Paraguay: President’s Forced Exit Wasn’t a Coup, but Still Deserves Scorn

Last week's impeachment and removal of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo may have passed constitutional muster, but the disregard for due process is a reminder that Paraguay hasn't yet arrived in the 21st century

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People demonstrate in front of the Paraguayan state-owned TV channel's headquarters in support of ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in downtown Asuncion on June 24, 2012. Demonstrators have been blocking the street for 24 hours and broadcasting a program against the new government.

If I were a Paraguayan politician, I’d be thanking God right now for Honduras. Last Friday, June 22, Paraguay’s Congress resoundingly impeached, convicted and removed from office President Fernando Lugo for dereliction of duty – and his trial, while technically constitutional, was conducted in a fashion so rushed and summary it would have embarrassed kangaroos. Fortunately for Paraguay, its actions are being measured largely against Latin America’s most recent coup, the June 2009 putsch that ejected then Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, at military gunpoint, after a similar but less legitimate express-lane vote in his nation’s Congress. By that standard, Paraguay likely dodges the golpe (coup) label.

(MORE: Behind the Honduras coup.)

Still, a number of Latin American countries, including Mexico and Brazil, have recalled their ambassadors in Paraguay as they decide whether to recognize Lugo’s Vice President, Federico Franco, as the new President. Mercosur, the South American common market, has suspended Paraguay from its summit in Argentina this week. (The U.S. too says it is “taking stock” of the situation.) José Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS), is traveling to Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, for a fact-finding mission. And while he probably won’t find the makings of a genuine coup – or, for that matter, a compelling reason to disqualify Franco – he’ll certainly encounter a dark, retrograde political system that deserves the international grief it’s getting.

To be fair, Insulza will also find an ousted President, Lugo, who like Zelaya brought much of his own grief on himself. When the lower house of Congress votes 76-1 to impeach you, and the Senate convicts you 39-4, it’s a good bet you’ve spent a lot of your time in the palace estranging friends as well as foes. The leftist Zelaya – for all his arrogant missteps, including disobeying his Supreme Court – could at least count on mass street demonstrations three years ago protesting his overthrow. But when the leftist Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop – the first prelate ever elected as a head of state – looks out his window this week, he isn’t exactly blinded by throngs filling the plazas to demand his restoration.

When Lugo won the presidency in 2008, it ended the 61-year-long rule of Paraguay’s conservative Colorado Party, which had featured the brutal 35-year-long dictatorship (1954-89) of General Alfredo Stroessner. It seemed a modernizing, watershed moment for a small, poor, landlocked nation long considered the archetype of benighted South American politics. But the moment faded quickly. Lugo was soon fending off paternity suits from women with whom he’d had sexual relationships while a bishop, and he’s since admitted to siring at least two children. Lugo had far less talent for cultivating political bedfellows, even within his own coalition. His major partner, the Liberal Party (to which Franco belongs), accused him of shutting it out of his government’s decision-making, which by most accounts could have used the help, especially as Lugo faced a Colorado-controlled Congress.

(More: In Central America, Coups Still Trump Change)

All that greatly diminished Lugo’s ability to get much of anything fixed – especially Paraguay’s most onerous problem, land reform. (Just 1% of the population still owns 80% of the country’s usable tierra.) That failure in turn alienated Lugo’s social base, including landless campesinos or peasant farmers. Then, on June 15, 17 people were killed in a shootout between police and the campesinos they’d come to evict from a large rural property (owned by a Colorado pol) the farmers were occupying. Both Lugo’s Colorado opponents and Liberal allies blamed the tragedy on his incompetence – which was added to a list of charges against him that included past attempts to politicize the military and circumvent Congress.

Lugo’s removal wasn’t exactly illegal, particularly given Paraguay’s broad constitutional leeway for getting rid of Presidents. And it wasn’t quite equal to the Honduras coup – in which that nation’s Congress, to hasten Zelaya’s exit, summarily declared him guilty of a crime he hadn’t committed (instead of trying him legitimately for the one he probably had) then had soldiers put him on a plane to Costa Rica in his pajamas.

But the pariah treatment Paraguay is feeling is warranted nonetheless. While they aren’t calling Lugo’s impeachment a coup, even center-right Latin American leaders like Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos – and, ironically, current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo –  say his trial was “a violation of due process.” Lugo was given little if no real chance to mount a legal defense in the Senate, which within a few hours tried and convicted him in less time than it usually takes legislatures to vote on a national flower. One of the astonishingly stupid things about the Honduran coup was that Zelaya’s opponents, if they had simply taken the adult time to follow due process themselves, still could have booted him and won the world’s democratic kudos at the same time. Instead, they chose to show the world that Latin America still had a penchant for the putsch. And Paraguay, especially the Colorado Party, demonstrated last week that it hasn’t come much closer to the 21st century.

Lugo, who last week had said he would respect the Congress’ vote, reversed his position this week and pledged to fight to get restored to the presidency. But if Zelaya couldn’t do it even when he had a legitimate coup to complain about, it’s doubtful Lugo will be able to muster the kind of international sanctions that could make Paraguay bend. Paraguayan politicians, meanwhile, are lashing out at the international criticism and the calls for major legal and political reform there. The country’s ambassador to the OAS argues Congress had no choice but to act as swiftly as it did because “strange things were happening that will soon come to light.” But for now, the only strange thing the world sees in Paraguay is kangaroos.