'Trump is tearing apart America': how the world sees the US protests

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires, Lily Kuo in Beijing, Jason Burke in Johannesburg,Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro, Sam Jones in Madrid, and Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The images of troops facing off against protesters on US city streets has brought back bad memories for Ana María Careaga.

The Argentinian psychoanalyst was 16 and pregnant when she was kidnapped in mid-1977 by the military dictatorship. Careaga was tortured but survived. Her mother, Esther de Careaga, a close friend of Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit who would later become Pope Francis, was herself kidnapped and murdered by the regime.

The relentlessly rising death toll from police violence and the instinctive resort to military force by a demagogic US president fills her with alarm.

“What’s happening is very dangerous in a way similar to the dictatorships we had to endure in South America,” Careaga, who is co-director of the Instituto Espacio Memoria dedicated to the memory of victims, warned.

“Trump is shielding himself behind religious symbols while trying to seduce people to vote for him in the name of freedom, when it is precisely their freedom that leaders like him plan to abolish.”

Miriam Lewin is one of only around 150 survivors of the ESMA death camp, where some 5,000 people were murdered over the seven years of the dictatorship.

Related: 'I’m getting shot': attacks on journalists surge in US protests

“I think Americans are not aware, or don’t have the experience, to realise what it means for the military to be out on the streets in charge of domestic security,” Lewin said. “In Latin America, unfortunately, we do have a lot of experience with how that can lead to an authoritarian regime irrespective of the fact that Trump was democratically elected.”

The events of the past week in America have had reverberations around the world. For years, part of the daily work of the US state department was to issue denunciations of police brutality, suppression of dissent, and instability in far-flung corners of the globe.

In recent days it has been the other way round. Friendly nations have expressed concern, less friendly governments have revelled in Washington’s discomfort.

A child holds a placard as demonstrators gather near the White House during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In South Africa, where there have also been sporadic demonstrations, the ruling African National Congress party called for calm in the US.

“We are convinced that America – a beacon of freedom for many worldwide – has the ability to directly focus on healing and peace and achieve an outcome that prioritises respect for and promotion of fundamental freedoms for all Americans,” Naledi Pandor, the country’s international relations minister, said.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation was less restrained, arguing that systemic violence towards black Americans could justify a violent response.

“When communities are confronted by both resilient structural violence and attacks on their bodies, violent responses will occur,” the foundation said in a statement.

Among those most delighted about the scenes being played out in US cities are governments with the worst human rights records, which have been the most criticised over the decades by the US.

China’s communist leadership, which has incarcerated more than a million of the country’s Muslims and brutally suppressed protests in Hong Kong, has portrayed the protests and Trump’s response as symptoms of a deep malaise.

Related: Why are some US police forces equipped like military units?

“Trump is himself the problem. Beneath the surface, Trump is a white supremacist,” wrote Sun Xingjie, deputy director of the Institute of International Relations at Jilin University, in an editorial on Thursday.

Republican senator Tom Cotton’s editorial in the New York Times calling on the president to “send in the troops” was published on the 31st anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when the Chinese military put down pro-democracy protests led by students, killing thousands. It is a day that goes unmarked in mainland China but the parallel is not lost.

“Trump is tearing apart America. He doesn’t need to send the troops. This will hurt the US’s international image,” said a journalist based in Beijing who asked not to be named. “All of this is about the fight for justice, rights and equality. Whether it is Hong Kong or the US, people need to differentiate between violence and the fight for justice.”

“You can see an absolute absence of moral legitimacy in the activities of all great powers, from Putin in Crimea to Trump in Minnesota,” said Liu Yi, editor of international affairs at Sanlian Life Weekly, a magazine.

“When Trump was showing his hypocrisy and arrogance in the Minnesota issue, Chinese nationalists got more legitimacy to say ‘never criticise us again about Hong Kong’.”

While much of the world looks on with varying degrees of anxiety, pity or scorn, it is Latin America where the events to the north have the most immediate repercussions.

Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his followers have been egging on Trump’s crackdown.

Demonstrators hold signs as they walk down Capitol Hill during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“The left has hijacked the anti-racism banner in order to promote political instability against Donald Trump just because he’s a conservative,” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, an avid fan of both Trump and Brazil’s former military dictatorship, tweeted this week.

Many Brazilians fear Bolsonaro – who is facing mounting public anger over Brazil’s political, economic and public health crises – could use Trump’s actions to help justify a crackdown of his own.

Related: 'How did we get here?': Trump has normalised mayhem and the US is paying the price

“Trump’s discourse over the protests in the US is a really significant stimulus for Bolsonaro. In a way I think it strengthens him in the Brazilian conservative arena,” said Luís Francisco Carvalho Filho, a lawyer and former head of Brazil’s Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances.

“For him Trump is an inspiration,” he added.

The George Floyd protests and their consequences has deepened a strain of pessimism among South American progressives.

Writing in the Spanish daily El País, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, a political scientist at Chile’s Diego Portales university and co-author of Populism, a Very Short Introduction, saw ill omens in the news from US cities, where the nationwide protests have overlapped with the crippling effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Trump is using the pandemic to position himself as a God-given saviour coming to avert an imminent catastrophe,” Kaltwasser wrote.

“His re-election, should it happen, will be considered – not least by him – as a clear indication that the time is right to push on with his radical, populist rightwing agenda. If that prediction is right, then Covid-19 will come to be seen as not just the bringer of death and recession in the US, but also as the forerunner that paved the way for the destruction of US democracy.”