María Isabel Puerta Riera

Biden's two years to undo Trump's damage to democracy

A few days ago, President Joe Biden announced to western allies that America is back while the images of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol were still fresh in our memories. The ambitious damage-control operation that the Biden administration has embarked on has quite a few critical fronts: the COVID-19 pandemic management and vaccine roll-out; the much-needed economic relief bill negotiations; the broad social and racial discontent; and the most pressing of all the institutional challenges the country has been left to deal with: the distrust in American democracy.

The United States is in an extremely uncomfortable—and unusual—position where much of its political authority, historically based on the strength and stability of the American experiment, has been cast in doubt after the Capitol insurrection. The country, with Biden's leadership, must not only work to recover public trust in democratic institutions, but also ease concerns among Western superpowers that the United States can be seen once again as an unfailing ally.

Historically, "democracy promotion," as it's called, had been an essential artifact of the American foreign policy agenda. Efforts around the world have oscillated from financial aid to institutional promotion, from containment to military intervention. The strategy would very much depend on which party was in office, but under Trump, the embrace of autocrats like Putin and Kim Jong-un contrasted with the aggressive rhetoric against Maduro in Venezuela, making it unclear if his administration was more interested in giving the impression of pushing for regime change to secure Venezuelan American votes in South Florida than democracy itself.

The investment in democracy building has been both a commitment to advance democracy development around the world and a preemptive measure against authoritarian regimes. This time around, the country is facing one of the most consequential tests to its own democratic system while the world is watching. How can Biden advocate for democracy overseas while in his own country is under attack?

The United States has to lead by example in breaking the authoritarian expansion started by Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party. The first weeks of the Biden administration have been essentially oriented by the complete undoing of some of Trump's most far-reaching decisions: leaving the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, rescinding the Muslim Ban, among other immigration policies. The message is both a domestic compromise and a foreign policy pledge.

The Biden administration has probably two years to undo most of the damage Trump did to belief in democracy. Past use of democracy promotion had been strengthened by the advocacy for human rights, and the fight against Communism, and later on becoming an instrument in the fight against Islamist terrorism. This time, the assurance given by the Biden administration to support democracy in Venezuela, Myanmar and Belarus is a signal that his mission shouldn't be limited by his own administration's efforts to recover public trust in American democratic institutions.

This administration understands the lack of trust—domestic and foreign—in its democratic institutions and commitment needs messaging supported not just by words but actions. While Biden is still moving forward his main policy decisions, getting his cabinet confirmed, and issuing executive orders to reverse most damaging decisions made by the previous administration, this is not enough to bring relieve among the skeptics. However, it does show Biden's resolve to reestablish democracy at home, signaling the events of January 6 have not completely erased basic democratic principles of American democracy, at least, not among Democrats.

There are serious doubts about the moral and practical authority of the United States as a trusted advocate for democracy building. However, the problem the country is facing, and Biden's first steps seem to be in that direction, is credibility.

The only way for the United States to recover its trustworthiness is by example, at home and abroad. The administration is moving this way by diverting from Trump's failing policies regarding the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the social unrest. At the same time, his foreign policy approach appears to be based in the country's best interest, as well as a reinforcement of democracy worldwide, producing relief among allies, in a strong rebuke to the previous four years of Trump's disengagement.

There are also signs that this administration will enact policies intended to mend America's role in democracy promotion, by sanctioning Russia, Myanmar, and committing to review its strategy toward China. These decisions are in no way incompatible with restoring faith in democratic institutions in the United States. On the contrary, it is reinforcing the need to oppose any attempt to digress from democracy, at home and abroad. It is about setting an example for countering authoritarianism in domestic and foreign spaces.

Today's democracy promotion starts at home. It is the renewal of an outreach that was not always as devoted to democracy as it's pretended to be, but amidst the present challenges, it seems fit to assume its values to restore trust among the American people, and the international community. While it will take time to rebuild faith in democracy, the efforts being made in that direction should not be diminished. History will tell if this experiment faced an insurmountable test, but in the meantime, let's hope this is the groundwork for American democracy's recovery.

The Republican embrace of white Christian nationalism

A functioning democracy needs political parties to connect problems with solutions. In the current state of affairs, American democracy has only one effective democratic party. The other one has been drifting toward illiberalism in a trend that started long before Donald Trump became its leader. The violent insurrection of January 6 confirms its abdication of the values and principles for which it supposedly stands.

A society as diverse as the United States needs all-encompassing representation from its political parties. Yet the former conservative party has become so homogeneous that, today, the white non-college educated population makes up 57 percent of its voters, with 25 percent of white college-educated and 17 percent of non-white voters identifying as Republicans or Republican-leaning.

This demographic shift can be seen in the composition of both parties. The base of the GOP has become increasingly white (82 percent) while the Democratic party has developed into a more diverse constituency, and with that, the policies that the party moves forward. The diversity within the Democratic Party has provoked a backlash in the Republican Party, solidifying its embrace of Christian nationalism.

The argument, from a conservative standpoint, is that American democracy has lost its commitment to uphold what they consider to be the authentic American way of life; that is, a white, religiously-conservative majority has fallen for the conspiracy theories that have given prominent political status to otherwise extremist beliefs. The Republican Party base has backslid as a reaction to the electorate's demographic reshape, and to the GOP base's displacement.

Nonetheless, the Republican Party didn't just suddenly become a white nationalist party. The background for this behavior can be traced back as far as to the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, where efforts to encourage white voters were intended to quash the non-white voter. The Republican Party has been known as the gerrymandering and voter suppression champion for years.

Trump's presence in the White House made white nationalism among Republicans acceptable again, bringing back memories of those who advocated in the past for voter suppression, with his campaign candidly recognizing it as a strategy for winning battleground states. There is no honest way to understand the demise of the Republican Party if Trump is the only one taking the blame. The GOP enabled a man without any political experience, but with a vast history of racism. That should have been enough to break with him. Instead, they not only embraced his rhetoric, but reiterated his discourse, and supported his falsehoods by adopting them as their own.

It wasn't that the Republican Party unexpectedly cut ties with democracy. The complicity with discrediting the electoral system, even though they have all been elected under the same norms and procedures, has to be found in their silence, if not support, considering the blatant effort to overturn the results of a lawfully held election.

In the election's aftermath, Mitch McConnell chose to remain on the sidelines, while Trump falsely announced his electoral victory. He then moved on to block the second impeachment procedure after the January 6 assault on the Capitol, making sure it reached the Senate after Biden's inaugural, paving the way for Trump's second acquittal. McConnell's final act was to blame the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for the failure to convict Trump and hold him accountable for inciting the insurrection, in a whitewashing speech aimed at Republican donors, pretending to take back control of the party.

This behavior is perhaps the peak in the decomposing trajectory of the conservative party in the United States. The Republican Party has seen its de facto majority, via the Electoral College, drop to the point that Georgia was lost, at the presidential as well as the Senate levels, with the threat of Texas turning purple looming large. In response to the concerns among moderate members of the party about its decline, Republican leadership has reacted by doubling down on voter suppression.

The Republican Party's crisis shouldn't be assumed in any way as a hostage situation. This party is not supporting Trump out of fear of his sway over the base. That's naive. The party found in Trump more affinity than they had initially thought. Their mutual disdain for the first African-American president should have given you a clue of the many coincidences and common interests Trump and his party have. They now belong to each other, and it seems unlikely there is a chance for a breakup anytime soon.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was forgiven for his first coup attempt in the name of national unity -- the rest is history

The untold story of the January 6 assault on the United States Capitol is how white supremacists were not out to "stop the steal" of a presidential election in which several of the insurgents didn't even participate. This was a revolt incited by those in power who, although knowing Joe Biden won the election, were certain they could subvert the political order, just like they had been doing for the past four years.

The rise of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States represents an inflection point in the global erosion of democracy, with the United States downgraded to a "flawed democracy" in 2017. Many understood that as a sign that Trump's victory was a symptom, rather than a cause of deterioration. "Here's the main reason for the US downgrade to the category of flawed democracy," wrote political scientists Dinorah Azpuru and Michael Hall that year. "There was a drop in the levels of trust in political parties, elected representatives and governmental institutions."

If American democracy cannot make sure that demagogues, opportunists, or authoritarians are responsible for their behavior, then the American experiment is over.

During Trump's four years, this democracy has seen changes in its traditional behavior, in both domestic and foreign policy agendas. That Trump ran on a nationalist platform didn't fully prepare us for a downward performance that has sent it through a much more critical path. In December, the Center for Systemic Peace released its POLITY scale, with a severe assessment of the current state of US democracy. The index found the US dropped below the "democracy threshold," saying it's now in the ballpark of an "anocracy" (which is part democracy, part dictatorship).

As the trial for incitement of insurrection continues, let's not forget what's at the core of this violent mob revolt. This was never a reaction against a flawed election. Trump and his campaign lost more that 60 cases in courts, with many of them decided by conservative judges appointed by previous Republican administrations, as well as his own. Under overwhelming pressure, state election officials, including those from his own party, certified the results of the 2020 election. Nonetheless, the former president openly called election clerks and state legislatures to overturn certified results.

But this was never about election results. It was evident Joe Biden had won the election. This was about disenfranchising Black voters. Trump knew he had lost the election, and he also knew there was never a case of ballot-stuffing in predominant Black cities. The attempt to disenfranchise 81,283,361 voters (51.3 percent) rarely gets a mention. Instead, Trump and his acolytes insist on the harm done to his 74,222,960 voters (46.8 percent). The Trump campaign strategy was to contest votes in places like Philadelphia, where 44 percent of the population is Black.

If Republicans refuse to stand by the rule of law, in support of a president that had no respect for norms or institutions, they will be planting the seed for the next authoritarian.

This plan was deeply rooted in what political scientist Larry Bartels has called ethnic antagonism, a term that helps explain the behavior of white Americans who fear that a more diverse country is leading to their exclusion, and therefore, democracy is seen as facilitating their supposed marginalization. Bartels says that ethnic antagonism has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy.

This could explain the Republican Party's shift to the far right, with lawmakers refusing to acknowledge the results of the election, and therefore, declining to recognize President Biden, then, as president-elect, pretending Trump had a chance to remain in office. These are the same lawmakers set to vote to acquit former President Trump in his second Senate trial. Nevertheless, as Pippa Norris has suggested, the Republican Party's authoritarian populism is the cause rather than a consequence of the Trump presidency and of this overt attempt to overthrow democracy.

The backsliding of the Republican Party can be seen in the refuge it has provided to a behavior that was once considered to be extremist, but that today represents the mainstream of the former conservative party. The embrace of militias groups that used to be in the fringes were suddenly emboldened by the former president's call to "Liberate Michigan" is just one of the many examples of the democratic decline of the GOP. This is also a stark reminder that there seems to be only one party that actually believes in democracy.

The images of the mob assaulting the Capitol building reminded me of my home country, Venezuela, and the failed coup led by Hugo Chávez on February 4, 1992. His assault on Venezuelan democracy was in no way figurative, people died, some as part of the coup, and others defending our democracy from it. Chavez surrendered, and admitted his responsibility in the plot to overthrow democracy. He was then arrested. Unfortunately, his case was dismissed as a pledge to unify the country, and six years later he ran for office. He won. The rest is history.

Trump needs to be held accountable, regardless of his condition as a former president. If American democracy cannot make sure that demagogues, opportunists, or authoritarians are responsible for their behavior, then the American experiment is over.

In his defense, the former president argues that he should not be tried because he is no longer in office. This is irrelevant, and in no way imperiled by legal constraints, because this is strictly a political matter. The Republican Party is already complicit in the overt violation of human rights his campaign led to disenfranchise millions of Black voters. If they refuse to stand by the rule of law, in support of a president that had no respect for norms or institutions, they will be planting the seed for the next authoritarian, and, you can be sure, it will succeed if Republicans aren't penalized for their effort to overthrow democratic institutions in the United States.

María Isabel Puerta Riera

How Trump became his own worst enemy on his signature issue

Political and economic crisis used to be the main reason migrants left Latin America. But recent changes in migration patterns suggest that something else is going on. It turns out other circumstances (violence, food insecurity) or other combinations of factors (corruption, poverty and climate change) also inspire the decision to leave.

In 2016, more than 66 percent of the population in Honduras lived in poverty. Guatemala occupied fifth place in the top 10 list of poorest economies in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018. Although El Salvador has been suffering from persistently low levels of economic growth, it has shown minor improvement, though violence continues to be one among the main incentives for people to migrate.

The Trump administration's stance on immigration policy was not only anti-immigrant. It was anti-scientific, too.

But in recent years, it has become evident that the impact of climate change on the region is critical to a situation that's forcing families and unaccompanied minors to leave and seek asylum in the United States. These countries have felt the direct consequences of climate change in their agriculture-based economies.

Between droughts and floods, crops are lost, as are the livelihoods of people who have traditionally depended on agriculture or fishing to make a living. Climate change is particularly devastating in countries characterized by poor governance and corruption, where the lack of institutional response throws families into food insecurity.

In addition to the loss of agriculture as a way of life, and the high levels of malnourishment that come with that, violence is another trigger for migration, especially in El Salvador, with one of the highest rates of homicides in the area of the Northern Triangle. Also, among migrants from Honduras, and in less proportion Guatemala, insecurity is among the main reasons to leave. Governments incapable of addressing climate change and violence conspire with powerful gangs and drug trafficking to create conditions by which vulnerable people are pushed out.

In response, multilateral efforts led by the United States and the Inter-American Development Bank, based in Washington, were designed to provide assistance to countries experiencing significant migration. Resources were assigned, not only to control migration, but to improve people's lives. A series of programs targeting climate change, prosperity, economic security and governance were part of a strategy to build conditions needed to minimize effects leading to sustained migration cycles.

These programs, like the Climate, Nature, and Communities of Guatemala, were successful under the Barack Obama administration and offered encouraging outcomes in response to climate change with crop diversification, water conservation and reforestation. But in 2017, the Trump administration canceled them.

Trump's decision in 2019 to cut aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala came as no surprise, but it failed to prevent migrants from coming. Moreover, the lifeline those funds provided to the most vulnerable population in the region left no alternative: leaving the country was their only hope to survive food insecurity and violence.

Trump's fear-mongering of immigrants, whether he was referring to Muslims or Central Americans, reflected a more disturbing feature that unfortunately is shared by many of his followers. Ironically, a base that touts Christianity as a sign of moral superiority supported child separations at the border, banning people for religious beliefs, and cutting aid to prevent those seeking help from reaching the country.

Having made immigration his main campaign promise in 2016, it was clear undocumented immigrants were not the only target. Stephen Miller drastically curbed legal immigration. Asylum seekers were blocked at the border while affirmative asylum cases suffered a significant backlog (up to eight years in some cases!) due to the pressure put on the system by defensive asylum cases. Moreover, the Trump administration radically reduced the number of refugees allowed in the country.

Miller's proposals to reduce legal immigration were so harsh they got no traction even among Republicans. So the administration just went ahead and made it harder to enter. These changes caused backlogs in employment-based visas, altering the procedures that had been in place for years, contributing to the buildup in the vetting of Green Cards as well. However, it didn't stop there. Trump also explored the possibility of revoking citizenship when his administration created a "denaturalization task force" aimed at reviewing granted citizenship. All of this, in other words, was an effort to make legal immigration impossible or it threatened to create a path to second-class citizenship.

Even if we just try to approach it from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, without any suggestion of empathy or solidarity, it would have made sense to continue Obama's assistance program in Central America. If Trump had been determined to prevent a crisis in the asylum system, the decision to cut aid had the opposite effect. Indeed, it triggered a much more significant cycle of migrants heading to the United States.

This is not just a blatant anti-immigrant stance; this is also an anti-scientific perspective. Decisions by the Trump administration to roll back environmental policies are the strongest statement of a shared contempt for climate change awareness. Supporters are merely protecting the interests of wealth tied to the polluting industry creating conditions driving people out of Central America.

Trump judges will stop Biden if Dems don't move on immigration reform now

The last four years have been a complete departure from the melting pot metaphor that has made Americans so proud. Avoiding any reference to the historical background of a nation built upon the displacement of its original population, and the historical social debt from years of slavery and segregation, the Trump administration became a safe haven for anti-immigration sentiment. Although it didn't originate within trumpism, it has been significantly mainstreamed by Donald Trump.

The images of children in cages, with the former president referring to shithole countries, wasn't what we remembered from the leading democracy advocate in the world. Reconciling America's past as the shelter for those in desperate need of a home had never been more implausible. This was a shock for many around the world, but not for those that had been warning about the radicalization of the Republican Party. This is not about conservatism anymore; this is a straightforward embrace of nativism in a time when the greatest fear of the still-majoritarian white population is an inevitable demographic shift.

We are not here to displace Americans, we are here to contribute to a better America, with our knowledge, skills and experience. President Joe Biden has made clear that his administration would not only reverse the immigration policies enacted by the previous president, but also introduce further measures to correct the path the country had taken toward immigration. However, this is going to be a complicated shift. On January 26, a U.S. district judge barred this administration from imposing a 100-day deportation halt President Biden had ordered DHS to apply. This is a sign for Democrats that it would be wise for them to exercise their majority. It should be clear now that there is little hope for a bipartisan commitment to an immigration overhaul while the prospects of narrowing their demands are looming.

This should come as no surprise after the change of heart we have seen in some lawmakers, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, once Trump took office in 2017. The South Carolina senator, once a staunch immigration defender, became an ally to one of the most anti-immigration administrations in recent history, supporting Trump's cruel policies. Quite the contrast from the bipartisan bill he introduced in 2016 with Sen. Dick Durban: Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream of Growing Our Economy, as an effort to protect DACA recipients and DACA-eligible individuals from deportation.

Graham knows immigrants make a significant contribution to the economy. Otherwise, why was he was calling for an immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants back in 2014? President Biden has said Trump's policy record has been detrimental for the economy, emphasizing the impact that "the total annual contribution of foreign-born workers" has on the economy. The U.S. economy benefits from immigrants in a wide range of fields, from agriculture to technology, and there is an increasing need for more college-educated and skilled workers in the near future. In addition to this scenario, there are signs of population growth stagnation, with the lowest levels registered in the last decade since probably 1900.

There is a deep divide between a once-labeled country of immigrants, and a historically dominant population that feels threatened by the increasing diversity that is set to become the majority in the next two decades. These fears go beyond ethnicity. It is also a response to a multicultural environment the majority understands as a displacement not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also cultural identity and political values.

This points to a failure in making the case for immigration beyond economic utilitarianism. The legacy of Trump's immigration policy is the shutdown of the country to people that don't look like the majority. This does not imply that the current immigration system is any easier to deal with for the desired immigrant. Biden's immigration plan addresses the modernization of the system, a debate that should be at the center of the proposed overhaul and is mostly overlooked. If you think the asylum and refugee processes are hard, the other two possibilities are as difficult if not more. And yes, there aren't that many opportunities for immigrating to the United States.

The argument about the supposed economic anxiety, and the claim that immigrants are stealing American jobs, end up discredited by the demands of farmers and tech companies in need of skilled and professional foreign workers, since they cannot find locals willing to take those jobs. In Florida, for the past few years, teacher and staff shortages have created such a critical scenario, that foreigners like me, have been hired to teach middle school English.

We are not here to displace Americans, we are here to contribute to a better America, with our knowledge, skills and experience. The American dream has been one for those born in this land, and for some of us born abroad. It is a sign of hope that Joe Biden understands this country is a much better version when it opens its doors to those who are willing to work hard to make it possible.


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