Dr. Lynn Holland is a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where she advises the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Association. In this piece, she related her experiences in 1980s Nicaragua with ongoing coup activity in South America.
One summer in the 1980s, I attended a language school in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The entire program was housed in a small converted home on the outskirts of the city. In those heady years after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza, our young teachers were excited to show their students the changes that were underway in their country. We toured new hospitals, new schools, and a one-time prison converted into a museum. We heard poetry and talked with people about politics.
Of course, none of the changes came easily. Each day there were arguments at the school and in the cafés about the price of food, the rights of women, whether priests should serve in the government, and whether the U.S. would invade.
More importantly, however, the country was at war, and this hard fact was shaping the outcome of the Nicaraguan revolution more than any other. Having begun in the mid-1970s as a fight against the Somoza regime, the war had resumed afterward as counterrevolutionary forces fought back from neighboring Honduras. Heading these forces were some fifty former generals from Somoza's former national guard.
Whether for or against Sandinistas, few Nicaraguans wanted to turn back the clock to the days of Somoza's rule. Many spoke of the brutality of National Guardsmen, long periods of imprisonment in secret cells, and shots fired at anyone suspected of opposing the government- even children as young as ten. In front of many little homes in the barrios, there were makeshift monuments to lost loved ones where a poem, a letter, or a photo of a skinny teenager was posted. In the days before I left for home, people asked me what I would say about them. Would I tell people in the U.S. about their country? Would I help them?
In the years since then, we have seen military regimes fall throughout the hemisphere. In Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and elsewhere, authoritarian rule gave way to civilian government and democratic institutions gained strength. The emerging democracies were left mired in debt and charged with addressing the wounds of war and military oppression. For activists from the U.S., however, the worst was over. The dictators had fallen. Finally, we could "declare victory and go home."
A new chapter is unfolding in this story, however. Most recently in Ecuador, the air force and police stormed the national congress and seized control of major airports, several media outlets, police stations and a U.S.-trained narcotics unit. Soon after, President Rafael Correa was attacked and forcibly held at the Police Hospital near Quito, only to be rescued that evening by forces still loyal to him. As he later explained, the order had gone out over the police radio to "Kill the President." Elsewhere, similar coup attempts have taken place in Venezuela (2002), Haiti (2004), Bolivia (2008), and Honduras (2009). Some have succeeded while others have failed.
Regardless of how we may feel about an elected leader, condoning coup activity can only weaken the democratic process in these countries. Throughout South America, many leaders have spoken out decisively against the coup in Ecuador- even in Colombia and Peru where criticism of Correa has been the strongest. Some of these leaders have expressed concern about a possible return to military rule in their own countries. As opponents of human rights abuses, we cannot accept the remilitarization of government in Latin America as a solution to political problems, however serious they may be.
Not long ago, many of us were sure that democracy had triumphed over state-sanctioned violence. Now we can hardly be certain that this is the case. Instead, we must revive the interest we once had in these countries. We can't turn our back and "go home" after all.