A Coup in Paraguay: Who Won What?

Commentary No. 333, July 15, 2012

On June 22, 2012, the Paraguayan Senate invoked a clause in the constitution which authorized it to impeach the president for “poor performance in his duties.” The President was Fernando Lugo, who had been elected some three years earlier and whose term was about to end in April 2013. Under the rules, Lugo was limited to a single term of office.

The “poor performance” invoked by the Senate was the fact that on June 17, there was a clash between poor agricultural workers seeking land rights and the police seeking to evict them from land they had occupied, in which 17 persons (workers and police) lost their lives. The Senate launched its process on June 21, offering Lugo two hours for a defense (which he refused as grossly inadequate). The Senate voted the next day to depose him.

His Vice-President, Federico Franco, is of a different party than Lugo. Franco however had run in 2008 on a ticket with Lugo in order to defeat the Colorado party which had been in office for over sixty years. Once in office, Franco consistently opposed Lugo’s policies. The Paraguayan constitution provided that, in case of destitution of the president, the vice-president automatically assumed the office. The coup made Franco president.

Lugo charged that this was a coup, and if not technically illegal, certainly illegitimate. Almost every Latin American government agreed with this analysis, denouncing the destitution, and cutting relations in various ways with Paraguay. What led to this coup? What did those who arranged it hope to gain? Who supported them? And what are the actual consequences – for Paraguay, for Latin America, for the world?

Paraguay had long been one of the worst dictatorships in the Americas, run by and for a small landowning class organized as the Colorado party, with miserable conditions for the peasantry, most of whom were indigenous peoples. The exiling in 1989 of the Colorado dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, loosened the political constraints somewhat. The main opposition party, the Liberals (the party of Franco), represented more urban elites, but had equally little sympathy for the peasantry. The elections in 2008 promised to be the first ones that were relatively open.

It was at this point that the Bishop of San Pedro, Fernando Lugo, entered the political scene. Long known as the “bishop of the poor,” Lugo was associated with liberation theology, and out of favor with the other bishops and with the Vatican. He ran on a platform of better land distribution. Since both the Paraguayan constitution and the Vatican did not permit a cleric to run for political office, Lugo resigned his office and sought “laicization.” Although the Vatican refused this, he ran anyway and the Vatican laicized him after the election.

Lugo received only a plurality of the votes in what was a three-way election, but the Colorado party conceded the election peacefully. Lugo was the first left politician ever to win an election in Paraguay (except for a short victory of someone in 1936, who was evicted within a year). Lugo’s election was part of the wave of victories for left parties in the Americas in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It was a symbol of hope for Paraguay.

However, he had won only by a plurality, and his party had very little strength in the legislature, especially in the Senate. The almost inevitable result was that Lugo was able to do very little of what he had promised. There was no land reform. Lugo had promised to end the role of U.S. forces in their so-called anti-drug program. Instead, he continued it. He made no move to close the U.S. military base in Paraguay. Given this disappointing performance, why did his opponents bother to remove him nine months before the end of his term?

Indeed the removal of Lugo had the negative consequence for those who made the coup of making possible the one thing the Paraguayan Senate had been blocking for years. Paraguay is a member of the common market Mercosur, along with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia. Venezuela had applied to join. This required ratification by the legislatures of all five member states. All had long since given their assent except the Paraguayan Senate. After the coup, Mercosur suspended Paraguay, and immediately welcomed Venezuela as a member.

So, who gained something in Paraguay from the coup? In terms of government policies, it has made no real difference. What the local elites showed was their muscle, perhaps hoping thereby to intimidate not only the Paraguayan left, such as it is, but to send a message to other countries, especially Bolivia. The Paraguayan bishops and the Vatican had their revenge on an advocate of liberation theology, even if a weak one.

And the United States? The United States already had what it wanted in Paraguay. To be sure, with Franco they were guaranteed to continue to have it. The post-coup statements of Hillary Clinton were scarcely condemnatory. Indeed, the United States blocked any real reprimand of the coup in the Organization of American States. But Paraguay’s links with the U.S. military will now come under renewed debate and pressure in Latin America. So it is not clear that this was a real gain for the United States.

One way one can interpret the coup is to see it as a skirmish in the battle between the United States and Brazil for geopolitical hegemony in South America. The initial moves of Brazil – suspension of Paraguay not only from Mercosur but from the larger Union of South American States (UNASUR) – are not exactly what the United States wants.

There are however ambiguities in Brazil’s position. The plantations in Paraguay against which the peasants are struggling include a significant number that are owned by Brasiguayos (Brazilians and Uruguayans), and Brazil consequently does not want to cut all economic links with Paraguay. In addition, Paraguay is an important source of hydropower for Brazil.

What will happen now? The key actor is precisely Brazil. It cannot afford to be dealt a blow that will be interpreted throughout South America as strengthening the position of the United States. But Brazil’s political interests as an “emerging” power – the creation of a strong South American bloc led by Brazil – have to be balanced by Brazil’s economic interests in that same South America. To know what will now happen in Paraguay, one should keep one’s eye on Brazil.