A swift coup by Parliament has left Paraguay without its popularly elected president who, with limits and imperfections, was nonetheless pushing forward necessary reforms. It’s a setback for democracy in the region. Paraguay was the last country on the continent to have a military dictatorship, so deepening its democracy with increased social inclusion and citizenship is a challenge.
The ouster on the afternoon of June 22, just 14 months shy of the end of Fernando Lugo’s five-year term as president, demonstrates the self-preservation of rightist political parties in Parliament, like the Colorado Party, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, or PLRA, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, or UNACE, the Beloved Fatherland Movement, or MPQ, and the Democratic Progressive Party, or PDP, to uphold the old oligarchic system and its privileges in Paraguay.
The right in the Paraguayan Parliament allied with business groups, particularly agricultural exporters, multinational corporations, the media and the Catholic Church hierarchy to strike a blow to Paraguayan democracy, which had begun slowly taking root in February 1989 with the fall of dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89).
Lugo’s win in 2008, as head of a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change, closed the door on 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party. His running mate, Federico Franco of the PLRA, changed course once he became vice-president and opposed the very government he was a part of. Franco was involved in about 20 attempts to impeach the president, until finally he obtained the presidency with Parliament’s helping hand.
Using a mechanism provided for in the 1992 Constitution, but one that was not regulated, Lugo was impeached in proceedings lasting less than 48 hours—approved by the Chamber of Deputies only a day earlier — during which he was accused of not fulfilling his presidential obligations. He had no opportunity to defend himself.
A conflict on June 15, during the removal of campesinos from “Campo Morumbí” ranch, resulted in the deaths of six police officers and 11 campesinos, and 80 injured people. It was the perfect excuse to trigger Lugo’s impeachment, even though there was no proof or indication of his participation. By contrast, there is evidence of the existence of infiltration in these acts, which occurred in the district of Curuguaty, in Canindeyú, on public property usurped decades earlier by the Colorado Party’s ex-president Blas N. Riquelme.
“The parliamentarians — representatives of big business rather than their constituents — in resorting to gimmicks to unlawfully remove the government of President Lugo, violated the most minimal legal requirements in order to lend a certain formality to the joke carried out by both houses of Parliament, accompanied by the audacity of ministers who had been until days before an active part of the government they overthrew, accusing it of ‘poor performance,’” the nongovernmental organization Base Social Investigations said in a statement.
“Apparently, it was the slaughter of policemen and campesinos that caused of all this, but its true antecedents are much earlier, and indeed it was a pretext contrived to impeach Lugo and establish a government to suit the interests of the various national and international sectors interested in continuing to plunder our people, steal their wealth and stake a strategic claim in the region,” Mirtha Ayala, an exile during Stroessner’s dictatorship, told Latinamerica Press at one of the protests against Lugo’s impeachment.
Lugo’s removal from power is the expression of the clash between a historically privileged elite who are not willing to reduce those privileges, and the popular sectors whose rights have always been neglected.
The “error” of Lugo’s administration was in trying a new governance model with increased intervention in social problems, creating space for social and popular organizations to reclaim rights and take into account the grassroots proposals, as well as a foreign policy in line with other progressive governments in the region.
The actions by Lugo’s administration with regard to the restoration of rights include free healthcare, pensions, welfare for the country’s poorest families, and a three-fold increase in royalties from the Itaipú hydroelectric facility, from US$120 million to $360 million.
Another factor to consider was the debate over the recuperation by the State of 8 million hectares (20 million acres) distributed illegally by Stroessner to those close to him not subject to agrarian reform and his successors in the Colorado Party, which currently are used for the cultivation of genetically modified soy.
Indigenist, linguist and Jesuit priest Bartomeu Meliá and political scientist Line Bareiro both agreed that behind the parliamentary coup were the landowners who refuse agrarian reform.
According to the latest Census of Agriculture, in 2008, only 2 percent of landowners held 85.5 percent of land, while 300,000 campesino families did not own a single square meter of land to farm. Of this, 80 percent of land suitable for agriculture is in the hands of 1 percent of owners, and only 6% is held by small farmers with less than 20 hectares (50 acres) of land each (about 260,000 families across the country).
“There was clearly a coup from Parliament. It is a question of land and displacement of its inhabitants; it is essentially about the territories that I still have known since 1969 to be indigenous,” Meliá told E’a online news agency, after a crackdown with tear gas against demonstrators in the streets close to Congress, where he was participating with other Jesuit priests.
For Bareiro, it “was the reaction of the landowners and also a very strong ideological censorship. It was the objection to the universalization of rights, with a very strong anti-leftist rhetoric, in the context of these forces taking unprecedented power in the history of Paraguay.”
The attack from Parliament was also against the management of Miguel Lovera as the head of the National Service for the Quality and Health of Vegetables and Seeds, or SENAVE. The agency regulates the use of agrochemicals in farming, which in turn has delayed the commercial release of transgenic crops. The interests of large corporations like Cargill and Monsanto, among others, could not be jeopardized. Indeed, Franco’s first nod was to the agro-export sector: the appointment of Jaime Ayala, president of the Pacific Agrosciences agrochemical company, to president of SENAVE.
Another element to consider is the arrival of the extractive and electricity-intensive Canadian multinational Rio Tinto Alcan, the second largest aluminum smelter in the world, which would use power equal the entire electricity consumption of all of the factories in the country. The company would pay for electricity less than its production costs at the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, so it would have to be subsidized. It would also generate few jobs.
As vice-president, Franco publically criticized deputy minister of Mines and Energy Mercedes Canese for her opposition to the arrival of Rio Tinto Alcan.
Shortly after taking power, Franco made reference to the importance of the multinational corporation’s installation in the country, and as a sign appointed as deputy minister of trade Diego Zavala, who had been working for the Ministry of Industry and Trade as a consultant on the Rio Tinto Alcan project. In his first statement in office, Zavala said “the installation of Rio Tinto Alcan is very likely.”
In fact, the new government sped up the process for some multinationals to operate immediately, like Rio Tinto Alcan and the US firms Monsanto and Crescent Global Oil, as well as Brazilian soy and livestock producers.
For Lugo, who went from being the bishop of the poor to the country’s president, the current circumstances call for him to stand before his people again, explaining around the country what he did right and wrong during his administration, and what he could do now with his experience if the public stands by him in his bid to seek a Senate seat next year. His advisers continue, however, to seek legal loopholes so he can run again for president, since immediate reelection is prohibited in Paraguay.
Looking for support after his impeachment, Lugo — who maintains close ties to much of the campesino movement — restarted in the town of San Juan Nepomuceno, in the department of Caazapá, the ñomongueta guasu, or grand dialogues, as he called the political meetings held during his presidential campaign and administration.
Despite a media campaign against him, Lugo’s approval rating was around 40 percent, support that could be capitalized in the April 2013 presidential elections by the Guasú Front, a coalition of leftist and center-leftist parties that were part of the Patriotic Alliance for Change.
Contrary to its objective, the coup could create conditions to strengthen the democratic, progressive and leftist sectors already united in the newly-formed Front for the Defense of Democracy, which with ongoing protests, rejects and condemns Franco’s government and calls for the defense of Paraguay’s democratic process and institutions.