Paraguay President overthrown in “express coup” by Congress

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On June 22, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo was deposed in a 39 to 4 impeachment vote by the country's Senate. Vice President Federico Franco was sworn in as the new president. The move took Paraguayans by surprise because of its speed (Lugo called it an "express coup"), lasting only 48 hours from start to finish.

Paraguay (population 6.5 million) has been one of the poorest countries in South America since its neighbors invaded it, took away its access to the sea and killed most of its male inhabitants in the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864-1870.

Among South American countries, it has the largest proportion of speakers of an indigenous language (Guaraní). Two percent of the population owns more than 80 percent of the agricultural land, raising soybeans, cattle, tobacco, yerba maté and other products for export. The per-capita Gross Domestic Product (PPP) is only about $5,500.

From 1954 until he was overthrown in a coup in 1989, a U.S. supported military dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner, ruled Paraguay with an iron hand. Stroessner was supported by the Colorado ("Red") Party, and played an important role in U.S. efforts against the Latin American left.

In Apr. 2008, Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic cleric, was elected president on a promise to help the poor, including instituting land reform. However, he did not have his own major political party and therefore has had to rely on unstable alliances with other parties in Congress.

One of these is the Authentic Radical Liberal Party of Vice President (now President) Federico Franco, with 26 seats in the 80 seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and 14 in the 45 seat Senate. Another is the National Union of Ethical Citizens, controlled by former General Lino Oviedo, suspected by many of dictatorial ambitions. This has 16 seats in the Chamber and 9 in the Senate. The Colorados have 29 seats in the Chamber and 15 in the Senate.

Concessions to these forces have annoyed the left, which has called on Lugo to rely, rather, on mobilized mass movements in the style of Venezuela's Chavez or Bolivia's Morales. Lugo has been accused by the right of stirring up trouble by encouraging the aspirations of the poor, and his efforts to bring Paraguay into full participation with the economic integration projects of the region have brought accusations of high-handedness and lack of patriotism. Added to these troubles have been bouts with cancer and accusations of having fathered children out of wedlock.

Nevertheless, with elections scheduled for Apr. 2013, Paraguay's economic indicators have been looking up under Lugo, with a steady growth rate and advances in health care.

The principal incident that was used as a pretext to unseat Lugo was a clash between squatters and police on an estate near Curuguaty. The estate belongs to Blas Requelme, a Colorado politician, who acquired it during the Stroessner dictatorship (illegally, according to the squatters). In the clash, at least 17 people were killed: Six police officers and the rest peasants.

President Lugo expressed regret, and pushed out his Minister of the Interior and Chief of Police. Nevertheless, on June 21, the entire Radical Liberal group in the lower house of Congress ditched Lugo and voted with the Colorados and Oviedo's supporters to impeach him for "poor performance of his responsibilities," with only one vote against. A trial was set up in the Senate for Friday. Lugo himself boycotted it because he was given practically no time to prepare his defense, and no evidence was presented. Lugo was ousted and Vice President Franco immediately sworn in as president.

Lugo said he accepted the verdict, but called for the struggle for justice to go on by other means, including the setting up of a parallel government. The ALBA group of countries have denounced the coup against Lugo.

Venezuela may cut off oil. Several other South American countries are refusing to recognize Franco, and Brazil has called for Paraguay to be expelled from the MERCOSUR and UNASUR trade blocs, both of whom are having meetings this coming week.

Other member countries disinvited Paraguay from the MERCOSUR meeting.  Franco, on the right wing of the Radical Liberal Party, had opposed Venezuela's application, supported by Lugo, to join MERCOSUR.

The left and the mass movements in Paraguay are not taking this lying down. There were demonstrations on Friday. The Communist Party of Paraguay, which supported Lugo in 2008 but has since been critical his concessions to the right, said:

"The miserable attitude of the majority in the National Congress, to take advantage of the blood which was shed by [our] compatriots in the Curuguaty massacre, in the context of the long struggle for the land ... so as to consummate a coup d'etat by means of impeachment, demonstrates the profoundly anti-democratic stance of the right wing politicians who mock the people's wish, so roundly demonstrated in April 2008, to initiate a process of change..."

The Party called for popular resistance, citing a poll, which showed 67 percent of Paraguayans opposed to the coup. The communists also called for strengthening the Frente Guasú - the coalition of the left, which supports Lugo.

Photo: Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo gives a news conference at the government palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, June 21, 2012.  Cesar Olmedo/AP

 

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