The dubious removal of Paraguay's former bishop president

By Rodrigo Acuña

Eureka Street 

2 July 2012

The recent questionable removal of Paraguay’s left-wing president Fernando Lugo probably broke some type of world record.

With just two hours for Lugo’s lawyers to prepare his defence, the former Catholic clergyman, once known as ‘Bishop of the Poor’, was ousted in a 39-4 vote by the Senate within twenty-four hours of his original impeachment.

Denouncing his removal from the presidency, in which he still had a year left to serve, Lugo summarised the event as a 'parliamentary coup d’état'. He has a point.

The developments which led to the impeachment revolve around the deaths of 17 people, including six police officers, on 15 June. That day, authorities were attempting to evict a group of families who had engaged in a land seizure in the Department of Canindeyú. This was not the first time such an incident occurred, but it was the bloodiest. 

When Lugo’s centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) won the 2008 presidential elections, expectations by Paraguayans were high as 50 per cent lived below the poverty line – 35 per cent in abject poverty. 

During the electoral campaign, the student of liberation theology claimed his administration would reduce poverty and redistribute land. According to Eric Stadius from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, roughly two per cent of the Paraguayans  control three-quarters of all property.  

Once in office, the Lugo administration did attempt to carry out a mild land reform program. It also sought to increase taxes on soybean, as the South American country has recently become its fourth largest exporter in the world.

Despite the president’s plans, the opposition Colorado Party, through the legislature, constantly blocked his progressive reforms. 

In response, Lugo repeatedly sought to work with the opposition. He engaged in one political compromise after another to the point where sectors of his own constituency became seriously disgruntled. Eventually, some of Paraguay’s landless peasants decided to act independently, as they did in Canindeyú. 

Releasing a communiqué on that event, Paraguay’s National Committee for the Recovery of Ill-Gotten Lands placed the incident into a broader perspective:

'The slaughter in the department of Camindeyú was the result of a historic class conflict in Paraguayan society, the product of the support of the three branches of state, of a system of accumulation and hoarding of land in the hands of a few… The violence will continue if we do not initiate, once and for all, the return of lands belonging to the Paraguayan people that today are in the hands of persons not subject to land reform.'

The individuals blocking the redistribution of farm lands, which the committee was referring to, are Paraguay’s land owning elite. Often, they are top ranking members or associates of the Colorado Party who ruled Paraguay for 61 years since 1947. Most of this governance took place during the brutal US-backed dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-1989. 

But even by Latin America’s right-wing thuggish standards, Gen. Stroessner earned an exclusive place in the pantheon of Washington’s stooges during the Cold War. Ruthlessly persecuting the native Guaraní people, over 1 million Paraguayans fled the dictatorship. Upon his death at age 93 in 2006, an article in the Washington Post by Adam Bernstein discussed Stroessner’s rule:

'El Excelentisimo’, as he sometimes trumpeted himself, was elected every five years with near-universal approval that he took for a clear mandate. However, voting fraud was rife, and he tended to receive overwhelming support from dead constituents. 
With a network of informants and the backing of the military, he tortured dissidents, both real and perceived.'

Commenting on the huge levels of corruption during the dictatorship, Bernstein added:

'Payoffs were essential to all commerce, with much of the swag going to top military officers. Paraguay became a sanctuary for smugglers in arms, drugs and everyday goods such as whiskey and car parts. 
In a noxious twist on Latin hospitality, Gen. Stroessner provided refuge for French-born international heroin dealer Auguste Ricord; strongmen such as Argentina's Juan Perón and Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza Debayle (later assassinated in Paraguay); and war criminals, including Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the 'Angel of Death' who performed genetic experiments on children.'

'In spite of my wishes' Stroessner once said, 'the party insisted that I be a candidate.' 

In 1989, the caudillo was overthrown by one of his high ranking henchmen, Gen. Andres Rodríguez, in a battle that cost the lives of roughly 500 soldiers. But the Colorado Party’s grip on the presidency did not end there. Its previous monopoly on power allowed it to rule the country until 2008 when it lost the elections to Fernando Lugo. Once this leftist led Paraguay, the Colorado Party all of a sudden decided human rights were important. 

When Lugo admitted to fathering a child during his time as a bishop, the opposition quickly used it against him. 

By late 2009, the president denied rumours that a possible military coup would take place against his government. But just to be on the safe side, he dismissed the country’s top military commanders. After the incident at Canindeyú, Lugo sacked the interior minister and police chief, but this was not enough to placate his political enemies. 

Commenting on recent developments, Stadius said: 'the political process in Paraguay is broken, and this essentially amounts to a political coup that threatens the country’s democratic legitimacy.' Reaction throughout the region has been swift with the majority of South American countries recalling their ambassadors in non-recognition of the new government headed by Federico Franco. 

Leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, are all too aware that, like the 2009 coup in Honduras against Manuel Zelaya, they have lost another important ally. 

But according to the Associated Press, even Chile’s right-wing Piñera administration said Lugo's dismissal, 'did not comply with the minimum standards of due process' while Colombia’s conservative President Juan Manuel Santos noted that, 'legal procedures shouldn't be used to abuse.'

The German ambassador Claude Robert Ellner though, according to Associated Press, had a different response, stating that his government: 'will continue as normal with all cooperation agreements with Paraguay. We see the process of change happening within the laws and the constitution, because no parliament makes a coup d'état.' 

Likewise, the US State Department recommended 'all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay's democratic principles.' 

As is evident from the country’s history, those principles are in abundance.

Posted on August 6, 2013 .