Lugo’s impeachment in Paraguay a setback for the South American left

Paraguay is an oft-forgotten, landlocked country in the heart of South America with just 6.5 million people and one of the lowest GDP per capita on the continent (it’s half of Peru’s and just one-third of Venezuela’s), and it has only a very shaky foundation in democratic institutions. 

So it was with some alarm on Friday that its president Fernando Lugo was impeached and removed from office four years into his term on the basis of “poor performance” after a botched police raid resulted in 17 deaths last week:

Speaking on national television on Thursday, Mr Lugo said he would not resign, but “face the consequences” of the trial. He accused his opponents of carrying out an “express coup d’etat”.

But the Paraguayan chamber of deputies voted rapidly and overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment, and the Paraguayan senate followed with a move to remove Lugo on Friday.

Lugo’s vice president, Federico Franco, has now assumed the presidency and has announced he will serve out the rest of Lugo’s term until the April 2013 presidential election, although Mercosur has not recognized Franco’s takeover and other Latin American leaders have rejected Lugo’s impeachment as a coup d’etat.  The United States has urged caution, but the key question for Paraguay is whether the Organization of American States and the Union of South American Nations will take a united front against the impeachment — and Franco is taking efforts to keep the impeachment from turning into an international crisis.

Lugo’s removal gained nearly unanimous support in the Paraguayan Congress, from not only the opposition Partido Colorado, but also from the center-right Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (the “Authentic Liberal Radical Party” or PLRA) of Lugo’s vice president, a one-time ally.  Nonetheless, both Dionisio Borda, the finance minister, and Jorge Corvalán, the president of Paraguay’s central bank resigned on Saturday.

Given that the most vociferous criticism of the impeachment is coming from countries with more leftist governments, including Ecuador, Argentina and the Dominican Republic, it seems more likely that Latin American officials will split on the basis of ideological differences — more leftist officials will be much more likely to view the impeachment as a coup and more right-wing officials will view the impeachment as legitimate.

Lugo ran for election four years ago chiefly on a platform of redistributing land to Paraguayan peasants, so it is ironic that his impeachment stems directly from a botched eviction of landless tenants by police that resulted in 17 deaths.

His election in April 2008 sent shockwaves throughout Latin America and in a country that has often seemed trapped in a 19th century political dynamic  — the name of the Colorado Party, the ruling party of strongman Alfredo Stroessner, who governed the country from 1954 to 1989, even harkens back to the colorado-blanco dynamic of the dramatic 19th century fights between rural, conservative landowners and urban, liberal reformers that split much of Latin America throughout the region’s first century of post-colonial independence.  The Colorado party, still adjusting to Paraguay’s nascent democracy, had been in power for 61 years in 2008 when Lugo won the presidential election.

A former Catholic bishop, who resigned in 2005 in order to enter Paraguayan politics, Lugo was known throughout the campaign as the “bishop of the poor” — Pope Benedict XVI himself had to intervene to grant Lugo a laicization from the Roman Catholic Church in July 2008. Lugo defeated the Colorado candidate by 10 points and the ruling Colorado president peacefully transferred power to the opposition — a first in Paraguayan history.

Although he took steps to distance himself from leftists like Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and the indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales, Lugo represented an unmistakably leftist rupture from the ruling elite — aside from a couple of years in the 1930s, Paraguay had never had a full-throated leftist president.

Although the PLRA — the leading opposition to the Colorados — joined forces with Lugo in the 2008 election, Franco and the PLRA quickly became critical of the more leftist Lugo administration.  Without a majority in the Colorado-dominated Paraguayan Congress, however, Lugo had been largely frustrated in accomplishing his policy goals, although he appointed the first indigenous Paraguayan to the ministry of indigenous affairs in 2008.  Despite being one of the continent’s poorest countries, Paraguay posted double-digit growth in 2010 and continues to have one of the fastest growth rates in South America.  While corruption continues to remain high, Lugo has established low-income housing, introduced free treatment in public hospitals and initiated limited cash transfers to the most impoverished Paraguayans.

Lugo, whose popularity stemmed in party from his honesty, took a political hit in 2009 when it emerged that he fathered several illegitimate children during his years as a bishop.  He took a more personal hit in 2010 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Land redistribution, of course, remains a hot topic in the country, and will likely feature in the upcoming election, notwithstanding what happens between now and April 2013.  Much of the difficulty — including over the land dispute that resulted in Lugo’s impeachment — is due to the confiscation of land by the Stroessner regime:

Farmers’ leader Jose Rodriguez told Paraguayan radio that those killed “were humble farmers, members of the landless movement, who’d decided to stay and resist”.

The farmers said the land was illegally taken during the 1954-1989 military rule of Gen Alfredo Stroessner and distributed among his allies.

According to the Paraguayan Truth Commission, 6.75 million hectares of land were sold or handed over under “irregular circumstances” during military rule.

The Commission says that almost 20% of Paraguayan land can be qualified as “ill-gotten gains”.

Mired under conservative caudillo rule after its independence in 1811, it lost nearly its entire male population and its coastline in the horrific Paraguayan War (or War of the Triple Alliance) against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay from 1865 to 1870, and it never quite recovered in the ensuing century, which saw massive political instability prior to Stroessner’s authoritarian regime.  The landlocked country remains cultural isolated from the rest of South America in many ways, and it features one of the most indigenous populations in all of Latin America: its official languages are both Spanish and the more widely spoken Guaraní. Nearly 40% of the population lives in poverty and 10% of the population controls 66% of Paraguay’s land — among the world’s highest land concentration.

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