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Rapid-fire Coup: The Fall of Paraguay’s Priest President

By Babur Asad

ASUNCION, Paraguay—How quickly can a nation legally depose its leader and install a new one? In Paraguay last week, President Fernando Lugo was impeached, found guilty, and removed from office—all within 24 hours.

Lugo was the most unlikely of presidents. A Catholic bishop who had served as a missionary to Ecuador in his younger days, Lugo’s election ended 61 years of Colorado Party dominance in Paraguayan politics. Lugo’s left-leaning ideals stood out in a nation with a conservative soul. Though he had no party affiliation himself, opposition parties soon rallied behind him as they saw their one chance to snatch the presidency away from the Colorados. The problem was that, although he got the Colorados out of office, the parties that rallied around him (particularly the conservative Liberal party) never truly pledged their loyalty to Lugo’s government. Having a Liberal vice-president added further complications.

After his election in 2008, Lugo became a force for social reform. He expanded social security, healthcare, and public education. The coalition that got him elected gave him the impetus needed in Congress to pass these reforms. All the while, they waited for his popularity to wane. After all, no Paraguayan president since democracy arrived 20 years ago has been able to maintain popularity in the polls. But Lugo’s ratings remained high—even after multiple paternity claims against him and his own admission of having fathered two children while a man of the cloth. Especially in the interior of the nation, poor peasant farmers saw Lugo as their own—a first in a nation often seen to be ruled by oligarchs.

In May of this year, Lugo once again bucked the traditional party trends when he declined to sign into law a bill that would have allowed the major political parties access to $50 million for the purpose of hiring 9,000 political operatives. This time, Lugo managed to annoy all major parties.

A persistent problem in Paraguay has been the invasion of lands by peasants. In the years Alfredo Stroessner ruled with in iron fist (1954-1989), every farmer was entitled to ten hectares of farmland. After the fall of the caudillo, capitalism replaced populism. In the new free market, peasants found themselves selling their lands in return for a few thousand dollars—money they hoped would allow them to purchase a business. When many of these businesses failed, peasants either moved to the major cities of Asuncion and Ciudad del Este or became landless peasants. Soon the occupation of lands began. Over the last decade, these occupations have hurt foreign and local investment in the countryside.

On June 15, police were dispatched to remove peasants who had established themselves onto lands belonging to Blas N. Riquelme, one of the most powerful Colorado politicians of the post-Stroessner era. A routine intervention turned tragic when peasants fired shots at the police. Within an hour, six officers and eleven peasants were dead. The crisis’ first political casualties were the police chief and the Minister of the Interior, who both resigned. As the week progressed more fingers were pointed, until finally, Colorados and Liberals joined together to place ultimate responsibility upon President Lugo.

On June 21, 76 of the 80 members of the Lower House of the Paraguayan Legislature voted for impeachment. The trial was set for the very next day. Lugo was given only two hours to present his defense, and three hours later the votes were tallied. Thirty-nine of the forty-five Senators found Lugo guilty of five separate charges ranging from negligence and inoperativeness to facilitating the invasion of private lands by landless peasants. An hour later, Vice-President Federico Franco took his vows in front of both chambers of the Legislature.

Paraguay’s neighbors, especially fellow members of Mercosur (the common market of the southern cone of South America), were speedy in their condemnation. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil all called the events a “coup d’état.” Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa called for immediate border closure by all nations adjacent to Paraguay. Bolivia and Venezuela not only recalled their ambassadors but completely shut down their embassies. At this very moment, UNASUR, the union of South American nations, and the OAS (Organization of American States) have delegations in Paraguay investigating the events that led to the removal of President Lugo.

Paraguayans are torn, but mostly about the mishandling of the situation. Television producer and director Gerardo Jara does not support Lugo but says the impeachment violated the ideals of the Constitution and the fundamentals of democracy. “It leaves us looking like a banana republic,” he says. “Right when our products were gaining steam in the world market, we are now seen as an unsafe location to do business with.”

President Federico Franco faces the insurmountable task of building a new foreign policy, considering that most South American nations are refusing to recognize his government. Meanwhile, street protests are being organized around the nation in support of Lugo, while the Public Television Network has been broadcasting an open-microphone day and night, with common citizens coming out in support of the Lugo administration. Lugo himself has stated that the only reason why he stepped down without a fight was to avoid bloodshed and that he will continue to fight for the legitimacy of his presidency. The idea of a parallel government is a latent possibility, as members of Lugo’s former cabinet have hinted at the re-organization of a new cabinet under Lugo. Meanwhile, Mercosur did not allow Paraguay to attend the last Presidential summit, taking advantage of the fact to admit Venezuela as a full member, something that the Paraguayan Legislature had staunchly opposed and blocked for years. With Paraguay out of the way, Hugo Chávez declared that Venezuela joining Mercosur was a “historic occasion for the Venezuelan people.”

On the streets of the capital, Asuncion, and in the rest of the country, a strange sense of calm surrounds everyday tasks, but Paraguayans are unlikely to sit by idly. Paraguay once took on Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay simultaneously over a century ago, and that fighting spirit lives on today.  

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Raised in Paraguay, Babur Asad is a Michigan-based historian who spends his summers in Paraguay.

[Photo courtesy of Fernando Lugo's photostream]

 

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