in it and to choose a different path. We can then begin the work of acknowledging our country’s flaws, humbling ourselves and committing to contribute to the same democratic principles we hope to see flourish around the world.

This is love for country—both a recognition that this is who we are, and the daily decision to work toward a different way to be. 

 

A version of this essay was first published on the MCC LACA blog

[1] Coup d’état: A sudden decisive exercise of force in politics especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group (Merriam-Webster).

[2] Banana republic: A pejorative term for a politically unstable country dependent on exporting a single resource, such as bananas. Coined by U.S. short story author O. Henry based on his experiences in Honduras, where U.S. fruit companies exploited natural resources and destabilized politics to benefit their industry at the expense of human well-being.

[3] Third world country: A term that “arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact” (Wikipedia). Currently, an outdated term for low-income and previously colonized countries that carries the assumption that these countries are lesser than those in the “first world.”

[4] At the behest of U.S. banana companies.

[5] American exceptionalism: A belief that the United States is better, more virtuous, and more powerful than other nations, and as such, normal rules or predictions do not apply to it.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Powerfully clear and honest writing. Thank you for sharing this eloquent article with us.

    Reply
  2. Kyric Koning

    Exceptionalism sounds like such a ludicrous concept, but it is so remarkably easy to slip into (Oh, I don’t think/do/etc. that (only, I just did)). It must be a daily process of acknowledging and rectifying in order to become better people.

    Way to tackle this behemoth.

    Reply

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