Paraguay: Velvet Coup – Yohannan Chemarapally

THE ouster of the Paraguayan president, Fernando Lugo, in a legislative coup in the third week of June, was a surprising development that caught the region unaware. Only Washington seems to have been aware of the deep machinations that were underway when the Paraguayan president was on a tour of Asia, his first since being elected. Neither the citizens of the country nor the governments of the region were prepared for a sudden change in the political scenario of this land locked Latin American country. President Lugo was all set to demit office next year after the completion of a constitutionally mandated five year term. During a visit to New Delhi in May this year, he had confirmed that there were no plans for changing the country’s constitution so that he could run again for a second term.



The ostensible event that triggered the present crisis in the land locked Latin American nation was a clash between landless peasants and the police which left 17 people dead in mid June. Six police officers and eleven farmers died in the incident.

The country’s legislature comprising of the lower house and the Senate, were quick to pass resolutions impeaching the president on charges of “malfeasance” including complicity in the killings revolving round the land dispute.  The other charges against the president included that of earlier instances of encouragement of squatters to take over big farms and his alleged failure to act decisively against the Paraguayan Peoples Army, a small left wing guerrilla group. The impeachment charges against Lugopresented in the legislature included the statement: “The constant confrontation and struggle of social classes, which as a final result brought about the massacre between compatriots, is an unprecedented development in the annals of history from independence till today”.

The impeachment proceedings had gone ahead despite president Lugo describing the loss of lives as “unfortunate”. He had promptly sacked the chief of the police force and the interior minister, both of whom were personally close to him, following the deaths. However, the country’s Supreme Court and the Superior Court of Electoral Justice have both ruled that the impeachment did not violate the constitution. These judgements have ruled out the possibility of the presidency being restored to Lugo through constitutional or democratic means.

The bloody violence had erupted when police had moved in to force out 150 peasants from a 2000 hectare farm in a remote reserved forest area called Curuguaty near the border with Brazil. The farm was owned by a prominent politician belonging to the right wing Colorado Party which had monopolised power for most of the last century. The peasant organisations in the area claimed that the forest land was illegally acquired during the days when the country was under dictatorship. They had demanded that the land be redistributed among needy peasant families tilling the land.

Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled with an iron hand for 35 years, routinely parcelled out land to senior military officials, civilians supporters and foreign corporations. Peasants were forcibly evicted from the land they had occupied for generations. The agrarian situation got further complicated with the introduction of soy farming in the eastern part of the country. The soy farming sector is dominated by big Brazilian companies.

There was criticism about the slow pace of the implementation of the promised land reforms. The president when he was in Delhion an official visit in June had explained that comprehensive land reforms were impossible as there were too many claimants to the land. Decades of corrupt authoritarian rule had left every single piece of available land with duplicate or triplicate titles of ownership.  But from recent events, it is obvious that the landless were getting restive and in many areas were taking the law into their own hands and seizing land belonging to the elite. Paraguay’s land distribution inequality is the highest in Latin America. Two per cent of the population controls over 77 per cent of the land while small farmers who constitute 44 per cent of the population owned only 5 per cent of the arable land.

Many left wing groups felt that president Lugo had given in to pressure by the elite, sacrificing his reforms policy and instead focussing on attracting transnational investment for the farming sector. The country has been enjoying spectacular growth rates due to the worldwide demand for soya. Paraguay is the world’s fifth biggest soya producer.



Lugo, who was known as the “Bishop of the Poor” during his days in the Catholic Church, had come to power with the support of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, representing the wealthy landed elite. Their aim of supporting Lugo was to defeat their traditional rivals, the Colorado Party. But on assuming the presidency, Lugo had given many of the top jobs to his left wing supporters. The honeymoon with the Liberals was short lived and Lugo was left without a legislative majority from the outset of his presidency. Now at the fag end of his term, the legislature has chosen to impeach him and throw him out of office.

The country’s vice president, Frederico Franco, a right wing politician belonging to the Liberal Party, was promptly elevated to the presidency. Franco constituted a new cabinet comprising mainly of representatives from two traditional parties –Colorado and the Liberals. Paraguay was under authoritarian one party rule for 62 years under the Colorado Party. One Party rule only ended in 1989. In one of his first pronouncements, Franco said that the removal of Lugo saved his country from becoming a pro-Chavez satellite”. The right wing parties in Paraguay were not happy with the decision of president Lugo to support Venezuela’s full membership of the regional grouping –MERCOSUR. Venezuela has since been made a full member of MERCOSUR, despite the objections of the new government in Paraguay.

The Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, who was in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay as part of the bigger Union of South American nations (UNASUR) delegation after the removal of Lugo, described the development as a “new type of coup”.Venezuela has recalled its ambassador and suspended oil shipments to Paraguay. “For us the president of Paraguay is still Fernando Lugo. We do not recognise this new government”, said the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Argentina and Ecuadorhave all pulled out their envoys after the “coup” which ousted Lugo. Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico are among the countries that have recalled their ambassadors from Asuncion for consultations.

Brazil, which is the country’s most important neighbour, condemned the “summary impeachment”. Brazil has indicated that sanctions could be implemented against Paraguay. Brazil so far has not broken diplomatic relations like most of Paraguay’s other neighbours did. Brazil has a big stake in the Paraguayan economy, including the joint ownership of the Itaipu Dam located on the border with the two countries. It is one of the biggest hydro-electric projects in the world. There are many in Latin America who think that the coup against Lugo, executed with Washington’s support, was actually aimed at curtailing Brazil’s growing influence in the region.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said that the region “cannot gloss over this legalistic nonsense”. UNASUR has a “democracy clause” in its constitution. Paraguay could be expelled from the 12 member grouping if it is found guilty of violating this clause. Many leaders of the region are comparing the events in Paraguay with the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago.

The Obama administration had supported the military coup in Honduras. Washington has not yet made its position clear onParaguay but it has no love lost for left wing leaders in the region. The US had more than doubled the military aid to the Paraguayan military last year to ostensibly combat drug trafficking. A leading Colorado Party Senator and the front runner in the presidential elections scheduled to be held next year, Horacio Cartes, had led the move to impeach president Lugo. Wikileakspublished a confidential US state department memo which described Cartes as the man responsible for “80 per cent of the money laundering in Paraguay” on behalf of the drug traffickers. The US has strong ties with the Colorado Party. Five successiveUS administrations had supported Stroessner despite his brutal ways because he was an avowed anti-communist. President Evo Morales of Bolivia in fact said that the coup in Paraguay “was gestated by neoliberals in collaboration with local landowners and the empire” – a reference to the United States. Canada, Germany and Spain have already recognised the new government inParaguay.

 UNASUR and the Organisation of American States (OAS) also had special meetings to discuss the situation in Paraguay. The OAS general secretary, Jose Miguel Insulza, has “voiced” the doubts of the international community over whether the events leading to the dismissal of the Paraguayan president had complied with “universal principals of due process and legitimate law”. The ousted president is also not taking things lying down. In the last week of June, Lugo announced that he was rallying his supporters domestically and lobbying for support internationally. He has announced the creation of a parallel cabinet in order to resist what he termed as “a parliamentary coup”. The former president’s supporters have formed a National Front for the Defence of Democracy.

Protest marches are being held regularly in the capital Asuncion and elsewhere to protest against the impeachment of the president. Paraguay has already been suspended from MERCOSUR.  The regional group had expressed the “most energetic condemnation of the rupture of the democratic order – and for not having respected due process”.

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