Insurrections I’ve Seen (But Never Dreamed Could Happen Here)

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Jubilant protesters invaded the halls of parliament and the opulent homes of ousted dictators throughout Eastern Europe in the tumultuous winter of 1989.

Those insurrections toppled authoritarian regimes from Berlin to Bucharest that had held power for decades by locking up political opponents, turning media into propaganda platforms and ineptly managing economies that left the workers too powerless and poor to object.

In more than 30 years of covering foreign affairs, I witnessed insurrections against tyrants and virulent domestic discord that tore apart countries from Yugoslavia to Venezuela.

Never have I seen an attempted overthrow of a democratically elected government of the type that transpired at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. A violent mob inspired by conspiracy theorists and an unhinged president attacked the hallowed epicenter of American democracy. The coup attempt was not aimed at throwing out a leader abusing his power, it was a putsch waged with the hope of keeping Donald Trump in office by preventing confirmation of Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election.

I watched coverage of the insurrection riveted and sickened by the images of brainwashed white nationalists waving the Stars & Stripes, confederate flags and banners proclaiming allegiance to Trump and Jesus. Their eagerness to confront, vandalize and ransack reminded me of the Romanian Communists’ last-ditch effort to stay in power after Nicolae Ceausescu’s assassination by deploying hordes of miners to terrorize pro-democracy demonstrators with clubs and pickaxes. 

The failed coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in August 1991 also came to mind. Disgruntled Kremlin hardliners who feared their power was being eroded by Gorbachev’s reforms took him hostage at his Crimean dacha and sent tanks into the streets of Moscow. The coup lasted less than three days, thanks to Boris Yeltsin’s rallying of citizens to defy the putschists. Still, with the Soviet Union already teetering from Baltic and Ukrainian republics’ secessions, the 74-year-old Communist federation collapsed by the end of the year.

Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic rose to unchecked power over much of the Yugoslav Federation in the late 1980s by convincing Serbs they were victims of Slovenes, Croats, Albanians and Muslims. It was a campaign of ethnic vilification that fueled a decade of war, division and ultimately disintegration of the federal union.

Trump’s deployment of riled-up supporters to attack the heart of elected government reminded me of late Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, whose virulent campaign of “Chavismo” lured the poor and disenfranchised to attack an oil-rich market economy from within, leading to the authoritarian-ruled basket case that exists today.

I thought I’d seen all manner of corrupt leaders embracing violence to stay in power. I just never thought I’d see it in my own country.

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