Democracy challenged, democracy prevailed

Democracy challenged, democracy prevailed

Paul Golding

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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US National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman nearly upstaged the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States of America. Her delivery was poised and confident, and the content was superb and captured the essence of one perspective of the social situation in the USA. Overall, a tour de force.

Kamala Harris made history being the first woman and the first black woman with Asian heritage to be sworn in as vice-president of the USA. A very proud moment.

US President Joe Biden's approximately 24-minute speech captured the theme of the inauguration — unity. He acknowledged the deep and real divisions in the country — which are not new — rooted in white supremacy, racism and lies — lies for power and lies for profit. He cajoled the populace to stop the shouting, lower the temperature, reset, and respect. One of his most poignant comments, which illustrated the depth of the division, was his hope for the end of the “uncivil war” in the country he now leads. This comment had me reflecting on the Jamaican uncivil war in the 1980s.

The 1980 General Election in Jamaica was one of the stages for the real-life theatre of the ideological and geopolitical cold war between the Western bloc, led by the US and its allies, versus the Eastern bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The ruling People's National Party (PNP), led by Prime Minister Michael Manley, was allied with the USSR via Cuba, espousing democratic socialism, and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), led by Edward Seaga, was allied with the US and espousing a free market economy.

This was our fifth post-Independence election and, based on 2018 Statistical Institute of Jamaica data, only about 36 per cent of our current population was alive during this period. That election was, and is, Jamaica's bloodiest ever, with 800 murders committed. We graduated from using machetes and knives to AK-47s and M16s. Using lyrics from Bob Marley's song of the same name, there was “burning and looting”. There was the Eventide Home fire in which 153 old women were burnt to death, and roadblocks and barricades were common in both PNP and JLP zones. Manley was labelled as Judas for selling out to the communists, and there were graffiti with Seaga's name spelt as CIAGA to indicate his close ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US.

Supermarket shelves were empty, there was rationing of certain imported consumer goods and cars — some of us will remember the Lada — foreign exchange was scarce, there were frequent electrical outages, and the moneyed class was selling their belongings and fleeing in droves to the US. There was tremendous tension, there were nightly curfews, and you would not dare wear green or orange in public unless you wanted to be beaten by those whose party colour you were not wearing. It felt like we were in a civil war. It is important that we don't forget this period in our history as we watch other countries, like Uganda and the US, go through their own political and election tensions.

In the US there is significant tension following the siege on the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. The inauguration took place under unprecedented tight security as there were warnings of possible armed protests. There were background checks on all 25,000 national guardsmen. This tension is an indication of the fragility of the democratic system that Biden referred to in his speech.

President Donald Trump engaged in a perversion of the US electoral system which has resulted in a regression of the democratic process. Trump operated like a dictator in a democracy. One of the ways that dictators maintain power is in their refusal to accept defeat and concede power to their opponents. According to Omotola in the discussion paper 'Unconstitutional changes of Government in Africa', “…incumbents deliberately engineer post-election violence that will help them remain in power at any cost…” Using Biden's words, democracy was challenged, and democracy prevailed.

Donald Trump now shares some inauspicious company. The parallels between Trump and those that I will mention may not be exact, but the similarities in intent and essence between them are the same. His contemporaries include President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, whose position was, as Mike Pompeo said in 2020, the result on an election that was fraudulent; Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Lauren Gbagbo of Côte d'Ivoire, who both attempted to subvert election results; and, the one that will resonate with us in the region, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, on whom the US applied every foreign policy ploy and left no stone unturned to remove, claiming, ironically, that these leaders were corrupting democratic elections — pot cussing the kettle? It is noteworthy that Venezuela's current socio-economic situation is similar to Jamaica's in the late 1970s leading up to the 1980 election.

This attempt at an unconstitutional change of Government in the USA was tacitly aided and abetted by both Republicans in the House and the Senate, who refused to openly congratulate Biden on his trouncing of their candidate, and who also remained silent on his baseless claim of voter fraud. This was a colossal act of cowardice and dereliction of leadership borne out of their fear of Trump and his 74-million plus garrison. Significantly, former US Attorney General Bill Barr decided to fall on his sword and leave with a modicum of honour by declaring that the “Department of Justice has not found any election fraud”.

White evangelical Christians, as opposed to black evangelicals — there is racism in Christianity — aided and abetted Trump. Many white evangelicals view Donald Trump as their saviour. Before Trump, white evangelicals believed that personal morals were a reflection on professional behaviour. However, with the advent of the Trump era, this view conveniently changed. Now evangelicals believe that you can create a firewall between your personal and professional morals.

Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, writing in a January 11 opinion piece in The New York Times, explained, “[T]he most extreme corners of support for Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America. Rather than completely separate strands of support, these groups have become increasingly blended together.”

Lindsay French, 40, an evangelical Christian from Texas, flew to Washington to participate in the attempted coup after she had received what she called a “burning bush” sign from God following her pastor's urging congregants to “stop the steal”.

There is a view that a Biden presidency will destroy the US, restrict gun ownership, kill the unborn, and usher in socialism and communism. These views are not only held by some white evangelical church leaders, but also by some in the media. This is what I think Biden was referencing when he spoke of “lies for power and lies for profit”.

For many years the US and its allies have preached to others of the need to hold free and fair elections and that their results should be respected. Does this attempted coup disqualify the USA as a global arbiter of democracy? I don't think so. The incident was a humbling one. The USA is not used to humility. However, the response so far by Congress has been unequivocal; they have impeached the instigator-in-chief and arrested a number of the perpetrators.

Trump's most lasting legacy may be his unsuccessful coup, but his more indelible mark will be his gross mismanagement of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has left over 400,000 dead, and counting.

Biden's aspirational inauguration theme of 'America United' is likely to ring hollow as he tries to broker common ground between the extreme right and the extreme left. It is not hard to create divisions in a society, whether it be black versus white, orange versus green, Shiite versus Sunni, North Vietnamese versus South Vietnamese, or Tutsis versus Hutus. The differences are there. For peace to reign we need to find common ground and learn to live with each other in peace. Therefore, Jamaica should not forget or repeat 1980, when we had our own uncivil war. We should always strive to become “Out of many, one people.”

We wish Joe Biden all the best, and we hope for a more united US and a more perfect union. In the end, God's will will be done.

Professor Paul Golding is former dean of the College of Business and Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or pgolding@utech.edu.jm.


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