The Inconvenience of Democracy: Pre-emptive Coups

The attempt to reverse a democratic election in a classic quiet coup in America has now turned ugly and noisy. On the very same day as Joe Biden condemned the coup, he nominated Victoria Nuland as under secretary of state for political affairs: the same Victoria Nuland who clumsily revealed in a captured call that then vice president Joe Biden would be willing to "midwife" the Ukrainian coup.

This is the generation of the quiet coups. The coups that cloak themselves in the guise of democracy. Coups that use, not bullets, but democracy to undermine democracy. These coups either disguise themselves as the legal and constitutional workings of a country’s democratic bodies, or they disguise the minority that silently lost in the voting booth as an amplified mass democratic movement in the street.

These are the silent coups that destroyed democracy and crippled countries from Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras and Paraguay to Egypt, Ukraine and, perhaps, recently, Peru.

But there are coups that are quieter still. Coups that can’t wait for a government to come to power before they take them out. Whereas quiet coups removed elected leaders, the new generation of quieter coups prevents them from getting elected. In this new generation of quiet coups, legitimately elected leaders are removed by making the election appear illegitimate. This most recent stage in the evolution of the silent coup disguises the coup as democracy by disguising it as the defense of fair, democratic elections.

This sleight of hand that creates the illusion that legitimate elections are illegitimate first sidelined the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and replaced him with the disguised as democratically elected Juan Guaidó. The US bellowed that the elections were illegitimate over the more dignified voices of the multiple groups of international observers who certified the election as fair.

Evo Morales of Bolivia would be removed in the same way. A legitimate election would be metamorphosized by state department magicians and their assistants at the US funded Organization of American States into an illegitimate election, and a coup was made to look like the restoration of democracy.

But there are coups that are even quieter still. These coups are so impatient that they don’t wait for the election to happen. These quietest of coups prevent the election.

In recent years, this doctrine of the preemptive coup has taken two forms. In the first, the desire is to stop the undesirable incumbent from getting re-elected. Since you can’t stop the election, you stop the opposition from competing, eliminating the election choice if not the election and delegitimizing the election you couldn’t eliminate. Delegitimizing the election thereby delegitimizes the person elected.

This first form of the preemptive coup was tried in Venezuela. In the most recent Venezuelan presidential election, the opposition boycotted. There was an agreement in place for an election, but then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instructed the opposition not to sign. Why would the US not want the opposition to oppose the leader they wanted to lose? Because he wasn’t going to lose. And they couldn’t stop the election. So, they made his election look illegitimate. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College, and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, told me in a personal correspondence that the radical opposition boycotted the election "in order to claim that Maduro lacked legitimacy.”

And it wasn’t just the radical opposition. If you convince the entire opposition to boycott the election, you create an uncontested election that can be presented to the world as no election at all. Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot has reported that "the leading opposition contender for Venezuela’s May presidential election, Henri Falcón, was told by US officials that the Trump administration would consider financial sanctions against him if he entered the presidential race." When Falcón not only refused to boycott but reached out to other opposition leaders to side step the boycott and join his campaign, Todd Robinson, the top US diplomat in Venezuela, "met with Falcon" to try "to persuade him to withdraw as his challenge was undermining US efforts to isolate Maduro."

A similar effort was made in the recent election for Venezuela’s National Assembly.

In the second form of the preemptive coup, if the polls clearly show the president you want to eliminate is going to overwhelmingly win re-election, and you can’t prevent or delegitimize the election, prevent him from running. This second form of the preemptive coup was famously deployed against Brazil’s Lula de Silva and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

This preemptive coup strategy may also have been used to keep Ecuador’s Rafael Correa from returning to power. Correa says that criminal charges and political rulings were fabricated to prevent his running for president or vice president.

Less famously, this preemptive strategy may have succeeded in the Guatemalan election of right wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei. Several candidates opposing him were barred from running mid-campaign. The throwing out of Thelma Aldana, who fought government corruption as the attorney general, was "widely considered politically motivated," according to reporting by The Washington Post.

The doctrine of the preemptive coup has a proven history. It is actually more of a reincarnation than an evolution. In Vietnam, the election of Ho Chi Minh was prevented by preventing an election.

In 1953, the war of independence in Vietnam had reached its climax, and, exhausted by years of war, France was finally ready to relinquish her colonial grip on the country. So, 1954 found the willingness for negotiation. France pulled out, and Vietnam was temporarily divided into two halves, two "regroupment zones": the communists would get the northern half. The division was meant to be temporary. It was to be ended in two years when, in July of 1956, a nationwide election would be held, the country would pick one leader, and the north and south would be reunited.

But the promised reunification of Vietnam presented a problem for the US. The communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was by far the most popular leader in Vietnam. A free election would see the people of Vietnam choosing a communist government. Ngo Dinh Diem, the US appointed leader of South Vietnam, knew this. Eisenhower knew it too. A CIA National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Diem "almost certainly would not be able to defeat the communists in country-wide elections." Eisenhower said that "possibly eighty percent of the population" would vote for Ho Chi Minh. So, determined to avoid a Vietnam unified under a communist government, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the CIA set out to destroy the negotiated agreement and make the temporary division permanent, preserving half of Vietnam at least as a noncommunist haven. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles then encouraged Diem not to hold the promised unifying election. To avoid a communist government winning election, and to prevent communism in South Vietnam, Eisenhower treacherously canceled an election.

But even that was not the first deployment of the preemptive coup that prevents an election. The earliest and clearest feeling out of the doctrine may have been articulated by then vice president Richard Nixon who was, according to Vincent Bevins in The Jakarta Method, giving "voice to the general feeling in Washington" when he said that ‘a democratic government was [probably] not the best kind for Indonesia’ because ‘the Communists could probably not be beaten in election campaigns….’"

The US had long ago concluded that Indonesia’s President Sukarno, an important international leader of the third world non-aligned movement, had to go. But they had failed to eliminate him. Instead, they transformed to a closer partnership with the anti-Communist Indonesian army.

This transformation was part of what Bevins calls "a growing consensus within the United States that the military should be given more power and influence in the Third World, even if it meant undermining democracy." Democracy could lead to progressive or left wing governments. Democracy would lead to nationalism that would allow the people of a Third World nation to benefit from their own natural resources instead of being subjugated as suppliers to the First World. Democracy was inconvenient.

At this very time, this transformation of the US relationship with militaries of Third World countries was becoming a doctrine in the Kennedy administration. Noam Chomsky has explained that in 1962, Kennedy made the policy decision to transform the militaries of Latin America from defending against external forces to “internal security” or, as Chomsky puts it, “war against the domestic population, if they raised their heads.” This is precisely what occurred in Indonesia.

And so, the silent, preemptive coup. In 1958, British intelligence in nearby Singapore concluded that, if an election were to be allowed to be held, the communist party would win. And so, the anti-Communist Indonesian military, now America’s partner, compelled the cancellation of the upcoming 1959 election, according to Howard Jones, who was the US ambassador to Indonesia at the time.

Though not a coup, a similar preemptive solution to the inconvenience of democracy was carried out by the British in the same region at around the same time. The problem this time was Malaysia. When Britain loosened its grip on colonialism and created the new country of Malaysia, democracy created a problem for them. Democracy could mean communism. The British feared that a majority ethnic Chinese Malaysia would vote communist. Much of the Malaysian population was sympathetic to the left: especially in Singapore. So, according to Bevin, the British sliced off Singapore and glued the top half of Borneo to Malaysia. That solved the inconvenient problem of democracy.

So, the quiet coups have gotten quieter and quieter. They began as coups that disguised themselves as democracy to remove elected government. Then they became quieter still. The new more quiet coup doesn’t remove elected leaders, it prevents them from being elected by making their election appear illegitimate. And then, they became more quiet still. The pre-emptive coup does not remove an elected leader nor delegitimize the election. It simply, efficiently and quietly prevents the election.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.