Sunday, June 24, 2012

On the coup in Paraguay

It’s been awhile since I last posted.  It’s been a busy time, with doing some fieldwork – mainly interviewing people – for a report which I’m trying to get done by the end of this week.  However, I had some spare minutes yesterday to draft the following about events in Paraguay.  Just now I’ve had an email from one of the editors of our book on the Latin American right, who notes how prescient Peter Lambert was regarding his chapter on that country.  Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my take (and which should possibly be up at the Ideas Centre blog in the next few days – I hope!):
The recent impeachment of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo, constitutes a coup by the country’s right.  That it has happened highlights the political challenges and limitations in relation to the rise of the left in the so-called pink tide in that country as well as the wider region.  In particular, the coup exposes both the determination of Lugo’s rivals in the political right to deny the left power and to hold onto it.  At the same time, the impact of the coup is being felt internationally, as Lugo’s regional allies face the challenge of ensuing that such actions are prevented from happening in the future.
Lugo’s challenges
Lugo’s ejection from office is unsurprising.  His election in 2008 marked a break with Paraguay’s past and heralded the entry of the left into office.  Until then the political right through the Colorado party had dominated Paraguay, first under the Stroessner dictatorship until 1989.  Following the introduction of elections, Colorado rule was sustained through the use of patronage and corruption.  The Colorados’ strong grip on power meant that there was limited influence by social movements as a counterweight.  Lugo’s election therefore relied on him establishing a precarious alliance with the Liberal party, the main opposition and dissident offshoot of the Colorados.
Lugo’s weakness has been apparent over the past four years, partly because the right has continued to dominate congress. As a result, Lugo’s opportunity to break its power through the use of consrtitutional reform has been limited.  This is in stark contrast the experience of other leftist leaders, including Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who have all undertaken constitutional reforms immediately on taking office.
Given this context, the immediate reason for Lugo’s expulsion from office was the result from a recent police action to remove a number of squatters from private land.  The action led to 17 deaths (including several those of a number of policemen) and the resignation of the interior minister and the chief of police.  The government was condemned by congress and impeachment proceedings instigated against the president.  Lugo’s supporters say that he was not given sufficient time to mount a defence.  Despite this, the process went ahead and Lugo’s vice president, the Liberal party’s Federico Franco, has been sworn in.
Changing realities
Arguably, congress’s actions amount to a constitutional coup and reflect the amount of learning undertaken by the political right.  In the past Latin American coups were generally extra-constitutional; during the 1960s and 1970s military juntas took over in Brazil, Chile and Argentina for example.  The outcome was invariably violent, with the new leaderships settling scores against its rivals, which in the context of the Cold War, meant actions against suspected subversives and the ‘disappearances’ of thousands.
The right’s action in Paraguay shows how much – and how little – politics in the region has changed.  Since the 1980s Latin America has undergone both political and economic liberalisation, through the rise of electoral democracy and pro-market reforms.  At the same time, these changes were insufficient, contributing to a ‘second democratisation’ as the left were elected to tackle the outstanding deficiencies of these market reforms, including socio-economic disparities and persistent poverty.  This has resulted in a number of changes beyond constitutional reform, to include a greater role for the state in social and economic development.
At the same time, the leftward trend has prompted confrontation, owing to the right’s perceived loss of power.  In 2002, 2008 and 2010 attempted coups were mounted against Chavez, Morales and Correa respectively.  All three failed, in part because of diplomatic pressure by the region’s governments.
Against these failed coups though, the Paraguayan case has succeeded, much like the one which took place in Honduras against its president, Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.  Like Lugo (and Chavez, Morales and Correa), Zelaya came from the left and faced difficulties in implementing his programme.  To break the deadlock he planned a consultation on the constitution which the supreme court and congress judged illegal, being bundled into exile in Costa Rica.  Opprobrium rained down on the new administration with Honduras being suspended from the Organisation of American States (OAS).  Despite this condemnation, the administration pressed ahead with its own timetable, carrying out the previously scheduled presidential election at the end of the year and which was won for the establishment party of Porfirio Lobos.  Lobos had previously stood against Zelaya in 2005, losing on that occasion.  Following the election many countries re-established ties with Honduras.  In June 2011 Honduras was readmitted to the OAS while the following month a Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Zelaya had indeed been overthrown in a coup.
Towards the future
The immediate response to Lugo’s ousting has been widespread condemnation within the region.  Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has even suggested that Paraguay might face similar sanctions, including its banishment from the regional common market, Mercosur, and the continent-wide body, Unasur.  Meanwhile, the US has avoided any explicit statement, limiting itself to expressing its commitment to the use of due process.  This raises questions as to whether Washington views this as a coup or not.  The US position is important, since it has influence through the use of foreign and military assistance in that country.
Given the Washington’s stance and the wider regional outrage, it is difficult to see how this will lead to any significant change on the ground in Paraguay.  The instigators of Lugo’s removal can claim that they have followed constitutional processes, which provides a similar veneer of legitimacy to their actions as that in Honduras three years ago.  At the same time this approach offers a way for the Franco government to keep the door open to reconstitute ties with its neighbours in the near future.  This will be helped by the new administration’s decision to follow the election timetable and not stay in place beyond April 2013.
In sum then, the effect of the Paraguayan right’s actions only serves to expose the level and the extent of the opposition to social, political and economic reform by the left, both in Paraguay and Latin America more generally.  It demonstrates the unwillingness of established political actors to allow challenges to the status quo and the way in which coups can be engineered ‘legally’.  At the same time it exposes the relative impotence of international actors in ensuring that the constitutional mandates of democratically elected presidents are adhered to.  Consequently, this raises questions as to how the region’s governments (and societies) can ensure that such actions are prevented from taking place in the future.  Just as international criticism and sanctions failed to dislodge the coup fixers in Honduras in 2009, so it would appear that the same will happen in Paraguay in 2012.

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