Latin America’s Paraguayan Hangover

Some Latin American leaders have peculiar ideas about what constitutes an assault on democratic principles.


It’s been two and a half weeks since Paraguay’s parliament removed President Fernando Lugo from office in an astounding high-speed impeachment procedure. But the shock waves from the event are still reverberating through the capitals of Latin America — and the reactions offer some jarring insights into some of the region’s double standards about democracy.

As many have noted, Lugo’s removal wasn’t pretty. Yet it was hardly the "parliamentary coup" that some in the region have been claiming. The road to impeachment is mapped out by the Paraguayan constitution, and lawmakers stuck to the letter of the law. No tanks or troops took to the streets. Within hours after his removal Citizen Lugo was sounding off to his boosters and the press. (The photo above shows Lugo supporters demonstrating in the streets of Asunción after his removal.) Nor did the Organization of American States (OAS) expel Paraguay from its ranks. "The democratic order has remained intact in Paraguay in spite of the swift impeachment trial," said Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, an outspoken U.S.-based civic group. "Although politics and emotion run high," he added in a written statement, "we urge the OAS and others to consider the facts and the law."

That is exactly what didn’t happen. If the legitimacy of Lugo’s ouster remains murky, there was no mistaking what happened next as Paraguay’s neighbors swiftly punished the new government and remade a continental trade alliance, shredding international treaties and two decades of diplomatic best practices in the process. In Mendoza, Argentina, regional leaders convened an emergency summit of Mercosur, the South American customs union, ostensibly to defuse the crisis in Paraguay. Instead of olive branches, they brought kerosene.

Although Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay stopped short of imposing sanctions on the new government in Asunción, they wasted no time in suspending Paraguay from the fold on the argument that the "coup" against Lugo violated Mercosur’s democratic charter, as outlined in the so-called Ushuaia Protocol. That was the first misstep. By the union’s rules (article 37 of the Ouro Preto Protocol and Article 20 of the Treaty of Asunción), all four founding members are entitled to their say in binding matters, including the alleged offending nation. However, when Paraguay’s Ignacio Mendoza Unzain arrived in Mendoza to argue the new government’s case, he was turned away. More than a humiliation, the snub was a clear breach of Mercosur’s charter. "Paraguay’s case was not even heard in Mendoza," says Brazilian diplomat and foreign policy scholar Paulo Roberto de Almeida. "This was clearly illegal."

The second blunder was even worse. Long eager to be inducted as a full member to Mercosur, Venezuela had secured the blessings of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay — but not of Paraguay. Although Lugo had lobbied hard on behalf of his ally Hugo Chávez, the opposition-controlled Paraguayan legislature demurred. At issue was Chávez’s habit of trampling on democracy at home and meddling abroad in the name of spreading a messianic vision of twenty-first-century socialism. And since all decisions in Mercosur must be unanimous, Venezuela remained out in the cold. But by ousting Paraguay — until the next presidential elections in April 2013 — the pro-Chávez faction of Mercosur opened a back door to the Bolivarian showman.

The irony was not lost on the region. In his 12 years in power, Chávez has become a master at gaming democracy. Again and again he has tested his popularity in national referendums and elections, and then parlayed his victory at the ballot box into a blank check to bully critics, stack the courts and gerrymander, counting on his mouthpieces in congress to grant him extraordinary powers.

And yet in 2010, when he redrew voting districts to throw legislative elections to chavista candidates, Latin America’s heads of states looked the other way — or worse. "If anything, Venezuela has an excess of democracy," then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once said, famously defending Chavez’s rule." It’s been no different in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, where Chávez’s Bolivarian acolytes have had their way with the press, the legislature, and critics to thundering silence in the hemisphere. Likewise, not one sitting Latin president invoked the Ushuaia Protocol or the Democratic Charter of the OAS when Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner purged the National Statistics Institute and threatened to prosecute media that dared report the real numbers on inflation.

The implications for regional politics and prosperity are dire. True, trade has soared among the Mercosur nations, from $4.5 billion to over $47 billion, from 1991 to 2011. But prosperity has failed to bring union, and lately the bold customs union has succumbed to internal squabbling and beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism. The ham-handed reaction to the political crisis in Paraguay may only hasten the decline. By throwing Paraguay under the bus and extending a welcome mat to Venezuela, Mercosur has made a hash of its own rules on democracy and free trade. "Who in this tale deserves the name of coup-makers?" asked the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper in a lead editorial.

A small comfort may be the measured reaction from the Latin street. Paraguayans, though perplexed, did not storm the barricades after Lugo’s fall, a prospect that could have brought conflict and possibly a bloodbath. And even as the media and opinion makers condemned the hasty impeachment, they were equally indignant over the rush to banish Paraguay and to extend Mercosur’s approval to Chávez’s dubious democracy. "We do not have a Democratic Charter, just a syndicate of presidents," wrote the Ecuadorian jurist and former diplomat Mauricio Gándara Gallegos in a recent column.

As unstable and fraught as it may be, constitutional democracy is still the gold standard for the America’s and its breach a shouting offense. But unless the region’s leaders apply the rules and safeguards to all nations, whether run by conservatives or compañeros, the new era of Latin democracy will look a lot like the old one of conspiracies and coups d’état.

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