Picture the scene: It’s July 1974, and congress is on the brink of impeaching President Nixon. As the procedure moves forward, Britain’s foreign minister comes to Washington, D.C. in a desperate diplomatic bid to save a key ally from losing power. But instead of talking to the White House or trying to lobby congress, the British Foreign Minister heads straight for the Pentagon, where he gives a fiery harangue beseeching the Joint Chiefs of Staff to disregard any congressional move to impeach Nixon, telling them that doing so would nullify the democratic will of the electorate, and that it’s their duty to stand firmly by their president, putting troops on the streets if need be.
Substitute July 1974 with June 2012, Richard Nixon with Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, and Britain’s foreign minister with Venezuela’s, and you have a rough approximation of the extraordinary events that allegedly took place just two weeks ago as Paraguay’s congress moved to impeach the president.
Lugo’s lightning-speed impeachment has become a kind of Rorschach test in Latin America, a nebulous political ink-blot, its importance revealed precisely via the reactions it elicits.
For many in the region, the extremely abridged procedure — lasting a scant six hours from indictment to conviction, and with no real chance for Lugo to put forward a defense — was a travesty of justice based on an unconvincing constitutional fig leaf. Disorienting as the process was, it’s clear that Paraguay’s constitution empowers congress to remove high officials for almost any reason at all, as long as a two-thirds majority of the senators finds fault with his performance.
These constitutional niceties mattered little as the new breed of Latin American leftwing leaders closed ranks behind Lugo. From Brazil and Argentina to Venezuela and Peru, officials disapproved of the move, and soon Paraguay was getting suspended from regional organizations pending the "restoration of full democracy there."
But revelations that Venezuelan Foreign Minister (and aspiring chavista dauphin) Nicolás Maduro was in Asunción, actively lobbying the army to rebel against congress’s decision, shows just how skewed Latin America’s understanding of "democracy restoration" has become in the age of Chávez. In any event, Maduro’s plan came to naught when Lugo refused to order the army out onto the streets, bitterly acquiescing to his own impeachment and leaving power. (As it happens, Ecuador’s ambassador to Paraguay also tried to instigate a military revolt, qualifying the episode as a full-fledged international conspiracy.)
Now the region faces an unprecedented situation: One country’s foreign minister is under criminal investigation for actively plotting a military rebellion in another country and violating its constitutional order, all done under the banner of "anti-imperialism" and "democracy restoration"!
We should be clear: The way Paraguay’s congress trampled President Lugo’s due process rights is worrying indeed. But the overzealous exercise of parliamentary checks and balances is far from being the biggest obstacle to deepening democracy in the region. If you want to worry about the health of Latin American democracy, worry about the outsized presidentialism that sees executive privilege as sacrosanct, and treats democratic legitimacy as synonymous with presidential continuity, no matter what the constitution does or does not say.
Indeed, what’s remarkable is that while Lugo’s impeachment set off a diplomatic storm throughout the region, Venezuela’s and Ecuador’s ham-fisted attempts to subvert the constitutional order of one of its smaller, weaker neighbors barely raises an eyebrow. No note of protest has been lodged, no public statement made, no ambassador recalled over the incident. That’s the logic of hyper-presidentialism at work: Calling out the tanks to defend an impeached president counts as "democracy restoration," but applying the constitutional procedure to impeach him makes you a coupster.