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Captive democracy

Candidates from all over the world — Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil, Maduro in Venezuela — seek to reach or stay in power for one main reason: it is the only way to avoid ending up in jail

Donald Trump, Nicolás Maduro y Jair Bolsonaro
Donald Trump, Nicolás Maduro, and Jair Bolsonaro.Getty Images
Juan Gabriel Vásquez

We are the captives of their mistakes, their dishonesties, their indiscretions, large or small. I have had this thought frequently in recent months, while candidates around the world, and also incumbent leaders, make decisions with the sole criterion of saving themselves from things they did before. Trump may have many reasons for running for election for a second non-consecutive term, which is a rarity in U.S. history, and one of them may be his excessive narcissism; but the most important one right now is so simple that it is moving, and it also portrays the postmodern populist leader in full: Trump wants to be president because being president is the only way not to end up in jail. That is what the most influential democracy on this continent has been reduced to: its position of greatest dignity and nobility has been reduced to the card in the board game that allows the player to get out of jail.

I see it everywhere: with different nuances and different intensity, the same thing is happening in Venezuela, in Brazil, in Nicaragua. In Venezuela, a corrupt regime that violates human rights every day has to stay in power at all costs, because Maduro and his kleptomaniacs know that some form of justice will await them with its mouth open as soon as they lose an election, and that is the best incentive not to lose any, even if it is through cheating, intimidation and persecution. What is happening in Nicaragua is even more obscene, if possible, but basically it is the same: what really prevents the ridiculous couple in power from getting off their tiger is the certainty that the tiger would devour them immediately, as Churchill said happens to dictators, if only because of the damage they have done while in power: the suffering they have caused, the lives they have destroyed in front of the blind gaze of their accomplices (and in front of the conniving nonsense of a certain Colombian ambassador who marched in favor of Ortega).

The same thing is happening in Brazil: the reason why the attempted coup d’état in Brasilia took place, inspired in such diverse — and even caricaturesque — ways by the January 6 riots at the Capitol in Washington, may have gone deeper than Bolsonaro’s profound antipathy for democracy when the left has won. What Bolsonaro has done since then, whether it be his massive marches (with the invaluable support of evangelical superstition and collective blindness) or the implausible proposal that his wife should run for president, has one main intention: guaranteeing his impunity. Guaranteeing, in other words, that he will never be tried. Tried for what? For the coup attempt in Brasilia. Like Trump, Bolsonaro wants to be president so as not to be imprisoned. Of course, he also wants to be president to assure his accomplices that they won’t go to jail either. And with good reason: because it was one of his closest accomplices, Lieutenant Mauro Cid, who got fed up with his four months in jail and decided to speak out. And what he said is what has got Bolsonaro in a tight spot, summarized in 135 pages of a serious, credible and dangerous judicial accusation. Dangerous for Bolsonaro, of course.

Power for what? [The 20th-century Colombian political figure] Darío Echandía famously asked this question after Jorge Eliécer Gaitán’s murder. Bolsonaro or Trump would answer: for impunity. The problem is what societies pay when they become hostages to the guilt of their leaders: they pay first for the excesses of those leaders, and then they pay for what the leaders must do to avoid the consequences of their excesses. This is how we Colombians were for years. Much of the politics of recent years has been done or not done with a single horizon in mind: protecting Álvaro Uribe. And this is how we have all seen ourselves, hostages to the destiny of one man, choosing prosecutors and approving laws and sabotaging peace processes that could have changed the lives of millions, all with the sole purpose that a former president should not have to deal with justice. “If anyone had laid a finger on Uribe this country would have gone up in flames,” Francisco Santos obscenely said in 2014. We have been in this situation for 10 years. And we are still there: “If they touch Petro, they touch us all,” said Gustavo Bolívar with his teenage gang rhetoric.

And that is worrying because President Gustavo Petro makes mistakes frequently, and he has already shown us his way of moving the chips to cover up his own mistakes. The appointment of Benedetti to a position that did not exist is so transparent in its purpose, and so downright cynical, that it is not necessary to comment on it again, at least not to say what so many have already said. It is the same old story: our democracy, our taxes, our diplomacy, the stability that we have not known for years: everything is put at the service of covering the gaps left by error, dishonesty, small or large slip-ups. And as it is now, so it will be later. I am already beginning to make a list of the mistakes that Bukele and Milei will make due to clumsiness or incompetence or drunken power, and that will later lead them to new excesses designed to cover up or correct or protect them from the previous ones. We are captive to all that, I’ve been thinking these days, or our democracy is, and I can’t see how we can free ourselves.

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