Friday, June 22, 2012

Coup in Paraguay - it matters

What Will Washington Do About Fernando Lugo's Ouster in

    This hasty, trumped-up impeachment of President
    Lugo amounts to a coup d'etat. The US must back
    democratic process

by Mark Weisbrot
Friday June 22, 2012

Paraguay's president, former Catholic bishop Fernando
Lugo, greeting the crowd after his swearing-in ceremony
in Asunción, in 2008. Photograph: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters
A coup d'etat is taking place right now, Friday
afternoon, in Paraguay.

That is how it has been described by a number of
neighboring governments. And the Union of South American
Nations (UNASUR) is treating it as such, taking it very
seriously. All 12 foreign ministers (including those of
Brazil and Argentina, who are deeply concerned) flew to
Asunción Thursday night to meet with the government, as
well as the opposition in Paraguay's Congress.

The Congress of Paraguay is trying to oust the
president, Fernando Lugo, by means of an impeachment
proceeding for which he was given less than 24 hours to
prepare and only two hours to present a defense. It
appears that a decision to convict him has already been
written, and will be presented Friday evening (at 20.30
GMT). It would be impossible to call this due process
under any circumstances, but it is also a clear
violation of Article 17 of Paraguay's constitution,
which provides for the right to an adequate defense.

The politics of the situation are clear enough. Paraguay
was controlled for 61 years by the rightwing Colorado
party. For most of this time (1947-1989), the country
was ruled by dictatorship. President Lugo, a former
Catholic bishop from the tradition of liberation
theology who had fought for the rights of the poor, was
elected in 2008, but did not win majority backing in the
Congress. He put together a coalition government, but
the right - including the media - has never really
accepted his presidency.

I met Fernando Lugo in early 2009, and I was impressed
with his patience and long-term strategy. He said that
given the strength of the institutions aligned against
him, he did not expect to gain all that much in the
present; he was fighting so that the next generation
could have a better life. But the opposition to him was
ruthless. In November of 2009, he had to fire his top
military officers because of credible reports that they
were conspiring with the political opposition.

The main trigger for the impeachment is an armed clash
between peasants fighting for land rights with police,
which left at least 17 dead, including seven police
officers. The land in dispute was claimed by the
landless workers to have been illegally obtained by a
Colorado party politician. But this violent
confrontation is merely a pretext, as it is clear that
the president had no responsibility for what happened.
Nor have Lugo's opponents presented any evidence for
their charges in today's "trial". President Lugo
proposed an investigation into the incident; the
opposition was not interested, preferring their rigged
judicial proceedings.

Lugo's election was one of many across South America -
Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay,
Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador - in which left
governments were elected over the past 14 years,
changing the political geography of the hemisphere. With
that, came increasing political unity on regional issues
- especially in confronting the United States, which had
previously prevented left governments from coming to
power or governing.

So, it is not surprising to see the immediate and urgent
response by South American countries to this coup
attempt, which they see as a threat to their
democracies. UNASUR Secretary General Ali Rodriguez
insisted Lugo must be given "due process" and the right
to defend himself. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador
said that UNASUR could refuse to recognize the next
government - in accordance with a democracy clause in
UNASUR's charter.

Correa was also one of the staunchest opponents of the
coup three years ago in Honduras, which ousted
democratic left President Mel Zelaya. Honduras continues
to suffer from extreme violence, including the murder of
journalists and political opponents, under the regime
that was established under the coup.

Zelaya's ouster was a turning point for relations
between the US and Latin America, as governments
including Brazil and Argentina, which had previously
hoped that President Obama would depart from the
policies of his predecessor were rudely disappointed.
The Obama administration made conflicting statements
about the Honduras coup, and then - in opposition to the
rest of the hemisphere - did everything it could to make
sure that the coup succeeded. This included blocking,
within the OAS, efforts by South American nations to
restore democracy in Honduras. At the latest Summit of
the Americas, Obama - in contrast to the summit of early
2009 - was as isolated as his predecessor George W Bush
had been.

The Obama administration has responded to the current
crisis in Paraguay with a statement in support of due
process. Perhaps, they have learned something from
Honduras and will not actively oppose efforts by South
America to support democracy this time. And certainly,
South America will not allow Washington to hijack any
mediation process, if there is one - as Hillary Clinton
did with the OAS in Honduras. But Washington may still
play its traditional role by assuring the opposition
that the new government will have support, including
financial and military, from Washington. We will watch
what happens.

It remains to be seen what more UNASUR will do to oppose
the right's coup in Paraguay. It is certainly
understandable that the organization sees it as a threat
to regional democracy and stability.

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