seven ways of reporting on a coup: the overthrow of Paraguayan president Lugo

A coup d’etat is taking place right now, Friday afternoon, in Paraguay.

So began a report by Mark Weisbrot published in the Guardian on Friday 22nd June. Weisbrot continuing:

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.1

In his article entitled “What will Washington do about Fernando Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay?”, Weisbrot also reminds us of the meddling part played by the Obama administration (and especially of Hillary Clinton) during the 2009 Honduran coup, which led to the overthrow of democratic left President Manuel Zelaya:

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 [Organization of American States], 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.

And the prospects this time? Weisbrot offers his thoughts as news of the coup is still breaking:

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.

So we waited and then, just a few days later [June 24th], and, as the BBC reported, Washington responded with the following message:

The US urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility”.2

Whilst by June 28th (almost a week after the coup) the BBC were still taking an impartial stance and not prepared to declare that any kind of coup had actually taken place. The question no longer being one of ‘rule of law’ but more simply a matter to be settled by Paraguayan public opinion, which they therefore set out to canvass:

People in Paraguay seemed to have different opinions on the impeachment and removal of President Fernando Lugo from office a few days ago.

Some people called the measure taken by the Senate as a coup against the democracy, others think the decision was the result of his poor performance as a leader.3

Unsurprisingly, the BBC succeeded in finding a relatively even balance of opinions when they put together the vox pop montage that you can watch here.

So what’s the truth about the removal of Fernando Lugo? Was it a matter of legitimate impeachment after Mr Lugo’s “poor performance” or simply a new kind of “express coup d’etat”? Well, here’s a report by Jorge Heine published in The Hindu that digs a little deeper and sets the story within a somewhat wider context:

Although hit, like every other country, by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, in 2010, the Paraguayan economy grew 14.5 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world, comparable to the rates clocked by Singapore or some of the Gulf Emirates, and Paraguay’s highest in 30 years. It grew again at 6 per cent in 2011, and prospects are upbeat for this year as well. In other words, the country is booming, and doing better than it ever did in the past. […]

The last thing that could be said of Mr. Lugo is that he mismanaged the economy. If anything, he was much too cautious in the handling of social demands, and too accommodating to established interests. Though he had promised land reform, and his approval ratings were at 84 per cent in the early days of his government (as opposed to 17 per cent for his outgoing predecessor) he was unable to make headway on it, not surprising in a country as conservative as Paraguay.4

With regards to the impeachment proceedings, Heine writes:

The notion that you could give the President less than a day to prepare his defence, and a mere two hours to present it — as the Paraguayan Senate did when Mr. Lugo had asked for a couple of weeks to do so — stretches credulity. Yet, that is exactly what happened. When asked why the rush, Federico Franco, President Lugo’s VP and now his successor said “to avoid civil war”. If you believe that, you will believe anything. Paraguay is no closer to civil war than Switzerland is. It is South America’s second poorest country, very conservative, with many issues, but certainly not on the verge of civil war.

And what does Heine make of Washington’s involvement?

This raises an interesting question. Should the United States, the alleged champion of democracy worldwide, embrace and sign FTAs with countries that are forced to leave regional integration schemes for violating the democratic clause? The equanimity with which the U.S. State Department reacted to the soft coup in Paraguay (“We urge all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles” (sic)) hints that, after legitimising the coup in Honduras, and accepting without as much as a blink the ouster of President Lugo in Paraguay, the defence of democracy and the rule of law in the Americas is not a high priority in Washington these days.

But then obviously we know this already, and who is Jorge Heine anyway…? Well, he is chair of global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at Centre for International Governance Innovation, CIGI. The CIGI is, in turn, in partnership with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, INET. In short then (and seeing beyond all the MUDI acronyms), Heine is a leading academic proponent of globalisation and someone uncomfortably close to a certain George Soros (already featured in a number of posts on this blog). All of which caused me to wonder if there wasn’t perhaps just a little more to Washington’s involvement in Lugo’s fall than meets Heine’s rather too well-connected eyes?

And it turns out that there is indeed another part to the jigsaw:

If you go by WikiLeaks, Lugo’s removal reads like the chronicle of a foretold coup. According to cables from the US embassy in Paraguay leaked by WikiLeaks, the coup has been on the table since 2009.

According to the cables the leader of the extreme right wing Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Éticos (UNACE, National Union of Ethical Citizens) disgraced General Lino Oviedo, and the former president, the Partido Colorado’s Nicanor Duarte Frutos began plotting the end of Lugo shortly after he took over.

According to WikiLeaks, their objective was to profit from Lugo’s political slips – which have been a few – to impeach him, appoint Federico Franco and force a general election within 90 days. Now, whether Lugo’s overthrow last week was the culmination of the 2009 plot made public by WikiLeaks remains nebulous.5

This wikileaks evidence that plans of a coup were already known by the US administration back in 2009 is also available in numerous other places around the web:

The extract quoted above was taken from an interesting post written by Antonio Castillo, a journalist and journalism lecturer at The University of Sydney, who in the same piece asserts that “What happened in Paraguay last week was a ‘political coup.’” Castillo being another author who is concerned by obvious parallels with the 2009 Honduras coup:

The final aspect that emerges from the Paraguayan crisis is that perhaps we are witnessing a “new kind of coup.” This new kind of coup – like the one against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009 – is more sophisticated and dressed up in some sort of legality. But it is essentially a coup – a conspiracy of the political elite that will resort to any measures to stop any leader who might have links to progressive social movements in the region.

But then there is perhaps yet another side to all of this. We are given the impression by many of the commentators who are sympathetic to Lugo that his reforms have been far-reaching, whereas Castillo, on the other hand, sees the same reforms as having been mostly stifled and essentially failed:

The agrarian reform he promised – to end the land monopoly orchestrated by the former dictator Alfredo Stroessner – didn’t go anywhere, while the demands from the popular sector fell on deaf ears. During the past four years, the popular social movement lost ground while the right became the beneficiary of Lugo’s many concessions. Even his nemesis, the Partido Colorado benefitted from his incongruous political decisions, including the hand over of the Ministry of Agriculture to neoliberal exponents and the appointment – after the incident in Curuguaty – of Rubén Candia from the Partido Colorado to the Ministry of Interior.

In reality Lugo never threatened the financial and political interests of Paraguay’s oligarchy. It would be a mistake to say the coup was intended to end a progressive left wing government – as was the case in 1970s Chile under Salvador Allende. Let’s be clear, Lugo’s government was never in that league.

Click here to read more of Antonio Castillo’s analysis.

Not that Castillo is a lone voice in making this assessment. Here are the altogether more radical thoughts of William Prieto writing for socialistworld.net:

Lugo came to power in 2008, backed by an eclectic coalition of parties, with a margin of 10% over his nearest rival from the Colorado Party. His election was an historic blow to The Colorado Party, the traditional political voice of the ruling class, which governed uninterrupted for 61 years until Lugo’s election, including during the 35 years of the bloody Stroessner dictatorship. […]

However, there are key elements which differentiate the Paraguayan experience from the processes in Venezuela and Bolivia for example. Lugo was elected as candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, which despite including many political and social organisations of the workers and peasants, was also backed by the Liberal capitalist, Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), which saw in Lugo’s election an opportunity to occupy positions of political power benefiting from the breaking of Colorado’s monopoly. This party is the very one which Federico Franco leads and which led the charge to remove Lugo!

Prieto, who is a member of the Trotskyist Socialismo Revolucionario [Revolutionary Socialist] party in Venezuela, believes that these contradictions were a ticking time-bomb always ready to be exploited as during the instigation of the recent coup:

[Thus,] From the very beginning, the Lugo presidency contained the contradictions which have been exploded in this coup. […]

This is a consequence of Lugo’s mistaken approach, basing himself on negotiations and alliances with pro-capitalist parties (including the Colorado party) in parliament, rather than on the movements and mobilisations of the working masses to achieve their demands for real change. As the other revolutionary processes in Venezuela and Bolivia, the experience of Left governments is proving in practice the need for a political fight based on a struggle of the workers and peasants, through independent and democratic political organisations armed with a programme to break the power of imperialism and the oligarchs.

If decisive anti-capitalist measures are not adopted, a “balancing act” between reforms benefiting the poor and the maintenance of the rule of the multinationals and landlords can only end in the wearing out of the struggle and return of the right wing. In Paraguay, commentators are suggesting that Lugo’s removal is part of the preparations for the right wing to be able to take power again in the 2013 elections in 9 months’ time. Indeed, as an article in El Pais following the coup on 24 June, described as “a miracle” the fact that Lugo had been able to remain in power until now, going on to speculate that: “this miracle can only be explained by assuming that the interests of the landlords were not put into question”.6

However, the most comprehensive overview I’ve discovered so far was published this weekend in Counterpunch. Written by Gabriel Rossman and entitled simply “Return of the Coups”, the piece begins:

On June 22, the Paraguayan Congress impeached President Fernando Lugo, a progressive who assumed office in 2008. Although technically legal, Lugo’s removal threatens the very integrity of democracy in Paraguay. It is the latest in a disconcerting series of attacks against progressive governments in South America that highlights the vulnerability of its nascent democratic institutions and calls into question the trend of democratization in the region.7

Click here to read Gabriel Rossman’s complete article at Counterpunch.

Finally, there is one person whose important opinion has been strangely absent during the last few weeks of turmoil: that person being, of course, Fernando Lugo himself. On Thursday [July 12th] Lugo broke his silence giving an exclusive interview on Russia Today:

RT: Mr. President, right after you were voted out of office, you spoke as if you were resigning of your own accord. You also looked as if you weren’t quite yourself. Later we saw a more energetic Lugo, like the one we see now. So why did you fail to be as convincing in your resistance to the coup in those first hours?

FL: I saw people out in the square. They wanted me to go because of the ministers. I knew that a new massacre was being prepared.

I am a convicted pacifist. I didn’t want to see any Paraguayan lose their blood as a result of violence. That is why we went along with this illegal and unfair process. It was a politically-charged trial disguised as a constitutional process. As one MP said, it all looked like a circus designed to depose a democratically-elected president.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the interview on the Russia Today website.

1 From an article entitled “What will Washington do about Fernando Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay?”, written by Mark Weisbrot, published in the Guardian on June 22, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/22/washington-fernando-lugo-ouster-paraguay

2 From an article entitled “Lugo denounces removal from Paraguay presidency as coup”, published by BBC news on June 24, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-18569378

3 From an article entitled “’I think this was a coup’, says Paraguayan resident” posted by BBC news on June 28, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-18633364

4 From an article entitled “A soft coup in South America”, written by Jorge Heine, published in The Hindu on July 12, 2012. http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article3628430.ece

6 From an article entitled “Fernando Lugo brought down in “legal” coup d’etat”, written by William Priesto, posted by socialistworld.net on June 29, 2012. http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/5830

7 From an article entitled “From Honduras to Paraguay: Return of the Coups” written by Gabriel Rossman, published in Counterpunch on July 13–15, 2012. http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/07/13/return-of-the-coups/

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Honduras, Paraguay, USA

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