“The United States is strong and big. / When it shakes there is a deep tremor / through the enormous vertebrae of the Andes.” So writes the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío in “To Roosevelt,” an ode against imperial hubris. The poem was published in 1903, five years after the United States routed Spain, seized both Cuba and Puerto Rico, and, under Theodore Roosevelt, established itself as the behemoth of the Western Hemisphere. It was the early days of an empire. For Latin America, the aftermath of the Spanish-American War made clear once and for all that U.S. influence would become a fact of life.
And it still is. Anything that happens here in the United States still sends tremors down south. Now, however, what people in Latin America fear is not the strength of a rising power to the north, but what appears to be its decline. “Can you believe this is happening in the United States?” is a question friends and family from Latin America have been asking me for more than four years. They learned about what was happening here in translation, from the sober analyses of foreign correspondents, news blasts on CNN International, hard-to-interpret video clips on WhatsApp, or social-media memes. How could the United States, which had always presented itself as the great political stabilizer of Latin America, itself become so unstable? The empire that has guest starred in the histories of so many Central and South American nations, always butting in in the name of democracy, seemed on the brink of destroying its own democracy.
On the day that a mob laid siege to the Capitol, disrupting democratic rule and killing several people in the process, a friend in Paraguay sent me a Twitter meme with words than can be translated as follows: “If the United States saw what the United States is doing in the United States, it would invade the United States to liberate the United States from the tyranny of the United States and bring democracy to the United States.” Picture an American flag emoji after every mention of the United States. Expressing this kind of schadenfreude whenever Uncle Sam is seen to fall short of the national ideal is a popular pastime in Latin America. I have indulged in it myself. But after I moved to the States, the schadenfreude lost its appeal. I would stiffen and become defensive when others joked at Uncle Sam’s expense. Like a lot of immigrants, I became something of a patriot. After all, I moved here; I am invested in this country and its future. The United States has educated me and nurtured me. I love this place. And U.S. influence on Latin America has not always been bad; nor is the United States the only foreign power to have meddled in the affairs of Latin American countries. But the same fear lurks behind both the schadenfreude and my defensiveness: this is really happening! The collapse of an empire would be objectively disturbing not only for anyone living in it, but also for the people living on its periphery.
What I notice now, in the wake of the Capitol riot, are the virtues folded into that smug meme my friend sent me and implicit in the Latin American schadenfreude: humility and resilience. My friend also sent me a picture of the front page of a Paraguayan daily newspaper with the headline “THE REPUBLIC IN FLAMES.” Three years ago in Asunción, a rogue group of legislators seized the parliament, locked the doors, and tried to force an amendment on presidential term limits in the Paraguayan constitution. Protestors reacted to this authoritarian move by storming the parliament and setting it on fire. That was different from what happened in January in Washington D.C. In some ways it was the opposite: the Paraguayan rioters claimed to support the established rules and opposed those who would have changed them. I interpreted this second message from my friend to mean: what the U.S. is suffering, we have suffered before. No one is exempt. Nothing human is alien to me, or to you, or to the United States. All of the things that have happened down south—fascism, coups, tyranny, torture, insane mass movements—can happen in the United States, too.