A Tale of Two Attempted Coups and The Lessons For Fragile Democracies
The deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol should remind the world over, and especially the Caribbean, of just how fragile our democracies can be.
Since the 1970s, the Caribbean region has seen its fair share of attempted and successful coups in Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Grenada, Dominica and Suriname, some with the help of the United States.
For its similarity in execution to the recent U.S. incident where the mob invaded the Capitol as lawmakers tried to certify Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election, the attempted coup in Trinidad & Tobago stands out.
Three decades ago, on July 27, 1990, members of an Islamic group, Jamaat-al-Muslimeen, stormed the Trinidadian parliament while it was in session - also with deadly consequences.
But unlike in the U.S., where rioters searched the Capitol unsuccessfully for lawmakers, many who’d been evacuated, in Trinidad, the Jamaat members were successful in taking politicians hostage, including Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson. They also invaded the main TV station and a radio station and took the staff hostage.
The group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, appeared on television and claimed the government had been overthrown.
It took six days for the Jamaat members to finally surrender, but not before triggering massive destruction and looting in capital city, Port of Spain. The series of events resulted in more than 20 deaths, including a member of parliament.
This video, uploaded to YouTube years later, captured the arrest of the group’s leader, Yasin Abu Bakr after the attempted coup. 18º North does not own the copyright.
Eden Charles, former Trinidadian ambassador to the United Nations, says that while both incidents threatened democracy, the instigation in the U.S. case was strikingly different.
He says, in Trinidad, a Muslim group alleged that the security forces had victimized them and they sought to overthrow the government thinking they could do a better job of governing the country. In the U.S., the president himself, Donald Trump, allegedly incited his supporters to carry out the insurrection after his numerous legal challenges to the election results failed.
Mr. Charles says the executive branch of government failing to recognize the rulings of the court is a very serious concern for democracy. In general, he says, “If governors breach the social contract (of obeying the rule of law), they should be removed by democratic means.”
Dr. Anne Speckhard, Director at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C., adds that in her work, which has involved interviewing more than 700 terrorists and their family members, including four Trinidadians that went to ISIS, she usually has seen the disenfranchised turn to terrorist organizations because they believe their government doesn’t represent them and the system is broken.
However, in the U.S. case, she says it’s the head of the government waging a disinformation campaign and making false claims about a stolen election to his supporters.
“If their own president is telling them the system is broken and violence is appropriate, then violence may be likely to happen,” Dr. Speckhard told 18º North.
BBC’s YouTube video upload of the moment protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol.
While she doesn’t agree with the actions of the attackers in either the U.S. or the Trinidadian case, she does believe that governments around the world must ensure everyone feels like they’re participating in a democracy by creating more jobs, offering to retool skills, and implementing more social programs.
“If you don’t listen to the people in the society that have grievances, the terrorist groups are listening and they’re offering solutions, which are usually violent and bad for society,” she said. “Why should I believe in the political process if it doesn’t work for me?”
According to the latest 2018/2019 AmericasBarometer Regional Report from Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), satisfaction with democracy is the lowest it’s been since record-keeping began in 2004.
Compared to an average of about 52% back then, only about 40% of citizens in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries were satisfied with electoral democracy, where individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.
The report states that “instances of backsliding are often accompanied by revelations of corruption and/or ‘an escalation of authoritarian tendencies, populism, and violence.’ ”
On that front, when crime is high, 39% of respondents, on average, believe a military takeover of the state would be justified, an increase from about 34% in 2014.
Of the 18 countries in the report, support for a military coup was highest in Jamaica, at 65%, even though the country has never seen such an event in its post-independence history and was ranked as one of the strongest democracies. The report also shows that 58% of Jamaicans would support a military coup when corruption is high, compared to the group average of 37%.
Writing in the Sunday Gleaner on Jan. 17, Professor Trevor Munroe, head of Jamaica’s anti-corruption watchdog, National Integrity Action, said the LAPOP survey and other recent studies reflect that democracy in the region and throughout the world is in crisis.
Growing numbers “have the ‘crazy idea’ that only military authoritarian and undemocratic solutions can deal with crime and corruption,” he wrote.
Once an avowed communist captivated by the Cuban Revolution and moved by the fight for people’s rights, the Oxford University-trained professor, who has abandoned that ideology, may still understand how some groups could view democracy as not working in their interests.
He suggests several steps to mitigate against what he dubbed the “populist virus”, or resentment among ordinary people that democratic institutions and their leaders only serve the elite few:-
Reviewing and reforming the rules to rectify outcomes that produce inequity and unfairness.
Building public-awareness to detect, expose and resist words and deeds, particularly of political leaders hostile to constitutional democratic principles of transparency and accountability.
“Donation distancing”. Big political contributors should be alert when they see early signs of authoritarianism.
Reinforcing integrity and ethical conduct and instituting training for accountability arms of government, law-enforcement officials, media owners and managers. These are the front line officials to mitigate against the “populist virus,” he wrote.
But Ardian Shajkovci, Director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute based in Marlborough, Mass. told 18º North that an even bigger problem for democracies than populist or autocratic regimes is misinformation and disinformation.
“Democracies can’t survive in an environment of distrust of information, whereas autocratic regimes can.”
Dr. Shajkovci, who has conducted research on terrorism and violent extremism in Syria, Iraq, Kenya, the Balkans and Western Europe, says that it’s not just right-wing extremist groups that should concern democracies, but also “wider intellectual fluxes” like politicians who aren’t careful with their rhetoric online and serve to fan violent extremism.
While he supports social media networks removing explicit incitement of violence, he says that they, along with government, must also support activities aimed at media literacy and understanding of how disinformation, misinformation, and persuasive forms of propaganda work online.
He says traditional media must also do a better job of staying away from selective bias and work towards offering competing narratives and being more objective. This would allow for more input from the “complex marketplace of thoughts and ideas.”
Today, as the world is set to witness the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the new U.S. president and vice president, 25,000 National Guard troops are in Washington, D.C. to stave off any threat from more violence.
The Biden and Harris team will inherit a Covid-19 pandemic that’s killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S., an economic crisis, and a deeply-divided America with issues ranging from immigration, white supremacy, and police violence perpetrated on blacks.
Against this backdrop, the former Trinidadian ambassador Charles urges “vigilance”… vigilance not just on security but also on safeguarding democracy in the U.S., Caribbean and worldwide.
Related: Comparing the U.S. and Trinidadian Insurrections
Subscribe today and take advantage of our limited-time 30-Day Free Trial offer: