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Paraguay: chronicle of a foretold coup

Demonstration at the Public Television station of Asuncion, Paraguay, 24 June 2012. EPA/Andres Cristaldo

The coup that last week ousted democratically elected Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo has shown once again that democracy in Latin America remains vulnerable to the actions of right wing forces.

It was not a military coup, not the kind Latin America is accustomed to. No tanks stormed government house and there was no five star general wearing a tricoloured presidential band declaring himself el presidente.

What happened in Paraguay last week was a “political coup.” It was a hasty act that ended in less than 24 hours – from the indictment to final removal – of the left-wing government of Fernando Lugo, the former Roman Catholic Archbishop democratically elected in 2008.

A foregone conclusion

If you go by WikiLeaks, Lugo’s removal reads like the chronicle of a foretold coup. According to cables from the US embassy in Paraguay leaked by WikiLeaks, the coup has been on the table since 2009.

According to the cables the leader of the extreme right wing Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Éticos (UNACE, National Union of Ethical Citizens) disgraced General Lino Oviedo, and the former president, the Partido Colorado’s Nicanor Duarte Frutos began plotting the end of Lugo shortly after he took over.

According to WikiLeaks, their objective was to profit from Lugo’s political slips – which have been a few - to impeach him, appoint Federico Franco and force a general election within 90 days. Now, whether Lugo’s overthrow last week was the culmination of the 2009 plot made public by WikiLeaks remains nebulous.

Peasant roots

What is clear though is that the ousting of Lugo was the culmination of a political crisis originating in the incident last June 15 in Curuguaty, a district in the north of the country, when six police and 11 peasants died after a confrontation.

The peasants had spent several weeks occupying the estate of Morombí, owned by Blass N. Riquelme, a wealthy landowner linked to the right wing Partido Colorado (the Red Party). This is the party that became the political apparatus of the 1954–1989 military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. It is also the party that for more than 61 years – until Lugo came to power – reigned unchallenged in Paraguay.

The incident in Curuguaty – whose dark corners have given ground to speculation of orchestration – sealed the political future of Lugo. He lost the support of his coalition-ruling partner, the Liberal Party that along with the Partido Colorado pushed for his impeachment.

Undue process

The motion to end Lugo’s presidency was overwhelming - 39 votes for the impeachment and four against. Liberal Party’s Federico Franco who, until last week, was Lugos’ political ally and vice-president was appointed the new president. In the Paraguayan pro-democracy social media, Franco has been called “the first world leader elected by 39 votes.”

And while this parliamentary impeachment is contemplated in the country’s 1992 constitution, its irregularities have brought wide condemnation across Latin America. The Organization of American States (OEA) described it as “summary proceedings.” Latin American Human Rights Commission called it a “highly questionable political trial” and said Lugo’s removal from office had “damaged Paraguay’s state of law”.

Lugo was give only two hours to prepare his appeal. No wonder that the whole affair has been described as “legal but not legitimate.”

Lugo’s failed reforms

When Francisco Lugo came to power four years ago, he carried with him huge expectations that he could resolve the serious social and economic problems of Paraguay, a country of nearly 7 million, one of the poorest in Latin America. Lugo disappointed many. It is true that some modest social policy progress was made; but he failed to deliver the promises he made to his political base - the urban and rural poor.

Fernando Lugo. EPA/Andres Cristaldo

The agrarian reform he promised – to end the land monopoly orchestrated by the former dictator Alfredo Stroessner - didn’t go anywhere, while the demands from the popular sector fell on deaf ears. During the past four years, the popular social movement lost ground while the right became the beneficiary of Lugo’s many concessions. Even his nemesis, the Partido Colorado benefitted from his incongruous political decisions, including the hand over of the Ministry of Agriculture to neoliberal exponents and the appointment - after the incident in Curuguaty – of Rubén Candia from the Partido Colorado to the Ministry of Interior.

In reality Lugo never threatened the financial and political interests of Paraguay’s oligarchy. It would be a mistake to say the coup was intended to end a progressive left wing government – as was the case in 1970s Chile under Salvador Allende. Let’s be clear, Lugo’s government was never in that league.

The aim of the coup – just nine months before Lugo’s departure from power – was to strip the Paraguayan left of any political capital that could threaten the Partido Colorado from regaining power. The objective was to politically behead - well before the next election scheduled for April 2013 - the Frente Guazú, the political front that succeeded in bringing together the scattered Paraguayan left and put Lugo into power.

A new kind of coup

The coup in Paraguay has once again shown the profoundly anti-democratic nature of Latin America’s conservative political elite. Deprived from power in the past few years – after decades of collusion with the military regimes that ruled most of the region – these conservative forces are coming back with their arsenal of undemocratic methods and utter disregard for the people’s sovereignty.

The coup in Paraguay - led by one of the most reactionary, right wing movements in Latin America - has also exposed the serious institutional fragility of this region’s democracies. Authoritarian enclaves - left in place by the military dictatorships - have beset the transition to democracy in most Latin American countries.

These are post-dictatorship democracies constitutionally and structurally hand-tied to the former military regimes. In Chile, the former dictator General Pinochet used to boast that he left power with all atado y bien atado (tied up and well tied). This also seems to be case in Paraguay.

The final aspect that emerges from the Paraguayan crisis is that perhaps we are witnessing a “new kind of coup.” This new kind of coup – like the one against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 – is more sophisticated and dressed up in some sort of legality. But it is essentially a coup - a conspiracy of the political elite that will resort to any measures to stop any leader who might have links to progressive social movements in the region.

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