Paraguay: A well-rehearsed coup

Francisco Dominguez examines the background to the overthrow of the legitimate president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, and calls for the restoration of democratic rule

September 24, 2012
7 min read

Finally, after 28 attempts, on 22 June, the Jurassic Paraguayan elite, entrenched in key institutions of the state, managed to impeach democratically elected President Fernando Lugo and force him out of office. In a curious coincidence, his removal took place exactly three years after the ousting of the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, where a similar ‘constitutional’ method was used. The key political forces behind the coup are organised in the Colorado Party, which ruled Paraguay for 35 years in a regime led by the military dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

On 15 June, a clash between peasants demanding land reform, landowners and police, which led to the death of 11 peasants and six police officers, was the crisis that triggered Paraguay’s elite to enact what appears to have been a well-rehearsed and planned coup. The farm under dispute belongs to Blas Riquelme, a Colorado politician who acquired it during the Stroessner dictatorship.

In 35 years of US-supported dictatorship, Paraguay’s elite managed to turn this South American nation into one of the poorest and least developed in the region. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in 1990, one year after the demise of the Stroessner dictatorship, 42 per cent of the urban population lived below the poverty line.

Stroessner’s removal in 1989 led to some democratisation in a regime that could be best described as ‘Stroessnerism without Stroessner’. The general’s overthrow at the time was reported thus by Associated Press: ‘The rebellion [that led to Stroessner’s toppling] also followed a dispute within the Colorado Party between a militant pro-Stroessner faction and traditionalists who wanted to distance the 100-year old party from the ageing dictator.’ And in case there was any doubt about the true nature of the incoming government, its leader was General Andres Rodriguez, who had been Stroessner’s closest confidant for 35 years and whose daughter married the dictator’s eldest son.

Dictator’s legacy

Stroessnerist continuismo meant that not one of the central issues affecting the national economy were addressed. In fact in many respects things got worse. Rodriguez was succeeded by four presidents, all members of the Colorado Party, and by 2009 the proportion of people living in poverty had gone up to 58.5 per cent. The Colorado party managed to morph the military dictatorship into a regime whose chief characteristics were vast networks of patronage and clientelism, authoritarian enclaves, unbelievable levels of corruption, gross economic mismanagement and a flourishing contraband in arms and drugs.

Furthermore, by 2008 Paraguay was one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 (the US is 0.47) and with one of the worst landownership concentrations in the world: 1 per cent own 77 per cent of the cultivable land. As in Honduras, Paraguay’s elite occupied an entrenched and largely unassailable position, in the country’s intensely conservative power structures.

Thus, the 2008 election of the liberation theology bishop Fernando Lugo at the head of the motley coalition of parties Alianza para el Cambio (Alliance for Change) represented a historic break with six decades-long Colorado Party rule and offered the possibility of progressive change to the millions of poor Paraguayans who have been longing for social justice.

Lugo’s programme involved a number of progressive social, economic and political changes, such as land reform and reform of the judiciary and the state sector to reduce uncontrolled corruption. His election was part and parcel of Latin America’s ‘pink wave’, which has seen the rise of progressive governments in most of the region. These are all specific to their own domestic contexts but similar in that they aim at implementing policies that address their countries’ terrible legacy of inequality, injustice and violent oppression – ills that were massively compounded by 30 years of US-inspired neoliberalism. Washington had been quite happy with decades of dictatorship in Paraguay, and Lugo’s election worried the state department’s cold warriors sick.

From Lugo’s inauguration, Paraguay’s highly cohesive and deeply reactionary elite, entrenched in key state institutions, waged a relentless opposition to every single one of the president’s reforms, especially land reform. And they enjoyed ample majorities in congress, the senate, and the supreme court.

Lugo’s coalition, meanwhile, was fractious with segments of it being totally unreliable since they regularly sided with the opposition. This was particularly the case with the vice-president Federico Franco. By 2011 it had become clear that the opposition had been successful in defeating Lugo’s reforms of both the civil service and the judiciary. Any efforts on the part of Lugo to resort to democracy to break the logjam, such as holding a referendum, were manipulated by the opposition, which used the powerful private media to accuse the president of preparing the ground for the establishment of a dictatorship and seeking to personally control the judiciary and annul the power of parliament.

Synchronised events

The frustration over the lack of progress in the land reform programme boiled over into land occupations, of which the incident that led to the coup was one of the many that have marred the Paraguayan countryside since Lugo came to office. The incident was followed by a well synchronised chain of events. A judge, at the request of Blas Riquelme, ordered the dislodgement of the farmers from his occupied estate. The police proceeded to carry out the eviction; although barely 50 people were at the place, there were 18 casualties. Lugo responded by sacking his interior minister. On 21 June Congress voted to impeach Lugo who, in a travesty of a trial, was given 24 hours to prepare his defence.

On 22 June, Lugo was impeached and Federico Franco sworn in as the new president.

It is noteworthy that the Vatican was the first state to recognise Lugo’s replacement. Before Lugo’s impeachment the Catholic hierarchy had called upon him to resign ‘in order to restore peace and order in the country.’

The coup has been widely condemned in Latin America with the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) playing the central role in defending democracy in Paraguay. Paraguay has already been suspended from Unasur and the Mercosur trading bloc. Most countries in the region have withdrawn their ambassadors. All eyes are now on whether the Organisation of American States (OAS) will follow suit. The US has been unusually quiet about the breakdown of the constitutional order in Paraguay and, unlike the rest of Latin America, has not condemned Lugo’s ousting and has refused to characterise it as a coup. In the context of its waning regional influence, the ousting of Lugo in Paraguay, adjacent to Bolivia’s huge reserves of gas, has huge geopolitical implications.

The ousting of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, and now of Lugo in Paraguay, should be seen in the context of powerful reactionary forces that, with the crucial support of the US, have organised coup attempts in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as continued destabilisation efforts against these and other countries in the region.

As the mainstream media is fond of explaining conflict in the region as the struggle between authoritarian, left-wing governments and beleaguered democratic forces (as they do particularly with Venezuela), a word on the nature of Paraguay’s oligarchy is necessary. Under Stroessner, Paraguay became a sanctuary for Nazis, former dictators, and drug traffickers. And Lugo has named Horacio Cartes, a rich businessman, as the leading light behind the coup. On Cartes, the Economist has reported that ‘Leaked cables from the state department in Washington, dating from 2007 and 2010, reported claims that he and his bank were responsible for “80 per cent of money-laundering in Paraguay” on behalf of drug traffickers.’

Paraguayans decided to democratically elect Lugo as their president; the country’s oligarchy, entrenched in institutions of the Stroessner dictatorship, undemocratically ousted him. This represents not just a setback for Paraguay but for democracy in the region as a whole.

Dr Francisco Dominguez is head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies, Middlesex University. The statistics in this article, and more, can be obtained in Peter Lambert’s ‘Undermining the new dawn: opposition to Lugo in Paraguay’ in Dominguez, Lievesley and Ludlam (eds) Right-Wing Politics in the New Latin America (Zed, 2011)

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