The Coup, or Just Another Way to Change Government

Posted on September 4, 2016


I had to chuckle while reading about the aborted military coup in Turkey a few weeks ago. We seem to be surprised, mystified, shocked, and altogether puzzled by a people who attempted to remove their executive—the President in this case–and replace him with a general. Actually, some political commentators here in the U. S. were astute, and bold, enough to say what was on their mind: removing this pro-Islamic president might benefit U. S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Probably the most famous coup in Western history was when the tyrannical Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the floor of the Roman Senate.

“Et tu Brutus?” Caesar was heard to exclaim, “You too Brutus?” as he went down under the knives.

I chuckled not because I’m in favor of coups, but because I have been in and out of Latin America all my life, and coups were/are (depends upon your politics) an honorable way of getting rid of the old and bringing in the new.

And lest you get on your high horse of democratic transitions as the only legitimate way of changing governments, let me remind you that the U.S. itself has often provoked coups abroad to better the scene for U. S. policies over the past two centuries.

A coup is short for coup d’etat, French for, literally, a blow to the state. In Spanish it is a golpe de estado. And in English, it is–you guessed it–simply a coup. We don’t have a word for a coup so we just borrowed it from the French.

That we don’t have word for a coup is probably due to our long Anglo-Saxon/English tradition of the rule of law which we inherited from our English forbearers and incorporated into our political traditions and laws.

Coups, especially military coups like the recent failed one in Turkey, have marked transitions in political power not only in places like Turkey, but also all across Latin America in the past two centuries.

Seizing power by force, and rewriting constitutions, occurred so often in some countries, like Bolivia, in the nineteenth century that government resembled a revolving door, with a constant change of characters and constitutions to keep everyone entertained.

There is even a pecking order of governments being changed by force. Revolutions, like the Mexican of 1910 and the Cuban of 1959 denote big changes in the basic structures and ideologies of government. Revolts are failed attempts at revolution. And coups, or golpes in Latin America, were considered until the very recent past a quasi-legitimate way to exchange one government for another.

Hugo Chavez, who turned Venezuela to a strident socialism, first came to prominence through an aborted coup, and from that stage was elected later on. That he was an army officer is not unusual.

In fact, the army, or the armed forces in general, but usually the army, often felt it had a constitutional or other mandate to intervene in politics if it felt the true spirit of the nation’s character or mission was being thwarted by those in power.

Coups could be of the Left or the Right. The socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was thrown out by a coup on September 11, 1973, led by right wing Army officers. In Peru, just a few years earlier, a military coup in 1968 brought a leftist military government to power.

That we have only had a coup in movies, such as Seven Days in May (1964), is testimony to our long standing tradition of civilian control of government, and the transition of power through the ballot box, not by bayonets and tanks.

The big problem with a coup is legitimacy. Power can certainly come out of a gun barrel—the coup—but is it legitimate? Most political philosophers, both the deep ones and the pundits, agree that the answer is no. True political power, the legitimate kind, lies with the people.

An old Roman proverb spoke to this: Quod omnes tangit debet ab omnibus approbari  or “What touches all must be approved by all.”

That eventually evolved into the notion of “popular sovereignty” or sovereignty lies not in age old monarchies, or empires, or generals who came to power in a coup, but with the people, in free elections. No fair if you are Fidel or Raul Castro and hold an election in which you win 99% of the vote.

Just the fact that tyrants and dictators—of the Left or Right—feel compelled to hold elections, no matter how rigged or fraudulent, confirms the legitimacy of the ballot box.

Even if I have to hold my nose when I go to vote next November—where is Ralph Nader when I need him? —I’ll vote because I’d rather have my say in government than abdicate my responsibility. We’ve come this far without a coup, but we did start out in a Revolution.

Published as “Coups Have a Long History as a Shortcut to Power,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, August 21, 2016.



Posted in: History, Politics