Paraguay's Big Mistake

The impeachment of President Fernando Lugo wasn't a coup. But it was a very bad move.

The June 22 impeachment of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo, sent shockwaves through Latin America. Several other countries in the region, led by Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, are treating the impeachment as a coup d’etat. Moderate Center-Left and Center-Right governments, taken aback by the Far Left’s support of Lugo, have mostly gone along with Caracas.

Four years ago, Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, ended six decades of authoritarian rule under the Colorado Party with a surprise victory. He did so with the assistance of an improbable coalition of leftist and Center-Right parties that had only one thing in common—their hatred of the Colorado era. The ties between the Colorado Party, the military and entrenched agricultural interests had made Paraguay a stereotypical premodern Latin American state.

It was widely assumed that Lugo would sing to the tune of Cuba’s Castro brothers and Venezuela’s Chávez. But Lugo didn’t. Partly because of the adversity he faced and his own temperament, Lugo’s socialist-style efforts were limited to partially reforming the health-care system, giving subsidies to some twenty thousand poor families and raising taxes on soybeans.

Lugo was weakened by cancer and, to a lesser extent, scandals relating to illegitimate children he had fathered as a bishop. In a country that lost most of its young male population during a nineteenth-century war, fathering illegitimate children is widespread. Eight Paraguayan presidents have been the children of unmarried mothers.

While illness and scandal debilitated Lugo’s authority, political isolation led him to make occasional concessions to the Colorado Party. These concessions were never enough to placate the country’s large landowners, however, who wanted Lugo to stand up to Paraguay’s peasants and end their periodic land invasions.

It is ironic that Lugo was impeached following a land invasion in which the police did respond with force. After some thirty peasants raided an estate belonging to the well-known Riquelme family, the government intervened. The armed peasants killed six policemen and suffered eleven casualties, triggering the drama that eventually led to Lugo’s impeachment.

Led by the Colorado Party, with support from other legislators who were incensed that Lugo had replaced his minister of the interior with a Colorado Party member, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Paraguay’s National Congress, cited the event as the reason for opening impeachment proceedings against the president. The Senate obliged with lightning speed. Lugo’s “allies” from the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, who had been waiting for an opportunity to break ranks with him, stabbed him in the back by voting for impeachment.

In a region known for every variation of coup d’etat, it would be easy to mistake this for one. But it wasn’t a coup. Constitutional procedures were followed, and Lugo was replaced, as provided in the Constitution, by the vice president, Federico Franco, a Liberal “ally.”

The presidential elections scheduled for next April have not been canceled, and the military is quiet. Indeed, while Lugo at first condemned the impeachment, he never uttered the words “coup d’etat.” Only after Chávez and other like-minded leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere seized on Paraguay’s crisis did he claim foul.

If it wasn’t a coup, what was it?

It was a vile and stupid move by a disparate group of politicians beholden to vested interests with little in common except contempt for Lugo.

The type of incident that led to Lugo’s impeachment is commonplace in Latin America. Using it as an excuse for impeachment, just nine months before a duly scheduled election—one that the Colorado Party is likely to win—creates the appearance of an antidemocratic conspiracy, particularly when led by the Right.

This is what has cowed South America’s Center-Right and Center-Left governments, from Brazil to Chile, into letting Chávez and his cohorts set the tone of the region’s reaction.

Clearly, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador—with Cuba’s support—are not the most authoritative voices when it comes to democracy. Leaders in these countries have done enough to demolish the democratic institutions that brought them to power (infinitely more so than Lugo ever did in Paraguay) to merit impeachment. Argentina, another populist government that is becoming more radical and autocratic by the day now that its economic model has imploded, has its own reasons to fear a Paraguayan-style situation. Its voice in the Venezuela-led chorus is no surprise.

This is another good reason why the impeachment of president Lugo was a crass mistake. It has given the worst governments of Latin America a cause around which to rally, exposing the better half of South America as lacking in diplomatic backbone and self-confidence.

The effect will be to weaken the region’s democratic institutions.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute (www.independent.org), Oakland, CA, and editor of Lessons from the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit.