Neighbours protest as Paraguay impeaches president


AFTER FRIDAY’S summary impeachment of president Fernando Lugo, Paraguay’s new government risks being isolated as the country’s powerful neighbours denounced the move as a coup and threatened sanctions.

The opposition-dominated congress voted to remove Lugo after a two-day trial, held after clashes between landless peasants and police left 17 dead.

Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, has said her country “will not validate this coup d’état” while Brazil’s government denounced it as “a rupture of the democratic order in Paraguay” that “compromises a fundamental pillar of democracy, an essential condition for regional integration”.

Both countries have withdrawn their ambassadors and say they are discussing measures against the new regime to be taken by regional trade block Mercosur, which also includes Uruguay. Both Argentina and Brazil are also lobbying for the South American body Unasur to denounce Lugo’s impeachment.

For Paraguay’s new president, Federico Franco, the tough stance of his two biggest neighbours presents a major challenge. Landlocked Paraguay is heavily dependent on Argentina and particularly Brazil for most of its imports and investments as well as access to foreign markets for its agricultural produce.

Elected as Lugo’s vice-president in 2008, the openly ambitious Franco quickly distanced himself from the president’s progressive left-wing agenda and instead spent his time plotting to become Paraguay’s first Liberal president since 1940.

During the last four years he was at the centre of multiple political manoeuvres seeking to undermine his boss and frequently featured in rumours of coup plots against the former Catholic bishop who turned to politics and put an end to six decades in power by the corrupt populists of the Colorado party.

Franco’s seizure of power will probably have been spurred by the knowledge that early opinion polls ahead of next year’s presidential election point to a victory for the likely Colorado candidate – Horacio Cartes, a cigarette smuggler whom the US government believes is involved in Paraguay’s drug trade.

As president, Lugo was constitutionally unable to stand for re-election but Franco’s disloyalty meant that much of the coalition that helped oust the Colorados in 2008 was unwilling to countenance him as successor, thus virtually ruling out his dream of ascending to the presidency.

For Lugo there will be many bitter ironies in his impeachment. The congress moved with a speed unheard of in Paraguay’s lethargic justice system. His trial lasted just two days and took place less than two weeks after the clashes between police and landless peasants that congress used as justification for his removal.

Despite rising tensions in Paraguay’s countryside, including the emergence of a small left-wing guerrilla force, the same congress spent four years blocking all efforts by president Lugo to undertake land reform or institute an income tax to pay for it.

Though he ran as Lugo’s vice-president in 2008 under the banner of land reform, Franco has used his influence in the Liberal party, the biggest component of Lugo’s fractious coalition, to stymie efforts to give landless peasants farms. The world’s fourth-biggest exporter of soya beans and a major beef producer, Paraguay has one of the world’s most unequal distributions of land ownership, with more than 90 per cent of all productive land held by less than 5 per cent of the population.

That he was removed for “malfeasance” will also leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Lugo’s supporters.

Paraguay has long ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in South America and several western governments have long believed leading members of Paraguay’s congress are deeply involved in the country’s drug trade.

Lugo had promised to try and clean up Paraguay politics. But as the first president to come to power peacefully in the country’s 200-year history he struggled to gain control of a bureaucracy riddled with malpractice and deeply penetrated by the drug traffickers and contraband smugglers entrenched in Paraguay’s economic and political life.

Too often in power Lugo showed himself to be indecisive in the face of challenges. He was undermined by a slew of paternity cases against him dating back to his time as bishop and also laid low by cancer that required long stretches of treatment in Brazil.

Unlike presidents Cristina Kirchner and Dilma Rousseff of Argentina and Brazil he even accepted Friday’s verdict and stepped down, despite denouncing the process as a “constitutional coup”.

Now Paraguay’s best chance of restoring its full democratic order looks to lie with its powerful neighbours after once again its own reactionary forces have undermined any hope of peaceful internal reform.