Paraguay’s President ousted in impeachment trial

Paraguay's former President Fernando Lugo addressed the nation after the Senate voted to remove him from office in an impeachment trial at the Presidential palace in Asuncion on June 22.

Paraguay’s Senate removed President Fernando Lugo from office in a rapid impeachment trial and the leftist former priest said he was stepping aside even though he considered his ouster a blow to democracy.

Vice-President Federico Franco was promptly sworn in as President after tense hours during which Mr. Lugo’s supporters massed in the streets facing off with riot police. The outgoing President, who was elected on pledges of helping the poor, averted the potential for a bigger conflict by appearing on television and saying he would comply with the Senate’s vote.

“I say goodbye as President,” a smiling and gracious Mr. Lugo said shortly after the Senate vote. He said, however, that Paraguay’s democracy “has been deeply wounded.”

Mr. Franco, who had parted ways with Mr. Lugo in recent years, triumphantly donned the Presidential sash and declared: “At this time, God and destiny wanted me to assume the Presidency.”

The Senate tried Lugo on five charges of malfeasance in office, including an alleged role in a deadly confrontation between police and landless farmers that left 17 dead.

After the five-hour trial, 39 Senators voted to dismiss Mr. Lugo, while four Senators voted against and two were absent.

It was a dramatic demise for the once-popular leader who previously had stepped down as a popular Roman Catholic “bishop of the poor” to run for the Presidency amid a leftward swing in South America.

Mr. Lugo’s removal after nearly four years in office highlighted his inability to find a balance with one-time allies who increasingly disapproved of his leftist policies and strident, uncompromising style. The trial came a day after Paraguay’s lower house of Congress voted to impeach Mr. Lugo.

Crowds of pro-Lugo protesters took to the streets condemning the impeachment trial and expressing support for the President. When several dozen young protesters tried to break through a police barricade to reach Congress, police in anti-riot gear drove them back on horseback and using tear gas and water cannons.

Some protesters listened to the vote on speakers set up in the street, and booed legislators who voted for Mr. Lugo’s dismissal. When the vote was over, some chanted “Lugo President!” Others wept. After Mr. Franco’s swearing in, the crowd of protesters waned.

Mr. Franco, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, is now to serve out the rest of Mr. Lugo’s term, which ends in August 2013. The 49-year-old Mr. Franco has political experience as a former state Governor and at first had been part of a political alliance that supported Mr. Lugo.

Mr. Lugo decided not to attend the trial, instead watching on television from the Presidential palace while his lawyers spoke on his behalf.

The Senate rejected a request by his lawyers for a period of 18 days to prepare their arguments. The Senate’s President, Jorge Oviedo, said there were no grounds for such a request.

“I’m angry. More than because of the impeachment trial, because of the reaction of the Liberals who are celebrating as if they won elections,” said protester Fiorella Galli. “The country is in a complete situation of insecurity and instability.”

A smaller group of pro-Franco demonstrators gathered for a separate rally during the congressional proceedings, holding signs reading: “The trial is constitutional.”

Afterward, Mr. Lugo left the Presidential palace as the military guard formally saw him off with a bugle tune.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he won’t recognise the “illegal and illegitimate government” that replaced Mr. Lugo. Speaking to reporters in Caracas, Mr. Chavez said his ally “preferred the sacrifice” of stepping aside, and that the trial had been a setup.

Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, said his government also wouldn’t recognise any government in Paraguay other than Mr. Lugo’s.

“This goes beyond Fernando Lugo. It goes beyond Paraguay. It’s about true democracy for all of our America,” Mr. Correa said on television.

As flag-waving protesters took to the streets in Asuncion before the trial, many schools shut down and shops closed their doors as a precaution.

Mr. Lugo was elected four years ago on promises of agrarian reform to help the country’s many poor and landless people, but his more moderate government allies have increasingly turned against him in recent years.

Mr. Lugo’s impeachment trial was triggered in part by an attempt by police to evict about 150 farmers from a remote, 4,900-acre forest reserve, which is part of a huge estate. Advocates for the farmers said the landowner, a politician, used political influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put to use for land reform.

Six police officers, including the brother of Mr. Lugo’s chief of security, and 11 farmers died in the clash last week. Mr. Lugo’s opponents blamed the President. Mr. Lugo had expressed sorrow at the confrontation and accepted the resignations of his Interior Minister and his chief of police.

The President also was tried on four other accusations, including that he improperly allowed for leftist parties to hold a political meeting in an army base in 2009; that he allowed about 3,000 squatters to illegally invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; that his government failed to capture members of a guerrilla group, the Paraguayan People’s Army, which carries out extortion kidnappings and occasional attacks on police; and that he signed an international protocol without properly submitting it to Congress for approval.

Mr. Lugo’s support had steadily eroded recently, while his opponents had grown stronger, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “It is hard to see the offenses levelled against him as anything but a pretext for removing an unpopular president,” Mr. Shifter said.

“If Presidents were ousted because of the reasons cited in this case, there would be few Latin American presidents left in office,” he said. “The opposition simply didn’t agree with Lugo’s policies and didn’t approve of the way he governed. As a result, the opposition manipulated the system, adhering to the letter of the law but departing from the principle of democracy.”

Mr. Lugo’s election in 2008 had ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, and he had regularly clashed with Congress, where he had few firm allies.

Mr. Lugo’s relationship with Mr. Franco and the moderate Authentic Radical Liberal Party quickly deteriorated after he was elected with their support. His partners were upset after he gave a majority of Cabinet ministry posts to leftist allies, and handed a minority to the moderates.

Conflicts also developed as leftist groups of landless farmers began to invade large soybean and cattle farms, trying to force the government to expropriate them. Mr. Lugo’s government didn’t have enough funds to pay compensation to farm owners, and the land seizures upset politicians who previously supported the President.

The political split had become sharply clear as Mr. Lugo publicly acknowledged that he would support leftist candidates in future elections.

A delegation of foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, travelled to Paraguay ahead of Friday’s trial to attempt to intervene. After the Senate’s verdict, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro denounced it as a “new type of coup.”

“A truly shameful act has been committed,” Mr. Maduro told reporters.

Costa Rica’s government also deplored Mr. Lugo’s dismissal, saying in a statement that it would offer him asylum if necessary.

South America Responds to Coup In Paraguay

By Mark Weisbrot

This article was published in The Guardian (UK) on June 22, 2012. If anyone wants to reprint it, please include a link to the original.

A coup 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 – and taking it very seriously. All 12 foreign ministers (including those of Brazil and Argentina, who are deeply concerned) flew to Asunción last 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 – in an impeachment proceeding in which he was given less than 24 hours to prepare and only two hours to present a defense. It appears that the decision (to convict) has already been written, and will be presented today 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 pretty clear. Paraguay was controlled for 61 years by the right-wing Colorado Party. For most of this time (1947-1989) it was a dictatorship. 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 much of the Congress. He put together a coalition government but the right – including the media – never really accepted his presidency.

I met Fernando Lugo in early 2009 and 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 his opposition 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 7 police. The land in dispute was claimed by the landless workers to have been illegally obtained by a Colorado Party politician. But this is obviously just a pretext, as it is clear that the President had no responsibility for what happened – and Lugo’s opponents have not presented any evidence for their charges in today’s “trial.” President Lugo proposed an investigation to find out what happened in the incident; but the opposition was not interested – they wanted to shoot first and ask questions later.

Lugo’s election was one of many – 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, and especially in South America. With that came increasing political unity on regional issues – and 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 America 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 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.

The Honduras coup was a turning point for relations between the U.S. 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 coup, and then – in opposition to the rest of the hemisphere – did everything that it could to make sure that the coup succeeded. This included blocking efforts by South America, within the OAS, 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 was George W. Bush.

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 can still play its traditional role by assuring the opposition that the new government will have support, including financial and military, from Washington. We will see what happens.

It remains to be seen what more UNASUR will do to oppose the right-wing coup in Paraguay. It is certainly understandable that they see it as a threat to regional democracy and stability.

Paraguay: Landowners want to bring down the Lugo administration

[Translation of an article from the Brazilian website Carta Maior for June 20]

by Dario Pignotti

“This killing of campesinos occurred as a result of a process of police violence instigated by landowners who are unhappy with President Lugo; he is not wanted by the Right or by the Brazilian farmers. Brazilian landowners like Tranquilo Favero, the richest soy producer in Paraguay, are interested in destabilizing the government, they want Lugo to fall,” declared Martín Almada, the most important representative of the Paraguayan human rights movement.

Eleven landless campesinos were killed last Friday on a farm near the border with Brazil, where tension is mounting along with demands and direct actions for agrarian reform. The confrontation between the police and the workers left seven officers dead, among them the chiefs of the Special Operations Group, a kind of Paraguayan BOPE [Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais], except that its job is not to repress favela dwellers, as in Rio de Janeiro, but the rural peasants who, since Lugo came to office in 2008, have increased their level of organization and determination to struggle, after decades of submission to the yoke of the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.

“We know from our long experience with how state violence against the population is unleashed, that these events are never isolated from a greater political intent. What factors are now at play here? What is most clear is the co-optation of the landless so they will stop challenging established power in the countryside and, beyond that, we see a maneuver to destabilize President Lugo. The Brazilian landowners and large soy producers are very interested in having Lugo not last until 2013, when his term is to end,” Almada told Carta Maior by telephone from Asunción.

Almada, winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize [the Right Livelihood Award] is a key figure in the struggle for human rights. It was he who in the ‘90s disclosed the Archives of Terror by which the terrorist networks of the Stroessner dictatorship and the South American de facto regimes formed in the ‘70s, when Operation Condor came into being, could be reconstructed.

“Because we have a justice system that is complicit with the established powers, it will never be known who inspired this massacre; what we do know is that people have benefited from this climate of political instability and violence. The agricultural businessman Tanquilo Favero, a Brasiguayo [a wealthy Brazilian who acquired land in Paraguay and became nationalized] who made a fortune thanks to favors from Stroessner, is a person everyone suspects plays hard for destabilization,” Amada comments.

What is clear is that this barbarism serves the interests of the Right, justifies the iron fist of the police and makes more feasible a bloodless coup d’état that might possibly be a political trial of Lugo, so he would be seen as obliged to resign and, in his place, Vice President Federico Franco, a very reactionary politician, would assume the office.”

In Paraguayan history, dictatorship and land ownership are two sides of the same coin.

According to a report by the Truth and Justice Commission of Paraguay, hundreds of thousands of hectares of government land were distributed by the Stroessner regime to members of the military and the haute bourgeoisie, an anomaly that has been the object of review by authorities since 2008 and that led to demands by organizations of the landless, like those who occupied the farm where the massacre occurred last week.

The Coordinadora Nacional de Tierras Irregulares has documentation on farmers whose properties are irregular for having come from government land being given away.

One of those accused of having appropriated thousands of hectares that were public is precisely the Brazilian and nationalized Paraguayan Tranquilo Favero, who does not hide his sympathy for repression of the “ignorant” campesinos, as was shown in statements he made this year, which caused a scandal.

“You can use diplomacy with educated people… it’s just that… you know the popular saying: the wife of a scoundrel is obedient only to a whip… we are dealing with people of such ignorance that you will get nowhere with diplomacy,” says the largest producer of soy in Paraguay, born in Santa Catarina.

When Favero recommends leaving “diplomacy” aside, what he is really taking about is putting aside the so-called “police protocol,” which consists of a series of negotiations the officers are to carry out with the landless before evicting them from occupied land.

It is precisely the new minister of the interior, Rubén Candia Amarilla, a politician belonging to the Partido Colorado appointed by Lugo after the killings, who is so identified with this inclination that shortly after assuming office he announced the end of the “protocol” that obliged the police to hold dialogues with the campesinos in order to avoid violence.

The climate of hostility with the landless has intensified in the past few days since the justice system ordered the detention of dozens of the landless and arrested a female rural worker, campesina Magui Balbuena told Carta Maior today.

“We have reports from our representatives at the location of the massacre saying that several campesinos were taken yesterday to the Colonel Oviedo prison, where there is an injured woman with a three-month-old child she is still breast feeding and the police took the baby, meaning she was taken to prison without her breast-feeding baby,” Magui, of the Coordinadora Nacional de Tierras Irregulares, charged.

Magui, like the Liga Campesina del Paraguay, charged irregularities in the investigations into the events that left 11 workers dead.

“We are far from beginning a real investigation to clarify the occurrences; there are strong indications that the Right is involved in all this in order to generate a political crisis and to halt the development of the process we are carrying forward in Paraguay,” the activist declares.


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