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Paraguay: The Impeachment of President Fernando Lugo

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In the Epilogue to their new book, The Paraguay Reader, Peter Lambert and Andrew Nickson describe the background to the impeachment of President Lugo.  It shows, they conclude, shows how difficult it is to achieve change in Paraguay.

On June 21, 2012, the Paraguayan Chamber of Deputies voted 76-1 to initiate the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo on the grounds of “poor performance of functions” (mal desempeño de sus funciones). The following day, after the briefest of debates, the Senate voted 39-4 to confirm the decision, thus bringing to a premature end an administration that had initiated the first democratic change of power in the country’s history, promising a “new dawn” based on social and political reform in favor of the poor. Lugo reluctantly resigned, and his vice president, Federico Franco, of the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (plra), who had long disagreed with the president’s reformist policies, was sworn in for the remaining fourteen months of the presidential term of office.

President Fernando LugoLugo had begun his presidency in August 2008 on a strong wave of popular support, promising long-overdue reforms and an end to institutionalized corruption. Indeed, his early approval ratings reached almost 90 percent. However, crucially his policies did not have the support of a majority in Congress: his electoral victory was dependent on an alliance with the center-right plra, many of whose members opposed key elements of his reform program; the Colorado Party, despite losing the 2008 presidential elections, remained the largest political party in terms of seats in both houses of Congress, as well as on departmental and municipal councils; and his reform program (especially land and tax reform) was vehemently opposed by powerful rural lobby groups with strong representation in Congress.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Lugo’s period in office was characterized by political instability, crisis, and conflict with Congress. Despite some significant achievements, most notably in the renegotiation of aspects of the 1973 Itaipú Treaty with Brazil and free access to basic health care, his ambitious reform program failed to materialize. On the three areas identified as his reform priorities—land, taxation, and the judiciary—his administration failed to make any significant progress, as the opposition majority in Congress proved highly adept at blocking or delaying executive initiatives. By 2012 his popularity had plummeted, principally as a result of his inability to implement promised reforms, but also because of his personal behavior (namely paternity scandals, both alleged and proven).

The impeachment process was based on five charges, which were striking for their lack of any reference to serious malpractice. There was no accusation of corruption, theft, abuse of human rights, violation of the constitution, or breach of the presidential code. Instead, the charges were based on five counts of “poor performance,” chief among which was that he had been unable to address growing insecurity. In particular, he was deemed to have been responsible for instigating and facilitating land invasions in the area of Curuguaty, where eleven peasants and six policemen were killed in a shoot-out during a botched police operation on June 15, 2012, to clear landless peasants. The tragedy was the worst single incident of political violence for decades. It occurred on a two thousand–hectare property at Campos Morombí, which had been spuriously obtained during the Stroessner era by a corrupt businessman and former Colorado senator, Blas Riquelme, under the guise of “land reform.” In the immediate aftermath of the killings, Lugo was accused of negligence, ineptitude, and incapacity to act decisively.

The impeachment process itself was widely criticized. Despite official assurances that the process was constitutional, no evidence was presented at the impeachment trial. In fact the formal accusation document even stated that this was not necessary because the facts were “common knowledge.” Lugo was given just twenty-four hours to prepare his defense and less than two hours to present it to Senate. On all of these counts, the process violated Article 17 of the 1992 constitution, which protects the rights of the accused to see the charges, challenge the evidence, and be given the necessary time to prepare an adequate defense. Due process fell by the wayside as Congress rushed through the “express” impeachment.

In many ways, this was a coup waiting to happen. Lugo had already survived various attempts by the Colorado opposition to impeach him on spurious charges, as well as a long-standing campaign by the media to undermine his credibility, including alarmist accusations of seeking to create an “extremist” political movement through alleged links to radical peasant organizations, links to  the Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (epp) guerrilla movement, and even of designs to emulate President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The impeachment therefore involved more than just maneuvering for power in Asunción. The vehemence of opposition to a center-left president whose policies were more social democratic than revolutionary and who actually achieved very little, reflected key fault lines in the democratization process in Paraguay.

The impeachment of Lugo shows that it remains extremely difficult to address Paraguay’s highly unequal system of landownership, which has become increasingly concentrated as a result of the recent rapid expansion of commercial agriculture (especially soybean and cattle ranching). This is partly due to the lobbying of two powerful economic interest groups, both of which exert a strong influence inside Congress: the Rural Association of Paraguay (representing mainly large cattle ranchers) and the Paraguayan Soybean Association (representing fifty thousand brasiguayo commercial farmers who control most of Paraguay’s huge soybean production). However, an equally important factor is that access to power and wealth in Paraguay is synonymous with access to land; almost all members of Congress are also members of Paraguay’s tiny landowning elite, with titles held either directly or in the names of friends and family, and are hence opposed to any reform project that would adversely affect their personal interests. In fact Lugo was even unable to kick-start a land reform project by confiscating and redistributing the so-called tierras malhabidas. These are the eight million hectares of state-owned land, equivalent to one-third of the cultivated area of the country, that were illegally transferred in the form of large tracts (typically two thousand hectares and above) to political cronies, military supporters, and family friends during the Stroessner dictatorship and the subsequent two decades of Colorado rule (and even into Lugo’s own administration), under the cynical guise of “land reform.”

This elite hostility to genuine land reform is matched by their hostility to tax reform, the absence of which helps maintain Paraguay’s extreme income inequality. Although Paraguay is now the world’s fourth largest exporter of soybean, throughout Lugo’s period in office Congress repeatedly opposed a tax on unprocessed cereal exports and maintained the tax on commercial agriculture at derisory levels. But even more significantly, Congress repeatedly postponed legislation to introduce personal income tax, which would affect only the top 5 percent of the population, even though it would be levied at an extremely low rate and with virtually all personal expenses tax-deductible.

The issues of land and taxation in turn reflect deeper problems with democratization in Paraguay. For the past two decades Congress has had extremely low levels of popular legitimacy and citizen trust because it is understandably seen as representing and defending the interests of a tiny economic and political elite. Furthermore, politics is widely seen as highly clientelistic and self-interested, with the major parties constantly maneuvering for political advantage and overwhelmingly motivated by the desire to regain or retain political power (in terms of capture of the state, public posts, and financial resources) rather than any wider concern for the national interest.

As Lugo’s reform efforts floundered, tensions rose in rural areas in the form of land occupations and evictions, as well as demonstrations by both landowners and peasants, and ensuing violence. Alarmed by growing “security issues” in rural areas and Lugo’s plans for reform, Congress decided to act. The impeachment of Lugo sent a clear message that the elite would simply not tolerate a challenge to Paraguay’s exclusionary and corrupt pattern of landownership.

The impeachment itself rapidly became a regional affair with far-reaching consequences. Criticism of the process came from across the political spectrum, from Chile and Colombia to Venezuela and Bolivia. International condemnation of the “parliamentary coup” led to a refusal to recognize the new government, and then international isolation as Paraguay was suspended from both unasur, the South American regional political bloc, and more significantly from mercosur, until presidential elections in 2013. In an unexpected twist, mercosur partners took advantage of Paraguay’s suspension to approve Venezuela’s membership, which had previously been blocked by the Paraguayan Senate.

Within days, regional condemnation produced an extraordinary upsurge of nationalism, as the media, politicians, and elite lobby groups talked of foreign aggression, ignorance, and a lack of respect for the nation’s sovereignty, and even of a “Bolivarian Triple Alliance,” in which Venezuela replaced Great Britain as the perfidious “fourth ally.” The Stroessner-era nationalist discourse of anticommunism, insidious foreign influence, and “legionaries” (fourth columnists) underwent a striking resurgence, drowning out the protests over the impeachment process.

Lugo declared that his impeachment was effectively a coup d’état that fractured the fragile democratic process in Paraguay. This may or may not prove to be true, but it certainly represented a blow to the popular legitimacy of Paraguay’s democratic institutions and processes, and led to widespread international condemnation and regional isolation. Above all, the extraordinary events of June 2012 underlined serious weaknesses in Paraguay’s democracy: the weakness of the rule of law, the limits of political competition, and the commitment of entrenched and conservative political elites in Congress to preserving the country’s grossly unequal distribution of land, income, and wealth.

In 2008 Lugo had been elected on a wave of optimism that political and social change was indeed possible. His impeachment after nearly four years of conflict reflected just how difficult such change continues to be in Paraguay.

* They are the joint editors of a new book, “The Paraguay Reader – History, Culture, Politics”,  published by Duke University Press