As Lugo fades, Paraguay enters diplomatic purgatory

It’s been almost three weeks since Paraguay’s congress voted to impeach and oust its president, Fernando Lugo.

The whole affair has been odd from the beginning, given that it came just 10 months before the next presidential election, and it has left regional trade blocs like Mercosur and the Organization of American States in an awkward position.

On the one hand, the impeachment was conducted in accordance with Paraguayan law — this wasn’t a military coup, but an overwhelming vote duly taken by its congress. And the vote wasn’t even close — it garnered support from not just the Partido Colorado, which Lugo defeated in 2008 to end 61 continuous years of Colorado rule, but also from the center-right Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (the “Authentic Liberal Radical Party” or PLRA) to which Lugo’s vice president, one-time ally and, now, Paraguay’s new president, Federico Franco, belonged.

On the other hand, it’s easy to find a lot amiss with the affair — debate lasted for just two hours before the final vote, hardly the kind of constitutional due process you would expect from such a weighty matter as impeachment.  For that matter, the cause for impeachment wasn’t abuse of power, corruption, nothing more scandalous than “poor performance.” It’s an ominous sign for a country just establishing democratic norms, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

From the outset, more conservative regimes saw the move as constitutionally permissible; more leftist regimes immediately saw a soft coup.

So Mercosur, bolstered by center-left Brazil and Argentina (each of which has a special distaste for extraconstitutional regime change) immediate moved to suspend Paraguay through at least next April’s presidential election.  In a further slap, Mercosur has fast-tracked the accession of Venezuela, whose president Hugo Chavez has been a particularly vocal supporter of Lugo, into the trading bloc.

Meanwhile, the OAS has taken a more tentative approach — its secretary-general José Miguel Insulza has said a suspension would only cause more difficulty for Paraguay

Lugo’s position was not enviable — a former priest largely elected in no short part on the basis of his integrity, he was discovered in 2009 to have fathered several illegitimate children while he had served as a priest.  He had also been sidelined in part by a cancer diagnosis in 2010.  As the more center-right PLRA balked at Lugo’s more radical land reform efforts, he had found it increasingly difficult to achieve any reform at all.  Ironically, it was a lethal confrontation resulting from police eviction of peasant squatters that led most immediately to Lugo’s removal.

Lugo himself has bungled any sort of resistance to his removal — he swerved from a resigned tone immediately after his ouster, only to protest with more animation in the following days. Today, with pro-Lugo protests in Asunción having long faded, Lugo claimed in a goofy, off-the-wall interview with Russia Today (of all media outlets to choose!) that he held off from a more vigorous response out of concern that it would cause bloodshed:

I am a convicted pacifist. I didn’t want to see any Paraguayan lose their blood as a result of violence. That is why we went along with this illegal and unfair process. It was a politically-charged trial disguised as a constitutional process. As one MP said, it all looked like a circus designed to depose a democratically-elected president.

A circus indeed. So where does Paraguay stand after all of this?

Lugo muses that he may run again, but his career is finished — he’s lost the public trust, failed to utilize any public sympathy following the ouster, and he hasn’t achieved any land distribution reforms, his key campaign promise back in 2008.

The PLRA and Franco may well have believed that they could use the 14 months between June 2012 and August 2013 (when the next elected president will take office) to build a record to win next April’s race, but it is hard to see how they can do that now.  When Franco says that he is “castrated, politically speaking,” in light of the way he came to power and Paraguay’s diplomatic purgatory, it’s hard not to take him at his word.  The PLRA will go into the next election having inherited Lugo’s problems and then some, while the Colorados are washing their hands of the entire mess, content to return to opposition.

Either way, the landholding elites that control much of the Paraguayan congress will have stopped any chance of land reform in the waning days of the Lugo administration and will also have discredited the ability of the Paraguayan left to hold onto power in the upcoming election by so thoroughly humiliating the Lugo administration.  But it’s not clear that the PLRA and the Colorados needed to go to this length, given Lugo’s ineffectiveness, and especially in light of the strong international condemnation it has attracted.

What is clear is that the once-in-a-generation chance of the Paraguayan left to implement genuine land reform is now about as likely as Lugo’s political resurrection.

And the Colorados may well end up the chief beneficiaries of the entire mess.  After a wacky 14 months with Paraguay in semi-pariah mode, and after nearly four years of the ineffectual Lugo administration, Paraguayans will likely look back fondly on the good ol’ days of Colorado rule (reminiscent, perhaps, of another legacy party’s return to power in Latin America of late).

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