Diplomatic relations in Latin America were rocked by the ouster of Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo on June 22, after a hasty and controversial impeachment trial by the nation’s Congress.
Governments throughout the region denounced the proceedings as an “institutional coup,” and moved to sever ties with their soy-exporting, deeply impoverished neighbor. Meanwhile, in the capital of Asunción, schools shut down, shops closed their doors, and crowds of angry demonstrators took to the streets to protest the toppling of the first freely elected president in the country’s history.
Lugo is the third democratically-elected Latin American leader to be targeted for régime change in the last three years. A police-led uprising against the president of Ecuador was successfully put down in September 2010. A year earlier, in June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped by soldiers and flown out of the country. As in Paraguay, the Honduran Congress was used to legitimize a puppet government.
A moderate leftist and a former Catholic priest, Lugo had been dragged before Congress on vague charges of “poor performance.” Given 24 hours to prepare a defense, he had just two hours to present his case before the opposition-controlled Senate. The verdict was delivered almost without debate, and the man known as “the Bishop of the Poor” was told to clean out his office — replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, a member of the far-Right opposition.
In their defense, the congressional architects of Lugo’s downfall cited Article 225 of the Paraguayan Constitution, which lays out an impeachment process. But critics point to the lack of time Lugo was given to defend himself, as well as the lightning-swift verdict, as evidence that due process had been violated.
“The Paraguayan Congress is one of the most corrupt in the hemisphere,” says Mark Weisbrot, director of the D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. Weisbrot calls the president’s swift removal “a coup by the legislators and the people who own them.”
After more than 60 years of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party — including three decades of brutal dictatorship — Paraguayans celebrated when Lugo came to power in 2008, promising tax and land reforms, and to combat poverty. He made modest headway at first, investing in low-income housing and basic medical care for poor families. (Forty percent of Paraguay’s population is impoverished; 11 percent is extremely poor.) But Lugo’s administration soon ran afoul of elites who saw his anti-poverty initiatives as an existential threat to their grip on power.
“They were afraid of the political space [Lugo] was opening up for reform,” Weisbrot says, citing a U.S. State Department cable released by Wikileaks that revealed that a “mostly legal” presidential coup had been in the works for at least three years. “They’ve been trying to get rid of [Lugo] since he was elected.”
Freedom or feudalism
Lugo’s political enemies saw their chance to move against him on June 15, when a clash between police and displaced farmers near the eastern town of Curuguaty resulted in the deaths of 11 farmers and six officers. Another 80 peasants, including children, were wounded. The skirmish occurred when police moved in to evict farmers occupying land they say was stolen from them under the despotic rule of Alfredo Stroessner, the Colorado Party member who ran the country from 1954 to 1989.
Despite the fact that Lugo had ordered the police to evict the peasants, the priest-turned-president was accused by a Colorado-led coalition in Congress of “encouraging” illegal land grabs and was successfully impeached eight days later.
“The land reform issue played a great role in the coup,” says Martin Almada, a Paraguayan lawyer and renowned human rights activist who has worked with Amnesty International and UNESCO. “Under Lugo, for the first time, the campesino [small farmer] groups had a legitimate voice in government,” says Almada. “Now our democracy has been kidnapped.”
Bloody land disputes, driven by competition between large landowners and small-scale subsistence farmers, are nothing new in Paraguay. The land-locked nation is the world’s fourth-leading exporter of soy — much of it goes to biofuels for Europe and Asia— and the cash crop earns annual revenues of about $1.6 billion.
But ever-expanding soy production leaves little room for the country’s population of 250,000 campesinos, who have seen their ancestral lands swallowed up by influential plantation owners like Blas Riquelme, the former Colorado party senator (and outspoken opponent of Lugo) who was gifted the disputed land near Curuguaty under Stroessner’s rule. Just 2 percent of the landholders in this rural nation own about 77 percent of the arable land.
Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of the country’s farmland has been converted to soy production, and the process continues. As a result, 9,000 small-scale farmers lose their land each year. Lugo had promised to change all that.
“The campesinos just want to feed themselves. They desire the dignity that comes with working the land,” says Almada. “Instead we’re forcing an entire generation into the [urban] slums, or to work for slave wages on someone else’s property,” he says. “That’s not freedom — it’s feudalism.”
The fallout from the parliamentary putsch in Paraguay was fast and far-ranging. Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and many other Latin American countries promptly refused to recognize the Franco régime and called home their ambassadors. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Lugo’s removal as “unacceptable” and “likely to affect the rule of law.” Regional trade blocs suspended Paraguay’s membership on charges of a “breach of democracy.”
Meanwhile, Lugo has appealed to the Supreme Court of Paraguay, whose decision is pending. The clock is ticking: Presidents are limited to a single term, and Lugo’s is up in August 2013.
Governments across South America and the European Union, and even the U.S. State Department, have pointed to the upcoming April 2013 elections as a means of normalizing relations with Paraguay. But there are also worries that the abrupt and disputed removal of Lugo might taint voter turnout.
“After seeing that their democratically and fairly elected president can just be thrown out of office like that — with no due process, no voice of the people — ordinary Paraguayans feel disempowered,” says Theresa Cameranesi, who sits on the governing Council of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a group devoted to monitoring U.S. involvement in the region.
Game of pawns
The U.S. State Department, in stark contrast to most of the rest of the hemisphere, refused to condemn the overthrow of Lugo. This drew fire from critics, who argue the Obama administration could have done more to protect democratic processes, or even demanded Lugo’s restoration. In the last four years Paraguay has received more than $121 million from the United States in military and humanitarian aid.
“There was no love lost between Lugo and the State Department,” says Cameranesi, explaining that the aforementioned Wikileaks documents also indicate that the State Department was, at best, ambivalent about Lugo. “They’re willing to accept the undermining of democratic processes,” Cameranesi says, “as long as it’s a benefit to U.S. interests.”
U.S.-based megacorporations like Monsanto and Cargill are heavily invested in the Paraguayan soy crop, and in some cases have partnered with the landowning elite who ousted Lugo.
Cameranesi, a regular leader of SOAW delegations to Paraguay, calls the far-right Franco régime a “more willing partner” for U.S. business concerns. (Cargill, Monsanto and the U.S. State Department all declined to be interviewed for this article.)
However, Weisbrot says the State Department’s willingness to look the other way on Paraguay’s régime change isn’t due solely to the nation’s vast soy fields. Lugo’s leftist leanings made him a natural ally to new powers in South America such as Brazil and Venezuela, which the State Department sees as economic and strategic threats. The Franco régime, by contrast, has already shown willingness to sever relations with U.S. arch-rival Venezuela.
“That is how [the State Department] sees the chessboard: Any little piece you can get,” Weisbrot says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about who has control in Latin America.”