Photo by: Juan Alberto Pérez Doldán, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/38384810@N02/3531158719/
President Fernando Lugo, struggling to consolidate power since taking office in 2008 in Paraguay’s first meaningful transfer of power in 60 years, was removed from office on Friday by the same elites who had resisted him all along. In a series of lightning actions, the Senate convened an impeachment process – giving him only two hours to prepare a defense – and voted him out of office. Opposition leaders cited the government’s mishandling of a squatter protest earlier this month, resulting in 17 dead, but they had been undermining him from day one of his administration. By Friday afternoon, Lugo accepted his removal and left the Presidential residence. His vice president, Federico Franco, was sworn in and subsequently declared, “The country is calm. … Activity is normal and there is no protest.”
International reaction was slow at first, as the region focused on an environmental summit in Brazil. But Brazil, Argentina and the ALBA nations condemned Lugo’s ouster and threatened sanctions. President Dilma Rousseff urged immediate suspension of Paraguay in Mercosur and UNASUR, and Brasilia and others have withdrawn their ambassadors. The U.S. State Department expressed “concern” at first and then urged “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles.” The OAS held an extraordinary session of the Permanent Council and sent a fact-finding mission to Asunción.
As President Lugo said, the action was as much against “Paraguay’s history, its democracy” as it was against him. Like the coup that removed President Mel Zelaya in Honduras three years ago, the action was intended to stop a popular president and influence elections scheduled in coming months, but Zelaya was removed and exiled by the military, and the Congressional documents sanctioning it were fabricated after the fact. The events in Paraguay pose an important challenge to the democracy clauses of the various regional charters (Mercosur, UNASUR, OAS) as well as the leadership of the region’s biggest democracies, including Brazil and United States. At this early point, the Paraguayan elites probably judge that they can weather the storm because the U.S. and Brazil – with the diplomatic tensions about the Honduran coup, elections and reaccession to the OAS still fresh – have few options for restoring Lugo to presidency. Insofar as entrenched elites sense that Washington will react mildly to the removal of democratically elected presidents they can cast as “leftist,” coups like those that have taken place in Honduras and Paraguay will continue.