Paraguay’s Silent Coup

Fernando Lugo en Coronel Oviedo
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Image fernandolugoapc on flickr

Alister Black looks at the lingering shadow of the dictators in South America

In 2008 the years of domination by the right wing Colorado Party, the party of the dictatorship, came to an end when a left wing bishop and liberation theologist, Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay. Lugo promised change. He promised social reform to address the great inequalities in Paraguayan society and in particular he promised to tackle the central issue in Paraguay – land reform.

I visited Paraguay this summer a few weeks after the ‘parliamentary coup’ which overthrew Lugo. Driving through the streets of the cities like Ciudad del Este and Asuncion you could see some graffiti and posters denouncing the coup and calling for mobilisation. But the protests had begun to peter out. Speaking to Paraguayans many said they had voted for Lugo and opposed the coup, but all had criticisms of him. Most commonly they felt he had achieved little in the way of the change he had promised to bring about.

Yet Paraguay is also a country whose poverty and inequality is among the worst in the world (1) and this could be seen on every street. I passed a huge home that could only be described as a palace. It belonged to a former President, Cubas, and perfectly symbolised the corruption of the ruling elite. A few streets down a thriving ‘asentamiento’ of wood and tarpaulin homes was being built on occupied land by peasants coming in from the country seeking work. There were also some more permanent brick constructions with rigged up electricity and chickens running around the yard.

Understanding Paraguay

Paraguay is a relatively small South American country in terms of population but with a turbulent and violent history. It has suffered catastrophic wars which killed huge proportions of its people. The War of the Triple Alliance which Paraguay fought against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina saw a possible 90% of the male population of the nation killed. The twentieth century saw the Chaco War over control of a semi-desert region where it was believed oil could be found. Britain played a bloody role in this conflict, encouraging it and arming both sides. Political instability led to a civil war in 1947 as different factions of the ruling class fought for control.

The instability ended in 1949 with the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The Stroessner dictatorship lasted until 1989 and it was marked by international isolation (the few foreign embassies were from the likes of apartheid South Africa and Taiwan) and domestic oppression. One party rule also exarcerbated the corruption that came to plague the nation. Stroessner was ousted in 1989 by his son-in-law who had responsibilty for the nations borders and hence lucrative smuggling income. Fear of losing that post prompted the coup rather than any concern for democracy. There were some democratic reforms however, but the corrupt and deeply entrenched networks of the Colorado Party machine continued to dominate the country, acting in the interests of business and rich landowners.

Lugo

The election of Lugo promised more substantial change. However the hopes of many Paraguayans and those outside the country, were dashed in June this year when Lugo was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies and the impeachment confirmed by the upper house, the Paraguayan Senate. Colorado had already tried multiple times to impeach Lugo. The votes were overwhelming, 76-1 in the lower house and 39-4 in the upper house. Crucially Lugo’s ‘allies’ in the centre-right Liberal PLRA party turned against him this time.

The vote followed controversial events in Curuguaty in Paraguay’s countryside. The failure of land reform had forced more peasant groups to seize land for themselves. One group were evicted by the courts and resisted their eviction resulting in the deaths of 11 peasants and 6 police officers. Exactly what happened is far from clear and there is no real evidence that the campesinos opened fire first.

This was the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment. Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defence against vague charges of ‘poor performance’. No evidence was presented relating to the main charges around events in Curuguaty. The process was unconstitutional.

Lugo’s supporters in the trade-unions, social and peasant organisations demonstrated and protested but there was no mass movement to defend his presidency, as had been seen when Chavez faced a coup in Venezuela.

Lugo’s Programme

One of the key features of Lugo’s Presidency was that he had no party of his own but build a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change whose largest component was a centre-right party, the PLRA many of whom actively opposed the more radical parts of Lugo’s agenda.

Lugo had promised to enact reform in four key areas, tax, land, the public sector and the judiciary (2). Land reform in particular is key in a country where 85% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. In recent years agribusiness, mostly from Brazil, has been buying up Paraguayan land to grow profitable soya. Soya makes up 40% of Paraguay’s exports and brings in $2 billion. In the process they have kicked thousands of peasants off the land. These same interests of course, vehemently opposed Lugo’s programme of land reform through their representatives in the Colorado party and the other parties.

Opposition

The parliament consistently opposed Lugo. They blocked funding and cut back on existing programmes of health and social care. This made Lugo even more reliant on parliamentary allies to his right with a resultant dilution of his programme.

The media was deployed against Lugo. They raised issues around his character, particularly that he had fathered several children while still a bishop.

Another destabilising factor was the mysterious emergence of supposed leftist guerrillas, in what was a likely attempt to link Lugo to violent outrages, drawing in FARC, Chavez and anyone else they could throw in. Since the coup, the media has referred little to the so-called ‘EPP’ (Ejercito del Peublo Paraguayo).

Movement

Against this background Lugo stood little chance of carrying out his programme. This is particularily true because he failed to bring the movements which supported him together in a strong united front. Peasants, trade unionists, socialists, campaigners for democratic rights. Together they could have built a movement against the coup and in opposition to the right-wing parties of Colorado and PLRA who are two sides of the same coin.

Other leftist movements in the region have built powerful grassroots movements to defend and direct their struggle. Chavez and the PSUV are the best example but the Peronist movement of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also has strong party and trade-union support and was able to draw on (or co-opt) the strength of the street movements and piqueteros of 2001.

Consequences

Reaction from other South American states has been strong however. Left of centre governments of various shades such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina know that they cannot allow this coup to go unpunished. The US has remained silent and has not condemned the coup.

Paraguay has been suspended from the Mercosur trading block and replaced with Venezuela, leaving Paraguay far more isolated and at an economic disadvantage whilst strengthening the other nations who now benefit from closer links and greater access to Venezuelan oil.

The removal of Lugo has been a set back for Paraguay but the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and corruption are worsening. To solve them Paraguay will need to build powerful social movements for change that can resist the machinations of the corrupt ruling elite.

Notes

(1) “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.” Francisco Dominguez http://www.redpepper.org.uk/paraguay-a-well-rehearsed-coup/

(2) http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/09/the-lightning-impeachment-of-paraguays-president-lugo/ Peter Lambert

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