Paraguay: Velvet Coup
Ousted President Fernando Lugo in the capital, Asuncion, on June 12. The recent violence over land disputes triggered his impeachment.
The ouster of the Paraguayan President, Fernando Lugo, in a legislative coup in the third week of June came as a surprise. Neither the citizens of the country nor the governments of the region were prepared for such a scenario. President Lugo was all set to demit office next year after the completion of a constitutionally mandated five-year term. During a visit to New Delhi in May this year, he had told this correspondent that he had absolutely no plans of changing the country’s Constitution in order to seek a second term.
The event that triggered the present crisis in the landlocked Latin American country was a clash between landless peasants and the police in mid-June. Seventeen people – six police officers and 11 farmers – died in the incident.
The country’s legislature, comprising the Lower House and the Senate, was quick to pass resolutions impeaching the President on charges of “malfeasance”, including complicity in the killings over the land dispute. The other charges levelled against him included earlier instances of encouragement of squatters to take over big farms and his alleged failure to act decisively against the Paraguayan People’s Army, a small left-wing guerilla group. The impeachment charges against Lugo presented in the legislature included the statement: “The constant confrontation and struggle of social classes, which as a final result brought about the massacre between compatriots, is an unprecedented development in the annals of history from independence till today.”
The impeachment proceedings went ahead despite Lugo describing the loss of lives as “unfortunate”. He had promptly sacked the chief of the police force and the Interior Minister, both of whom were personally close to him. The country’s Supreme Court and also the Superior Court of Electoral Justice ruled that the impeachment did not violate the Constitution. The judgments have ruled out the possibility of the presidency being restored to Lugo.
The bloody violence erupted when the police moved in to force 150 peasants out of a 2,000-hectare farm in a remote reserved forest area called Curuguaty near the border with Brazil. The farm was owned by a prominent politician belonging to the right-wing Colorado Party, which had monopolised power for most of the last century. The peasant organisations in the area claimed that the forest land was illegally acquired during the days the country was under a dictatorship. They had demanded that the land be redistributed among needy peasant families who tilled the land.
Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled with an iron hand for 35 years, routinely parcelled out land to senior military officials, civilian supporters and foreign corporations. Peasants were forcibly evicted from the land they had occupied for generations.
The agrarian situation got further complicated with the introduction of soya farming in the eastern part of the country. The soya farming sector is dominated by big Brazilian companies.
This correspondent had asked President Lugo about the criticisms regarding the slow pace of land reforms. He had explained that comprehensive land reforms were impossible as there were too many claimants to the land. Decades of corrupt authoritarian rule had left every single piece of available land with duplicate or triplicate titles of ownership. But from recent events, it is obvious that the landless are getting restive and, in many areas, were taking the law into their own hands and seizing land belonging to the elite. Among Latin American countries, inequality in land distribution is the highest in Paraguay. Two per cent of the population controls over 77 per cent of the land, while small farmers, who constitute 44 per cent of the population, own just 5 per cent of the arable land.
Many left-wing groups felt that President Lugo had given in to pressure from the elite, sacrificing his reforms policy and, instead, focussing on attracting transnational investment in the farming sector. The country has been enjoying spectacular growth rates owing to the worldwide demand for soya. Paraguay is the world’s fifth largest soya producer.
Lugo, who was known as the “Bishop of the Poor” during his days in the Catholic Church, had come to power with the support of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, representing the wealthy landed elite. The party’s aim in supporting Lugo was to defeat its traditional rivals, the Colorado Party. But on assuming the presidency, Lugo gave many of the top jobs to his left-wing supporters. The honeymoon with the Liberals was short-lived, and Lugo was left without a legislative majority from the outset of his presidency. At the fag end of his term, the legislature has chosen to impeach him.
Vice-President Frederico Franco, a right-wing politician belonging to the Liberal Party, was promptly elevated to the presidency. Franco constituted a new Cabinet comprising mainly representatives from the two traditional parties – the Colorado and the Liberals. Paraguay was under the authoritarian rule of the Colorado Party for 62 years. The one-party rule ended only in 1989.
In one of his first pronouncements after becoming President, Franco said that the removal of Lugo had saved the country from becoming a “pro-Chavez satellite”. The right-wing parties in Paraguay were not happy with Lugo’s decision to support Venezuela’s full membership of the regional grouping Mercosur (Common Southern Market). Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who was in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, as part of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation, described Lugo’s removal as a “new type of coup”.
Venezuela has recalled its Ambassador and suspended oil shipments to Paraguay. “For us, the President of Paraguay is still Fernando Lugo. We do not recognise this new government,” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Argentina and Ecuador have all pulled out their envoys after the “coup”. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico are among the countries that have recalled their Ambassadors from Asuncion for consultations.
Brazil, which is Paraguay’s most important neighbour, condemned the “summary impeachment”. It has indicated that sanctions could be implemented, but, so far, it has not broken diplomatic relations, unlike most of Paraguay’s other neighbours. Brazil has a big stake in the Paraguayan economy, including the joint ownership of the Itaipu dam located on the border with the two countries. It is one of the biggest hydroelectric projects in the world.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said that the region “cannot gloss over this legalistic nonsense”. UNASUR has a “democracy clause” in its Constitution. Paraguay could be expelled from the 12-member grouping if it is found guilty of violating this clause. Many leaders of the region are comparing the events in Paraguay to the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago. The Barack Obama administration in the United States had supported the military coup in Honduras. Washington has not yet made its position clear on Paraguay, but it has no love lost for the left-wing leaders of the region. The U.S. had more than doubled the military aid to the Paraguayan military last year ostensibly to combat drug trafficking.
Horacio Cartes, a leading Senator belonging to the Colorado Party and a frontrunner in the presidential election scheduled to be held next year, led the move to impeach Lugo. WikiLeaks published a confidential U.S. State Department memo which described Cartes as the man responsible for “80 per cent of the money laundering in Paraguay” on behalf of the drug traffickers. The U.S. has strong ties with the Colorado Party. Five successive U.S. administrations had supported Stroessner despite his brutal ways because he was an avowed anti-communist.
President Evo Morales of Bolivia said the coup in Paraguay “was gestated by neoliberals in collaboration with local landowners and the empire”, a reference to the U.S. Canada, Germany and Spain have already recognised the new government in Paraguay.
UNASUR and the Organisation of American States (OAS) also had special meetings to discuss the situation in Paraguay. The OAS general secretary, Jose Miguel Insulza, has “voiced” the doubts of the international community over whether the events leading to the dismissal of the Paraguayan President had not violated “universal principles of due process and legitimate law”.
The ousted President is also not taking things lying down. In the last week of June, Lugo announced that he was rallying his supporters domestically and lobbying for support internationally. He has announced the creation of a parallel Cabinet in order to resist what he termed “a parliamentary coup”. His supporters have formed a “national front for the defence of democracy”.
Marches are being held regularly in Asuncion and elsewhere to protest against the impeachment of the President. Paraguay has already been suspended from Mercosur.
The regional grouping had expressed the “most energetic condemnation of the rupture of the democratic order – and for not having respected due process”.