Threats mount against populist Paraguay president

Former bishop Fernando Lugo gained Paraguay’s presidency in 2008 supported by a multifaceted coalition of popular forces. Since then, he has begun to introduce progressive policies such as free health care and education, and has initiated land reform efforts. In the summer this year, he refused entry of U.S. troops masquerading as humanitarian workers into a country where poverty exceeds 32 percent and industrial agriculture has caused massive displacement of rural inhabitants.

Lugo and his movement ousted from power the oligarchic Colorado Party for the first time in 71 years, 35 of them under a brutal U.S. supported military dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. In June, Lugo signaled his aspiration for Paraguay to join the Venezuelan and Cuban – inspired Bolivarian Alliance of the American Peoples, known as ALBA.

Now the other shoe is dropping. Paraguay’s Congress, controlled by the old order, has curtailed social spending. The media, long under establishment sway, unleashed a blitz aimed at “generating a climate of tension and instability” projecting governmental weakness. “The object is a legal coup which removes the President,” suggested Arístides Ortiz, writing on

Earlier this year, Lugo weathered a storm of publicity about reported sexual liasons during his tenure as bishop.

Lugo’s call last August for a constitutional assembly triggered media condemnation for his alleged subversion of the constitution.  Opponents pointed to his backing of constitutional changes favoring presidential re-elections – now denied – and participatory democracy.

Two weeks ago, leftist guerrillas known as the Popular Paraguayan Army kidnapped rancher Fidel Zavala Serrati. As if on cue, accusations mounted that FARC insurgents from Colombia had provided the group with military training.

The specter of armed anti-government shenanigans materialized. Wealthy rancher Eduardo Avilés issued an email last week to the Paraguay Farmers’ Association, which he heads, that ended up on computers throughout Paraguay.  Printed versions appeared in the streets of Asuncion.

In this document, Aviles called for formation of a paramilitary group he designated as the “Paraguayan Anti-Communist Command.” He sought money to free Fidel Zabala and to buy arms. Aviles would “pursue, seize, and physically liquidate all communists.” He warned Lugo that “his party is beginning to end, that his dallying with Chávez, Morales, Correa, Castro and others has its days numbered.”

Forced to leave his native Chile in 1971 for his role in the killing of General René Schneider – part of the destabilization campaign against President Salvadore Allende which eventually led to the bloody September 11, 1973 coup in that country – Avilés settled permanently in Paraguay in 1987. He is described as an “intimate friend” of former General Lino Oviedo, an experienced coup instigator. Oviedo is tight with the grandson of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

The left in Paraguay and regionally is sounding the alarm. The Communist Party of Paraguay issued a warning of the likelihood of a coup. “The scent of a coup is in the air,” wrote Venezuelan Communist Party International Relations Secretary Carolus Wimmer last week on his party’s web site. Wimmer likened events in Paraguay to “the doctrine applied in Honduras, with the same actors: a congress controlled by the right, and with the United States lurking in the shadows.” He suggested that the U.S. government, facing reverses at the hands of newly elected people-centered governments in the region, is reverting to old coup-sponsoring habits.

These worries about U.S. intentions are strengthened by a once- secret U.S. Defense Department document that Colombian and U.S. officials signed last week as finalization of Colombia’s hand-over of seven bases to the U.S. military. According to a facsimile of the agreement published Nov. 4 in Bogota by Semana magazine, U. S. control of the huge Palenquero air base provides a “unique opportunity [for] a complete spectrum of operations” to confront the “threat” of “anti- U.S. governments in the region.”

Paraguay, overlying one of the world’s largest aquifers, gains strategic importance for U.S. planners from its proximity to Eastern Bolivian separatist movements opposed to the Evo Morales government. Eduardo Avilés maintains close ties with rightist landowners there, reports

Reports have circulated that Vice President Federico Franco is part of an emerging conspiracy against President Lugo. President Lugo responded that while Franco’s involvement is not clear, he does not reject the possibility.

Photo: Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and Bolivian President Evo Morales embrace April 27, 2009, after signing a historic agreement that sets the boundaries between their countries that had been undefined since a war in the 1930s./CC



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.