Flip to the index of any textbook on Latin American history and there, neatly alphabetized, you’ll find the names of all the generals, sometimes colonels or even sergeants, who were most significant in shaping Latin American History. From Agustín I to Jorge Ubico, nearly all are remembered as murderous tyrants, men who brought great harm to their nations’ people.
I have worked as a professor of Latin American history for over 30 years. Like others teaching this subject, I put the names of these historical figures on the tests. (Go to the head of the class if you could place Agustín I with Mexico and Ubico with Guatemala.) From the vantage point of my profession, it easy to see what is taking place now in Donald Trump’s presidency as following the standard narrative line in Latin American history textbooks (no fair skipping to the end of the chapter).
For a typical Latin American autocrat, say like Fulgencio Batista, if he sees that he will lose a fair election, he will either steal it or else just cancel the whole thing due to a “national emergency.” If he thinks he can win, he might go ahead and hold the election, but if the counting goes against him, he will abort the process. To do this, the tyrant needs to turn to the military. (Extra credit if you placed Batista, who died in 1973, with Cuba.)
If he follows the Latin American historical example, Mr. Trump will not leave office voluntarily. He will either try to cancel the 2020 election or else halt the balloting election night if early returns run against him. To accomplish this, he will need the military.
America’s military leaders need to begin thinking now about what they will do when this happens. They should think about these questions: How far do you want to go in following Latin America’s historical example? Will you roll the tanks to cancel the election? Will you seize the ballot boxes, close the Congress? Will you jail the opposition lawmakers? Will you enforce marshal law? How far are you willing to go? Will you arrest citizens who protest? Will you torture them, murder them? How far will you go?
Understand that if you do these things, your names will be in the history books. Like Augusto Pinochet or Leopoldo Galtieri, your names will be remembered, you will be on the test! (If you said Chile and Argentina, you earn an A+.)
In Ecuador in 1997 Abdalá Bucaram, a spectacularly corrupt leader, was on the verge of being removed by Congress for reason of “mental incapacity.” (Mr. Bucaram, at least until that moment, had liked to be called his nickname, “el loco.”) In a last-ditch effort to stay in office, Mr. Bucaram promised the military a 20% pay hike if they backed him. They didn’t. He fled into exile in Panamá. I do not know the names of these Ecuadorian generals. They are not in the textbook index and will not be on the test. But they were heroes.
Will America’s military leaders be heroes too, or will they be in the index for their infamy?