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25 June 2012, Gateway House

Paraguay: Back to Latin America’s bad old days?

While the ouster of Paraguay’s president is a setback to the young democracy of the country, it shouldn’t be viewed as a repeat of Latin America’s history of coup d’états. The painful process of democratic maturity will continue, albeit slowly.

Former Distinguished Fellow, India-Latin America

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The hasty impeachment of Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo by the Congress on June 22 has brought back memories of the bad old days of Latin American history marked by coup d’états. This is the third overthrow of a democratically-elected president in the New Latin America, which had started its confident march on the path of democracy, seeking a new destiny in the twenty-first century.

The previous cases were the ouster of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002 and Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The difference in the case of Paraguay was the absence of two critical ingredients of a classic Latin American coup: military and the Big Brother from the north, the U.S. This one was a constitutional coup staged by an overwhelming majority of the elected representatives of both houses of the Congress. The lower house voted 76-1 and the senate 36-4.

The impeachment, however, is not surprising. It was being plotted from the very first day of Lugo’s assumption of office in 2008, after his historic victory over the mighty right-wing Colorado party which had ruled the country continuously in the previous sixty-one years. What was surprising was that the Colorado oligarchs had allowed Lugo, a leftist Bishop of the Poor, a political outsider and new comer, to win in the 2008 elections. Their overconfidence and underestimation of Lugo, coupled with the division within the party leadership, did them in.

The Colorado party is not just a political party. It is the strongest institution in Paraguay with a total stranglehold over the political and economic power system. Even the civil servants and diplomats are members of the party. The Colorados were therefore determined to recover power by any means and wanted to nip in the bud the unprecedented expectations raised among the poor people of Paraguay by the leftist Lugo, who promised to reform the system. Using their majority in the Congress to block his proposals, they didn’t let Lugo implement any of his progressive policies; they paralysed his administration by internal sabotaging with their loyal bureaucrats. Lugo simply did not have the political skills or a solid political party to deal with the ruthless Colorado machinery. In addition, his own Vice President Federico Franco – sworn in as President only a day after the coup – has been conspiring with the party to topple Lugo. Franco is the leader of the liberal party, the second largest after Colorados. He seems to have made a deal with the Colorados, who have let him become president for one year, up until the next elections set for April 2013, when they expect him to cede power.

The real military coup attempt was in 1996, when the Army Chief General Lino Oviedo threatened to overthrow the civilian government. The foreign ministers of the other three Mercosur countries – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay – flew to Asuncion immediately and told him that if he took over, they would expel Paraguay from Mercosur, which accounts for three-fourths of Paraguay’s trade. The General backed down. This time, UNASUR, the union of the twelve South American countries, sent a group of foreign ministers to Asuncion but the Paraguayan Senate paid no heed and passed the impeachment resolution quickly. All the countries of the region have condemned the ouster of Lugo. Argentina and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors. Besides non-recognition of the new President, there is threat of isolation and expulsion from the regional groups. Paraguay has already been suspended from the bi-annual Mercosur summit to be held in Argentina this week.

The chances of restoration of Lugo to the presidency do not seem to be bright. First, Lugo himself has given up, saying that he would abide by the decision of the Congress, and promptly vacated his office. Secondly, Lugo has lost his personal moral ground after the recent scandals caused by his admission of affairs with women when he was a bishop and his acceptance of fathering of children with at least two women. Thirdly, he does not have adequate political machinery to bring the masses to the streets and threaten the Congress or the new President. Lastly, the Brazilians, who have the maximum clout in Paraguayan affairs, will not go out of their way to help Lugo. He had annoyed Brazil by forcing them to pay more for the electricity they import from Paraguay and claimed it as one of his major achievements. Brazil will also keep in mind the thousands of Brazilian farmers (who dominate the soya cultivation) settled in Paraguay and whose interests were under threat from the land reform proposals of Lugo. Brazil has taken the position that they would go by Mercosur and Unasur decisions. But Unasur, which is meeting at the summit level on 27 June in Lima, will not go beyond a point to confront the elected Paraguayan Congress which has done the impeachment with an overwhelming majority.

It seems that the new President Franco might ride out the isolation and manage to finish his term, in the same way as the vice president of Honduras did after the coup. The Colorado party is likely to come back to power next year and continue its business as usual, including the continuation of the dubious distinction of keeping Paraguay as the only country which does not have a system of personal income tax. The poor masses of Paraguay will have to wait for the next Messiah.

While the ouster of Lugo is a setback to the young democracy of Paraguay and a disappointment to its masses, it should not be seen as repetition of history for Latin America as such. The region has irreversibly changed its paradigm and is set on the foundation of democracy. What happened in Paraguay is a damage to the super structure and a bump in the road. It is part of the painful process of the democratic maturity in some countries of the region.

The ouster has significance for India as well: President Lugo visited New Delhi last month and met the Indian Prime Minister and the President. During my meeting with him before the visit, Lugo expressed his admiration for Indian democracy and wanted to learn from India’s example.  It is a pity that he did not get time to put into practice whatever he had learnt.

R. Viswanathan was Indian ambassador to Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina from October 2007 to May 2012 and is now retired. 

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