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Why it’s so misleading to call the Capitol violence ‘Third World’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/16/2021 Shariana Ferrer-Núñez, Melody Fonseca, Fernando Tormos-Aponte
a group of people standing in front of a building: An angry mob of supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. (Reuters/Leah Millis) © Leah Millis/Reuters An angry mob of supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. (Reuters/Leah Millis)

On the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, observers described the events as something of the “Third World” or “banana republics.” CNN host Jake Tapper said: “I feel like I’m talking to a correspondent reporting from Bogotá.” Two days later, President-elect Joe Biden said: “This reminded me more of states I’ve visited in the over hundred countries I’ve gone to in third [world] tinhorn dictatorships.”

Depicting the attack on the Capitol in this way has three problems. First, it implies that there is no historical precedent of political violence within the United States — and that attacks on government institutions only take place outside of the United States.

Second, it invokes an image of the Global South as chaotic, undemocratic and violent, which neglects the history of violent U.S. interventions in the Global South.

Third, the storming of the Capitol was not a thing of the “Third World” but, in many ways, another instance in a long-standing tradition of homegrown white supremacist violence.

The “Third World” emerged as a political project among nations, political parties and social movements from Latin America, Asia and Africa. These groups sought to distance themselves from the powers engaged in the Cold War and amass support for their struggle against neocolonialism and the concentration of wealth in the Global North.

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The real history of ‘Third World’ and ‘banana republic’

The “Third World” project was associated with the rise of policies that aimed to achieve economic development. Its proponents promoted the idea that countries of the Global South could develop themselves instead of being developed by the Global North. Yet by the 1970s, the Third World as a political project had experienced a decline, as these countries struggled to find alternatives to capitalist development and to upend internal hierarchies that privileged dominant classes.

In the United States, the term “Third World” took on a different meaning. It was used in ways that homogenized the Global South and depicted it as chaotic and violent in contrast to the ostensibly orderly and peaceful Global North. Using the term in this way is an exercise of power over those in the Global South; the power of producing widely held beliefs about which regions and societies are, by nature, unable to govern themselves, and thus, must be governed.

The term “banana republic” was used to describe Latin American countries from which the United States imported fruit. These unequal trade relationships were made possible through U.S.-installed military dictatorships, which perpetuated inequality and undermined local aspirations to build democratic institutions and more egalitarian societies. Ironically, the term is now used in the United States to describe anti-democratic acts emerging domestically that have been part of U.S. foreign policy.

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Both “Third World” and “banana republic” are now used to reinforce the image of a civilized, modern, White and violence-free “first world.” These terms also suggest that violence, much of which was perpetrated by the United States and other countries within Africa, Latin America and Asia, is somehow endemic to these regions. Using these terms to describe the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is just part of the U.S. history of externalizing that which is perceived as undesirable.

Paradoxically, it was the United States’ own colonialist policy toward the “Third World” that led to the last major violence within the Capitol: In 1954, four Puerto Ricans entered the chamber of the U.S. House and shot and injured five congressmen in their bid to demand independence for Puerto Rico.

The domestic roots of the attack on the Capitol

Portraying the Capitol attack as “Third World” also obscures its real roots. Conspirators involved in this attack traveled to the Capitol from within the United States, at the invitation of their president, who asked for their support in his unlawful bid to retain power.

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White supremacists played a prominent role in mobilizing supporters to go to Washington. Of course, these people are not motivated by some “Third World” ideology. These organizations emerged in response to perceived racial threats against white supremacy and seek to protect white identity and interests. In many ways, the attack was another instance of the long-standing tradition of white nationalist violence in aims of preserving their dominance.

These organizations continue to find support within the U.S., including among some leaders within the Republican Party. Most prominently, it was President Trump who lent white supremacist groups a sense of legitimacy, prompting the formation of new groups, and the revival of dormant networks. Trump’s response to the “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville intensified white nationalist perceptions of having an ally in the White House.

Ironically, Trump has often warned of threats from the “Third World” and “banana republics,” such as immigrant caravans or immigrants from “s***hole” countries. But the white nationalist attack in the Capitol was not a “Third World” import. It was “Made in the USA.”

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Shariana Ferrer-Núñez (@SharianaApesar) is a Black queer decolonial feminist Puerto Rican activist and scholar, and the co-founder of La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a radical grass-roots Black and decolonial feminist organization in Puerto Rico.

Melody Fonseca (@MelodyFonseca2) is an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Department of Political Science and Researcher at the Institute of Caribbean Studies.

Fernando Tormos-Aponte (@fernandotormos) is an assistant professor of public policy and political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, a Union of Concerned Scientists Kendall Fellow, and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University.

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