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Paraguay’s constitutional crisis

Paraguay’s constitutional crisis

A constitutional crisis in Paraguay is developing rapidly. Last Friday, yet another struggling Latin American democracy experienced a traumatic change of government. The prospects are better than you might guess, but the fate of the country might lie in the hands of people like Chavez and Ortega, who excel at throwing stones from their glass houses.

Ex-priest-turned-president Fernando Lugo was one year away from completing his term, having been elected in 2008 as a Chavez-lite leftist in a historic democratic election. He was elected because he inspired the voting poor who outnumbered both the traditional ruling party, the Colorados, and the perennial opposition, the Liberals. His base got him elected and kept him relatively safe for a while. But eventually Lugo proved weak and ineffective in the eyes of that base, and he gave his political enemies what they needed to move against him constitutionally. It didn’t help that he had four paternity suits filed against him (he’s acknowledged two of the children), including one related to his time as bishop that involved a 16-year-old girl. Weak, bumbling, and lecherous is apparently enough to remove one from power.

Marking the beginning of his tenure with a lot of verbal and symbolic support for Chavez’s socialist remake of Latin America, Lugo embarked on a project of agrarian reform to right the wrongs of the last 60 years. He planned to take land from large landowners, most of it tied to the ruling party he ousted. For generations, the long dominant Colorado Party had appropriated the vast majority of the arable land for its cronies.

But the land seizures did not go fast enough or smoothly enough for the poor, who found that sometimes Lugo’s government was evicting them for squatting if their demand for land reform got in the way of Paraguay’s soybean-based growth trajectory. (Lugo knew how to capitalize on a global boom by getting in bed with the corporate "enemies of the poor.") The most recent case that helped bring him down involved his eviction of squatters from the land of a powerful Colorado politician that left six police officers and 11 farmers dead. Lugo has been blamed by the peasants for turning against them and by the elites for bumbling.

Other charges include allowing leftist parties to hold political meetings in an army base; allowing thousands of squatters to invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; his inability or refusal to capture members of a guerrilla group; and subverting Congress by not submitting an international agreement to them for approval.

Lugo’s ouster was effected by the legislature, not the military, and that is at least one bright spot in this situation. A combination of his erstwhile allies and the Colorado Party removed the president in a five-hour trial in the Senate in which he had little time to mount a defense. It is important to note that he used to have a lot of allies in the legislature, but all but a few had turned against him of their own volition. The removal appears to have been technically legal in that the constitution affords an impeachment and removal process, but is light on the details. Since impeachment is really a political action, the reason for it can be, well, pure politics. And it teaches the lesson that political movements built around a personality are inherently unstable.

Depending on your political point of view, there is perhaps another bright spot: The public doesn’t seem to believe they have been robbed of their vote. Protests have been rather small and no violence has occurred. It reminds one of when Fujimori did his auto-golpe and the public just went to work and about their daily business the next day.

Regional reaction has been more intense, with many Latin American leaders recalling their ambassadors, denouncing the act as a coup, and Chavez announcing that he will cut off oil supplies. Some governments in the region have had a more muted response, and some Western countries have accepted the new government of Lugo’s vice president Frederico Franco. A showdown of sorts was to occur this week with the meeting of the Union of South American nations, where Lugo intended to be present and the new Paraguayan government has been told to stay away. However, Lugo has again changed his mind and says he will not attend. The regional leaders nevertheless intend to discuss a general response to the crisis.

It is worth noting that many of the region’s governments who are criticizing the legislature’s actions are the first to tell the United States to stay out of the internal affairs of other countries. Apparently sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander, but most observers knew that already. When dealing with leftist governments, criticism of Sandinista-run Nicaragua is bad, criticism of and perhaps even intervention against the new Paraguayan government is good. This might explain why the U.S. response has been rather muted. The best approach of U.S. foreign policy in this case is probably to be as sure as we can about the legality of the legislature’s move, even if we don’t like it, and wait to see what the people of Paraguay want rather than what Ortega, Chavez, and Fernandez want. Let’s not repeat the Honduran situation.

Returning to the Paraguayan public’s reaction so far, it bears repeating that their reaction has been quite pacific. One explanation is simply that they, especially the poor, voted Lugo in expecting him to solve problems, yet he didn’t. He not only failed to solve those problems, he appears to be of questionable character and competence. They heard these very criticisms for much of the Lugo presidency from his running mate, a surgeon whom Lugo agreed to run with. The public observed Lugo fail, then watched a formal if speedy impeachment, trial and removal of the president, and his replacement by his vice president. They are remaining calm. Maybe they are satisfied with this outcome, hoping the next leader can solve the problems. It might not be as orderly a democracy as many of us would like, including Paraguayans (who knows?), it might be unstable and fraught with future problems, but it does appear at this point that it satisfies the public. And this is a far better state of affairs than the way governments in the region used to change hands, when we saw nothing but uniforms and bullets flying instead of votes in the legislature cast by men and women in business suits. Let’s hope the region’s leaders as well as the U.S. government does not punish them for this.