Last Friday [22 June 2012], in a surprisingly fast sequence of events, Paraguay’s Senate voted to remove President Fernando Lugo from power, pushing the country into the most serious political crisis for a decade. While Mr. Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, initially accepted the results of a hurriedly prearranged impeachment, he described the events as an “express coup d’état”. The impeachment, as well as the events leading up to it, underscore the class politics and enormous democratic challenges that Paraguay still struggles with after a lengthy 35-year dictatorship (1954-1989) and six decades of one-party rule by the Colorado Party.
The “express coup d’état” was initiated when the House of Representatives of the Paraguayan Congress decided on June 21 to start an impeachment process against President Lugo. Within 24 hours, the Senate managed to assemble its members, read the accusations and put Lugo on trial. The Senate also passed a resolution that same day which established that President Lugo was to present his defence the following day, for two hours. Senators dismissed Lugo’s request for more time to prepare his legal defence and, after an impeachment trial that lasted less than five hours, a majority of the Senate voted in favour of his removal from office (39 votes in favour, 4 against and 2 members absent). After the decision, Vice President Federico Franco, a close ally of Lugo and a member of the Liberal Party, decided to partner with its historical opponent, the Colorado Party, in order to oust Lugo. With the same rapidity with which the vote was carried out, Franco was sworn in as the country’s new leader that same day.
Congress’s actions have sparked an intense debate across the region. The ouster has been described by political leaders in the region in different ways, all of them critical: Cristina Fernandez, the Argentinian President, called the Lugo’s removal a political coup, Cuba and Ecuador dubbed it a “parliamentary coup d’etat”, Chile said that “[Paraguay] did not comply with the minimum standards of due process”, while Colombia stated it was an abuse of legal procedures. Actions have also been taken. The South American leading trade block, Mercosur, has decided to suspend Paraguay’s participation from the next presidential summit to be held in Argentina this coming Thursday. Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela have withdrawn their ambassadors from the country, while Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Mexico have recalled theirs for consultation. Hugo Chavez has also said that he will halt oil exports to Paraguay, while the Organization of American States (OAS) and Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) are calling for urgent sessions to discuss the matter.
The ousting of Lugo follows a controversial incident which took place on June 15 in the Paraguayan town of Curuguaty when six police officers and 11 campesinos or landless peasant farmers were killed. The victims were part of a group of 150 campesinos who had taken over a property belonging to former Colorado senator and close ally to the former dictator Stroessner.
Both sides blamed the other for the violence. Colorado politicians claimed that the police were ambushed and that, in reality, the campesinos were armed and trained by leftist groups close to Lugo. The campesinos, in their turn, made the counter claim that they were actually attacked by the police. This confrontation is the latest in a series of clashes between the police and campesinos, illustrating Paraguay’s long struggle over land and its shocking record on land inequality. The worst moments occurred during Stroessners’s dictatorship when land was allocated as patronage, allowing Colorado cronies to amass a large number of properties. Indeed, the cronyism was so extensive that, according to the National Federation of Campesinos (FNC), today 80% of Paraguay’s arable land is held by 1% of the population. Another factor enflaming the tensions among campesinos is the commodity boom. As the world’s fourth largest soya bean exporter, big farmers have greatly benefited but small peasant farmers have had little or no access to the wealth pouring into the country.
Lugo, who headed a coalition government, was elected in 2008, ending six decades of Colorado Party rule. He campaigned for the needs of the poor and promised to give to almost 87,000 landless families. Yet, to the intense disappointment of the left, he has failed to deliver the land reform he promised. At the same time, while once in office he tried to present himself as a moderate, traditional parties remained suspicious of him, fearing that behind his rhetoric he remained a radical leftist. This has caused profound divisions in the coalition.
His presidency has been tainted by a paternity scandal and he has admitted that he fathered two children while he was a bishop. Other serious criticisms have also been made against him, mainly by the Colorado Party that controls the Congress, including allegations that he attempted to politicise the military and to exclude Congress from the negotiation of international treaties.
Political and regional implications
The implications of the political crisis are still unclear. After accepting the impeachment, Lugo made a surprising appearance on Saturday night on the state-funded public television channel denouncing the events as a “parliamentary coup against democracy and citizenship.” On Sunday he stepped up his rhetoric, setting up an alternative government and promising to undermine the newly appointed Paraguayan leaders at the upcoming regional summit of the Mercosur. Later on Sunday night, his former Chief of Staff, Miguel Angel Lopez Perito, called for a “resistance movement” and announced that Lugo would be holding a meeting of his old cabinet on Monday morning.
The crisis has left the Paraguayan public extremely divided. Lugo supporters claim the Senate’s decision was a parliamentary coup while his opponents claim that in no way has the constitution been breached. While a large segment of Paraguayans disagree with Lugo’s politics and actions, they also dislike the way the impeachment was conducted. The Paraguayan constitution provides Congress with the power to conduct an impeachment, but it does not lay down the rules of the procedures to be followed during an impeachment process.
Doubts have also been cast as to whether President Lugo had done anything that was an impeachable offence and others have described the accusations as “weak, unfounded and with no real or legal evidence was presented”. A political activist in Paraguay has described the process as “legal but illegitimate”, and the Inter-American Commission has also looked into the legality of the proceedings by questioning:
“the speed with which the impeachment of the constitutional and democratically elected President was conducted. Considering that it was a process for the removal of a Head of State, it is highly questionable that this could be done within 24 hours while still respecting the due process guarantees necessary for an impartial trial.”
On the other hand, representatives from the private sector have said that the process could be defined as “something right that has been done in a terribly wrong way”, noting that Lugo had already lost support of most of Congress prior to the impeachment. Probably the most accurate description of the current state of affairs in Paraguay is the one used by Christopher Sabbatini, Senior Policy Director at the Council of the Americas, who said that the impeachment was “the use of democratic institutions for anti-democratic means.”
The way the international community decides to view the situation will have profound implications for the future of Paraguay. There are still major outstanding questions on what will happen to the country in the context of the region. Will the country remain a member of Mercosur, UNASUR and the OAS? Will Argentina and Brazil, the countries with the most political and economic leverage over Paraguay, cut diplomatic relations with the country? While President Dilma Rousseff initially condemned the coup, reports from Brasilia suggested that she might be weakening her stance, following the arrival of two large delegations of Brazilian soya farmers with large plantations in Paraguay, who asking for the new government to be recognised. While Washington expressed concern at the speed of the impeachment, it has refused, as yet, to criticise the new government.
Will countries from the region impose sanctions? And if so, what will that mean in terms of isolation for Paraguay, a landlocked country that depends on its neighbours for transportation, imports and exports, and also the poorest country in the region. And if all of this does happen, how does Paraguay regain its democratic status?
The final decision will probably lie in the hands of Brazil, the country’s main trading partner and the largest economy in the region. Brazil’s stance will carry the most weight, but it will most likely seek consensus with Mercosur and other South American nations so that it is not seen to act unilaterally.
While using the word coup might not be the most accurate description of events, what remains clear is that the process was an obvious affront to the rule of law, an abuse of legal procedures from Congress, and a setback for democracy in South America.
Franco, who in his inaugural speech promised to give priority to the most pressing social issues, such as poverty and land reform, has a difficult task ahead. With only nine months remaining in power, he will need to send strong and clear signals in order to further prevent social unrest. Under the current scenario, the Colorado Party will probably emerge triumphant. With the current deep division within the Liberal Party, which united behind Lugo in the 2008 elections, the Colorados will have a huge advantage in the elections of April 2013.
The truth is that with or without Lugo, the campesino struggle will continue and another social upheaval will remain likely until the underlying land tenure issue is resolved. Comprehensive land reform is the only way to prevent future political turmoil but, as Paraguayans are well aware, this is a daunting task that few politicians will be willing to undertake.