Déjà Coup All Over Again

The U.S. is silent as Paraguay follows in the steps of Honduras

Jeremy Kryt August 15, 2012

On July 11, supporters of toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya pay homage to 19-year-old Isis Obed Murillo, who was killed on July 5 when soldiers fired upon demonstrators.(Photo by:Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images )

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.

‘There was no love lost between Lugo and the State Department. They’re willing to accept the undermining of democratic processes as long as it’s a benefit to U.S. interests.’

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.”

Jere­my Kryt is a Chica­go-based journalist.
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