A coup is taking place right now – June 22 – 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 ousted 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 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.
(Updated to reflect actual occurrence of the coup.)