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Lessons of the Paraguay Coup

A protester holds an "Out Franco" sign at Civil Square in Asunción. (Photo: Vinicius Souza and Maria Eugênia Sá,

Co-opting nationalist soldiers to counter the "red threat" is no longer an essential condition for a successful political overthrow in Latin America. After the failed attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002 and the long deadlock caused by the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the usual conservative forces—rural and industrial oligarchies, the leadership of the Catholic Church, mainstream media, and U.S. commercial interests—managed to refine the new model for overthrowing popular progressive leaders: parliamentary/media overthrow.

Before removing elected politicians from office, it is necessary to deconstruct their public image through denunciations, whether they be truthful or not, in the mainstream media. Also, lawmakers are enticed by profit sharing in deregulated international businesses in order to ensure a "coating" of legality in the process.

The first victim of this new kind of coup d'état was Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, a former bishop linked to liberation theology, who received more than 40 percent of the vote in 2008 to remove the Colorado Party from office after six decades, which included dictator Alfredo Stroessner's 35 years. During his visit to Brazil for the Rio+20, Lugo was surprised by the opening of an impeachment process (the 24th attempt in four years) that discharged him from office on June 29, in about 36 hours.

The accusations against the president are surreal, ranging from "poor administration of military installations" (due to the cession of a barrack in 2009 for holding a youth event) to incitement of invasion of properties, supporting leftist guerrillas and "attack on sovereignty" (with the signing of the new treaty for the use of Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant energy, which was bombarded in Brazil by the local press). Worst of all, though, is that the accusations don't need to be proven true since they are "of public notoriety … in conformity with the current public order," according to the Parliament's document.

The impeachment clearly violates Articles 16 and 17 of the Paraguayan Constitution, which regulates legal processes and the right to defense. Since the country's Supreme Court presented no response, Lugo must resort to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). The possibility of resumption of office, though, is minimal.

The land issue

Despite the expeditious execution, however, the process that led to the democratically elected president's downfall had been gestating since his inauguration. According to diplomatic telegrams leaked by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Asunción had been reporting this type of movement to Washington since the beginning of 2009. Lugo had never held a majority in Congress, which partly explains the voting of 39 against four in the Senate for his summary dismissal. Vice President Frederico Franco, now sworn in as president de facto, with whom Lugo had politically cut ties, took part in the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which was the main oppositional force to the colorados before the rise of the former bishop.

With that, many important campaign promises, such as land reform, could not be kept, leading to division of support in social movements. The agricultural issue, in fact, is central in Paraguayan politics. An essentially rural country, it has one of the worst land distributions in the continent. Eighty percent of the cultivated areas are in the hands of 2 percent of the population. Farms with less than 5 acres (40 percent of the properties), normally dedicated to family agriculture and, therefore, to the food consumed by the local population, represent less than 1 percent of the cultivated area, which leads many peasants to crowd the slums of Asunción.

It was next to one of these large farms, in the region known as Curuguaty, where on June 15 a highly trained contingent of the National Police (trained by U.S. military in Colombia) was "ambushed" by homeless people (the carperos), resulting in the death of six officers. In "reaction to the attack" the officers killed 11 homeless and injured more than 50. These deaths are included in the accusations against Lugo, but a commission of inquiry was suspended as soon as the new government took office.

The media party

In the farms, the main legal exports (so not to speak of the Paraguayan marijuana exported mostly to Brazilian consumers) are soybeans and cotton. The ministers of the Lugo government had barred the entry of new transgenic seeds, leading to a strong reaction from three major newspapers in the country.

One of these newspapers, the ABC Color, belongs to the Zucolillo Group, an associate of the Cargill Corporation in Paraguay, and has among its directors Héctor Cristaldo, president of the Production Trades Union, the main farmers entity in the country. The president of the group, Aldo Zucolillo, in turn, is the local director of the Inter-American Press Association.

The entity promotes studies and seminaries about "freedom of expression" to condemn the attacks on "free press" in Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Brazil. It doesn't say a word, though, about the cuts to Paraguay's Public TV (occupied by pro-democracy protesters and the only one to open a microphone for the people and the ousted president himself).

Washington Uranga, from the Argentinian Daily Página 12, reported, "Dozens of reporters, social communicators and producers are being fired from the National Radio, Public Television, the official news agency IP Paraguay, and Department of Information and Communication (Sicom)." Further information shows that only in the second week of September, 28 professionals of the Public TV lost their positions. The media, which already was hegemonic, has become a single voice.

With his image degraded by the constant allegations of sons being conceived while he was still bishop (on the streets many people call him "pedophile priest") in an extremely Catholic country (the Vatican was the first state to recognize the "new Paraguayan government"), the divided support in popular movements and the betrayal of former supporters in parliament, there is no way for Lugo to turn the situation around and retake office. The coup d'état, however, provoked an unexpected reaction and a new correlation of forces in and out of Paraguay.

Consequences of the coup d'état

The rapid, unanimous and strong action of Mercosur (South America Economic and Trade Union) and Unasur (South America Defense Union), even without an OAS position, clearly showed that non-democratic countries will be isolated and will lose the chance to negotiate with an economic block that, with the entry of Venezuela, has become the fifth-largest economy in the world. Meanwhile, a delegation of members of the European Union visited Paraguay after the overthrow and assembled a report that could lead to the interruption of commercial deals and of support to development if there is no return to democracy.

The process of media regulation, which has made strides in Argentina, should also be intensified in the continent. Ecuador has recently announced that it will cease to publish announcements in commercial media to force the bill's passage, providing equal distribution of TV and radio channels between commercial, public, and community broadcasters.

Still, several business initiatives of transnational corporations were quickly deployed, reversing blockages of the Lugo government. First was the liberation of plantations of transgenic corn and cottonseeds from Monsanto by the new minister Enzo Cardozo. Second was the resumption of negotiations for the installation of the Canadian aluminum producer Rio Tinto Alcan, which would be able to take in half of the Paraguayan energy of Itaipu at subsidized prices (Franco even threatened Brazil and Argentina to stop "handing over" the excess energy that is negotiated with both countries, breaching the existing contracts).

Soon after, a new commitment was fixed to not tax the production of soybeans. Still existing are the threat of selling the land that should be used for the land reform "at market prices," the removal of the legislation that prohibits foreigners from owning farms less than 50 kilometers from the border, and the possibility of implantation of a U.S. military base in the country.

Internally, the coup reunited popular forces on the elected president's side. The Paraguayan Constitution ensures a lifelong position as senator to former presidents, but prohibits re-election. Since Lugo did not finish his term, he is excluded from both situations. Therefore, even the possibility of him running for president in April 2013 theoretically exists.

While in Brazil in the first week of August, he visited former Brazilian President Lula and talked to journalists of alternative press. He said that he had given up retiring from politics and that today he is "one more soldier for the process of change in Paraguay." At the end of August, a social forum was held in the country, attracting the attention of activists but without any impact on the mainstream media inside or outside of Paraguay.

Lugo still is not sure if it would be more interesting to run for president again or, more probably, a position as senator. Nevertheless he claims that the movement in which he takes part, the Guasú Front, has never been stronger, as it includes 12 political parties and eight popular movements. Lugo alerts, "Today, after what happened in Paraguay, I believe that every country should stay alert. When the coup d'état in Honduras occurred, I was told that Paraguay would be next. The international right-wing has no limits."

Voices in Asunción

As soon as the impeachment was announced, Paraguay's Public TV, inaugurated by Lugo in 2011, was occupied by its employees, and the street held a camping of students and protesters backing the overthrown president. A few days after the coup, Lugo was trying to build a "parallel government" with the discharged ministers, still suffering from the impact of the events.

Lugo believes that there were no feasible arguments to justify his removal from office, and that there was no minimum time to respond to the accusations. He also believes that when evidence is uncovered of what really happened in the confrontation that led to the deaths of 11 peasants and six soldiers of the National Police in Curuguaty, the main accusation of the impeachment process will be debunked.

Lugo has said, "The rupture of the democratic order in Paraguay is a great disappointment," but in no way is it surprising. "I faced a covenant of traditional political parties from this country. They couldn't stand a 'whiff of renovation.' They would never accept that someone who had never served in traditional political activism, from outside of the Paraguayan oligarchies, could occupy the position of president of the republic."

Lugo declined to comment on how the Mercosur leaders of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay should react to his ouster. "As a Paraguayan citizen, I would not like to see the small producers of bananas, oranges or pinecones of my country harmed," he stated. "But I know that there is great pressure on the presidents of the region. In this way, I hope that they decide freely … and on the real information that they hold to determine if they should or not apply democratic sanctions to our country."

The Congress that removed Lugo from office was the only one to prevent Venezuela's full entry to the block. With Paraguay's suspension, Mercosur finally expanded beyond the Southern Cone to a social and economic integration that heads towards the Great Homeland dreamed of by Simón Bolívar. Due to the necessity of his presence in the country at that moment to organize the resistance to the overthrow, however, Lugo ended up refusing the invitations to take part in the meeting, also not being able to go to Venezuela the following week for the meeting of the Forum of Sao Paulo, the entity that unites left-wing parties and movements of the continent.

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