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Paraguay: Coup or no Coup?

23 Jul

Forty years ago, coup d’etats happened all too often in Latin America. Now, with Honduras’ coup d’etat in 2009 and Paraguay’s recent removal of the President it appears that Latin American democracies are not as stable as hoped. Latin America’s ‘soft’ democracies are proving to be too vulnerable. Paraguay’s recent hasteful impeachment of President Lugo raises concerns of a new kind of coup on the rise. Not a coup with troops and tanks, but a ‘constitutional coup’.

President Fernando Lugo was voted into office in 2008. His presidency brought an end to the six decade ruling of Paraguay’s right-wing Colorado party. Lugo promised land reform and threw his support behind the country’s landless peasants. However, the Paraguayan congress is controlled by Lugo’s opposition, the Colorado party, who made it nearly impossible for Lugo to get anything passed. Today, 2% of Paraguay’s population owns 80% of all arable land.

On June 22nd, Paraguay’s Colorado party controlled congress voted 39-4 to impeach Lugo, accusing him of encouraging land seizures. In April, sixty campesinos occupied land owned by a former Colorado party senator. By June security forces arrived to evict the campesinos from the land. The confrontation that followed left 11 campesinos and six police officers dead. The Colorado party saw this as an opportunity to move against Lugo, they blamed him for the violence that took place and moved forward with impeachment.

Lugo’s impeachment trial lasted less than 24 hours. His request for more time in order to mount adequate defense was denied. Lugo was only given two hours to defend himself. The next day, he was removed from office and Vice-President Federico Franco assumed presidency. Franco, of the Liberal Party, has been a fierce critic of Lugo. Lugo chose him as vice president in order to get the Liberal Party’s votes, however in Franco he did not find an ally.

While the rush of the impeachment trial is highly questionable, Paraguay’s legislature insists it was legal. Regardless, Lugo’s ouster has turned into a political crisis for Paraguay. Mercosur and Unasur trade blocs have suspended Paraguay from participation. Several Latin American leaders have declared it a coup d’etat. Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela and Chile have all pulled their ambassadors from the country. Venezuela has even halted all shipments to Paraguay. On Monday, the European Parliament began a fact-finding mission in Paraguay to investigate the legality of the impeachment. The Organization of American States is against suspending Paraguay saying that doing so would create more problems for the country.

While some are blaming the oligarchic Colorado party, some are raising the question about the United States’ involvement in the political shake-up. While there is not evidence proving the US’ involvement, it was no secret that Washington was not pleased with Lugo. Before Lugo’s presidency, the Colorado government cooperated with Washington’s ‘New Horizon’ program which deployed marines to the country. It is thought that while the ‘New Horizon’ program was publicized as health work its real intention was for the US to have troop presence in Paraguay, which is geographically close to many socially left Latin American countries. However, when Lugo assumed the presidency he cut off US troop presence and deployment in Paraguay, which obviously upset the US. Lugo stated that he wanted to maintain good Paraguay-US relations, but it was no secret that Washington political elites remained bitter. The last couple decades Latin American politics have seen a shift. As the most recent Summit of the Americas proved US has lost much of its influence in the region it once dominated. Also, several Latin American governments have moved left, hurting US corporate interests in the region. The election of Lugo was yet another step in this direction and his ending of the ‘New Horizon’ program proved it.

US transnational companies have already benefited from Lugo’s removal. Within a week of the impeachment US Crescent Global Oil, whose contract had been terminated under Lugo’s administration, met with Franco and announced plans to invest 10 million in new oil exploration. Additionally, US-based soy companies will benefit from Lugo’s impeachment since Lugo’s ban on GMO crops has since been repealed. It would not be ludicrous to think that the US had involvement in Lugo’s removal. In the 1950s Guatemala’s president decided to give land not being used by the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita Banana, to landless peasants. United Fruit Company called up its contacts in Washington and a coup d’etat was soon staged, triggering a 36 year civil war.

In April, Paraguay will hold elections. The best hope for the country is that the elections are fair, transparent and that they restore democratic order to the country. Whether or not what happened in Paraguay is a coup d’etat or not, it was unjust. President Fernando Lugo was not given a chance to defend himself, his verdict had been decided before the trial started. This is just further proof that Latin American democracies are still weak and vulnerable.