TAMPA — Mario J. Rodriguez has seen democracy under attack before, when criminal organizations and leftist guerillas battled with leaders in his native Colombia.
Rodriguez, 68, who fled the South American nation 22 years ago, is still trying to process the images he saw Wednesday when a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in session.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘It can’t be true,’” Rodriguez said. “You only see this in action movies. But this is real and this is America.”
The riot took Rodriguez back to the 1980s, known in Colombia as the “Decade of Terror” for the internal war waged among the Army, paramilitary forces and drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar.
“It hurts me to remember what happened many years ago, and to live the same thing here is incredible.”
U.S. history may now be divided between the time before the riot and the time afterward, said Rodriguez, an Uber Eats driver who lives in Tampa.
“In politics, you have to know when you lose and when you win,” he said. “The key to democracy is to be tolerant, to listen to the voices of the voters, to follow what the law says. If we ignore it, we will be in trouble.”
The image of unstable Latin American countries, or “banana republics,” was invoked in criticism of the riot by people including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former President George W. Bush. The comparison drew derision from people who live and work in Third World countries.
But there’s no question that U.S. stability took a hit when supporters of one-term President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol, said a Honduran-born Tampa woman who fears more violent attacks.
“All these extremists have criticized us a lot for being immigrants, and now this happens at their hands,” said Lurvin Lizardo, 49, a Honduran community activist. “It’s unbelievable because this country is the leader for many others.”
Before the November election, Lizardo joined a nationwide bus tour called “Road to Justice” to push for extending Temporary Protected Status in the U.S., preventing the deportation of certain immigrants who entered illegally as children.
She joined the chorus of voices criticizing law enforcement for a weak response to the riots.
“If they had been African-American, I think the reaction of the police would have been very different,” Lizardo said. “That’s why I think there are many questions that will remain unanswered. My family and I are outraged.”
Luis Fernandez Sanchez, 51, who lives in Lithia and works as a developer, came with his family to the United States from Peru three decades ago as terrorist groups touched off a political and economic crisis.
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Fernandez, a Trump supporter, was surprised to see a mob invade the U.S. Capitol.
“I’ve been in America for 31 years and I care deeply for the future of this beautiful country,” he said. “I think that this was a planned action. What we witnessed on January sixth has to be examined.”
As an immigrant, Fernandez said, he has a broader perspective on the riot and what’s happening in the country. But his observations include a disproven reference to a broad, left-wing coalition of anti-fascist activists.
“What did I see? Violence by Antifa and radical Trump supporters and patriotism by peaceful Trump followers, too,” he said.
Antonio Montero, 49, of Clearwater, came to the U.S. in 2003 during the early years of the socialist rulers who have helped plunge the once-wealthy nation into chaos.
The damage from the Capitol riot is done, Montero said, and now the United States must work to ensure nothing like it is ever repeated.
“These are riots that happen mostly in countries with dictators like Hugo Chavez, when he was alive, and now with Nicolas Maduro,” he said. “But here, in this country, this should not be happening.”