Argument

America’s Uncivil Protests Are Straight Out of Latin America

Donald Trump’s domestic critics are following South America’s successful anti-strongman playbook.

A supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders yells at a Trump supporter at MLK Jr. Park on Aug. 27, 2017 in Berkeley, California. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
A supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders yells at a Trump supporter at MLK Jr. Park on Aug. 27, 2017 in Berkeley, California. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

It appears that the much-discussed issue of the Latin-Americanization of U.S. politics is not limited to characterizations of U.S. President Donald Trump as a caudillo, the demagogic, misogynist, xenophobic, economic nationalist strongman who’s been a mainstay of Latin American politics since the end of the colonial era. The flipside of the caudillo phenomenon is now becoming visible in the uncivil manner in which some Americans, including the self-declared Trump resistance, are responding to the Trump administration’s policies.

A series of recent events suggests that Trump’s opponents are warming up to the escrache, a strategy straight out of the playbook of Latin American activists when confronting the human rights transgressions of their authoritarian regimes. It entails accosting and humiliating public officials outside of their domicile and workplace, or even in the streets and other public spaces if the activists happen to spot their target. The escrache also suggests a form of guerilla performance, given that the activists are hellbent on making a spectacle of themselves by chanting, dancing, and singing to attract attention to their cause. Finally, at least in the historical understanding of the term, an escrache highlights a moral outrage or a great historical injustice.

The earliest manifestation of the escrache in the Trump era happened just after the president’s election, in November 2016, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed at a performance of the Broadway musical Hamilton. But it was this past week when the phenomenon took off in the United States. Before the week was over, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was run out of a restaurant in Washington by hecklers who objected to her role in implementing the Trump administration’s policy of seizing the children of parents illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border — other protesters later showed up at Nielsen’s home in Virginia and played a recording of crying immigrant children being held in government detention centers. Later in the week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, because of her politics, and Stephen Miller, a White House official credited as the architect of Trump’s policy of zero tolerance toward illegal immigration, was yelled at and called a fascist at another restaurant, causing him to leave. The fact that both Nielsen and Miller were trying to eat at Mexican restaurants adds a rich layer of irony to their shaming.

Two central questions are raised by the arrival of the escrache on U.S. shores: Do they work, and are they any good for democracy? Based on the Latin American experience and that of Spain, where escraches became a massive political headache in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the answer to the first question is a resounding yes. The tactic can serve to raise societal awareness about moral wrongs; it can also promote solidarity across a variety of causes. Most important, however, it can lead to a change in policy and even transform politics. The answer to the second question is less clear: The escrache is an unambiguous assault on civility — but it’s also a telling sign that something is already very rotten in the body politic.

Although there is no agreement on the origins of the term escrache — some contend that it originates from the English “scratch,” others from the French écraser or the Italian schiacciare, both of which mean “to crush” — as a political strategy the term is intimately associated with the activism of Argentine human rights organizations, especially HIJOS, or “sons” in Spanish, an acronym for a Spanish phrase meaning “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence.” The group gained prominence in the mid-1990s for shaming public officials at their offices and their homes for their implication, whether directly or indirectly, in the disappearance of thousands of political dissidents during Argentina’s infamous “dirty war.” In particular, the emergence of HIJOS was triggered by the decision by the Carlos Menem administration in the early 1990s to issue a presidential pardon for the main architects of the dirty war.

Since the mid-1990s, escraches have spread to other Latin American countries, including Chile, Brazil, and Peru, and to Spain. In 2013, at the height of the Spanish financial crisis, Spanish politicians were the subject of a sustained escrache campaign by the Mortgage Victims’ Platform. The targets of their activism were politicians unwilling to help homeowners being evicted from their homes due to their inability to keep up with their mortgage payments, even after a rash of suicides by some homeowners. In one notorious instance, some 300 hecklers parked themselves in front of the residence of Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría of the conservative Popular Party (PP), shouting slogans like, “Soraya, who’s paying your mortgage?” and, “Isn’t it nice to be able to keep your home?” Fellow PP politicians denounced the escrache campaign as “pure Nazism,” and the chief of police in Madrid threatened to prosecute the protestors. But the issue fared better in the courts. A provincial court in Madrid determined that despite the inconveniences that escraches put on politicians and their families, “this is a normal form of democratic protest.”

In Argentina, the shaming of public officials by HIJOS, and before them by other human rights organizations such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, eventually led to a landmark decision by Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2007 that overturned the presidential pardon for those involved in the dirty war. This ruling allowed for the return of human rights prosecutions in Argentina. To produce this result, human rights activists capitalized on what social movement theorists call a “political opportunity structure,” or a critical historical juncture that allows social movements to press their case. Such a juncture arrived in Argentina in 1994, with the rewriting of the Argentine Constitution. Human rights activists insisted that the Constitution incorporate the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the revised text. This now precludes presidential pardons whenever crimes against humanity, the most egregious of human rights offenses, are concerned.

In Spain, the escrache was part and parcel of a massive anti-corruption movement, known as the indignados, or “indignant ones,” that in recent years has snarled numerous politicians. The movement claimed its main victim earlier this month, when former PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted from power after a series of devastating corruption indictments. The protests, which were hugely popular with the Spanish public, forced the government to undertake an anti-corruption dragnet to cleanse the political system. Leading the charge were new political parties generated by the anti-corruption movement, such as the populist, left-wing Podemos (“We Can”), and political leaders such as Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, a founding member and former spokesperson for the Mortgage Victims’ Platform. Labeled by the Guardian as “the world’s most radical mayor,” Colau ascended to the Barcelona mayoralty with a pledge that echoed the Zapatistas: to “govern by obeying the people.”

What impact, if any, the trend of humiliating of public officials will have in U.S. politics remains to be seen. There is reason to doubt that it will have the same impact as in Argentina or Spain. For one thing, confronting public officials in their offices, domiciles, or during their private time is generally frowned upon by most Americans. As Margaret Carlson, a columnist for the Daily Beast, pointed out in an essay that labeled Secretary Nielsen the “Cruella De Ville of immigration,” even at the height of the Iraq War Vice President Dick Cheney, who had lied to the American public about the reasons why the United States had gone to war in the first place, “could walk into a restaurant without getting humiliated.”

On the other hand, the success of escraches in Argentina and Spain is owed as much to the ingenuity and skills of the protestors as to a long and dark history of human rights abuses by bloodthirsty authoritarian regimes in those countries. This history grants protestors tremendous resonance and latitude among the public and the culture at large. By contrast, the reluctance of Americans to humiliate public officials speaks to the possibility that the escrache might actually backfire in the United States. Former President Barack Obama’s onetime advisor David Axelrod raised this possibility on Twitter, saying that shaming members of the Trump administration is “a triumph” for Trump’s vision of the United States.

Still, there ought to be a place, in the repertoire of strategies to defend liberal democracy, for shaming and shunning those who implement illiberal policies. This is the point being made by those on the left, such as Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, when defending the right of ordinary Americans to shame their public officials, especially when the policies being implemented are egregiously immoral and when the person atop of the government has so little concern for human rights. After all, the Trump administration’s retreat from the policy on separating immigrant families late last week came only after broad disapproval from the public, condemnation by the media of the policy as cruel and inhumane, and comparisons by historians with some of the ugliest episodes in U.S. history, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. For an administration that hates to lose, this retreat was a rare concession to decency and human rights, and it’s the loudest protesters who deserve the greatest credit.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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