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The Significance of Paraguay

Jaime Daremblum

 What happened last month in Paraguay was not a coup, nor was it a violation of the national constitution. But it did result in President Fernando Lugo, a left-wing former Catholic bishop, swiftly being expelled from office, and it has caused a diplomatic firestorm throughout Latin America.

Here’s a brief summary of what prompted Lugo’s dismissal.

On June 15, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, 17 Paraguayans six police officers and eleven landless farmers died in a shootout following a land protest in Curuguaty, near the border with Brazil. The campesinos had been illegally squatting on an estate owned by a former Paraguayan senator and prominent member of the conservative Colorado Party, which ruled the country (first under a dictatorship, then, after 1992, under a democracy) from 1947 to 2008. The bloodshed occurred when Paraguayan police moved to evict them. Afterwards, Paraguay’s interior minister and national police chief both resigned.

But Lugo’s critics in the national congress weren’t satisfied. They pointed to the Curuguaty incident as evidence of his broader incompetence. They accused him of encouraging violent land occupations in the Paraguayan town of Ñacunday. And they blamed him for the country’s deteriorating security climate.

These charges, among others, became the basis for an impeachment proceeding, which commenced less than a week after the Curuguaty shootout. On June 21, in a near-unanimous (761) vote, the 80-member lower house of congress impeached Lugo. A day later, the 45-member upper house tried and convicted him of “poor performance” in office. Once again, the vote was overwhelming (394). At that point, Lugo was formally removed from office and replaced by his vice president, Federico Franco. All of this received the blessing of Paraguay’s supreme court.

No serious critic of the Paraguayan congress has denied that lawmakers acted within their authority under Article 225 of the nation’s 1992 constitution. Yet there are valid concerns about the speed with which they acted. Indeed, the entire impeachment process took less than two days, and Lugo’s attorneys were given a mere two hours to mount their defense.

In my view, it is fair to condemn Paraguayan legislators for rushing Lugo’s trial. That tainted the process and gave it the whiff of impropriety. But it is not fair to label Lugo’s ouster a coup, or to dismiss President Franco as illegitimate, or to suggest that Paraguay is no longer a “real” democracy. After all, Article 225 says nothing about the speed of an impeachment trial. While Lugo and his lawyers may have deserved more time to prepare and deliver a defense, they were not entitled to more time under the constitution.

Was impeachment an excessively harsh punishment for Lugo’s weak performance as president? Perhaps, but the Paraguayan constitution gives legislators broad discretion in determining whether impeachment is warranted. Outsiders can certainly question the prudence of trying and convicting Lugo of “malfeasance.” They can also question the hasty nature of the process. But even if the Paraguayan congress acted imprudently and hastily, its actions were undeniably lawful.

Unfortunately, the Latin American debate over Paraguay has been dominated by Hugo Chávez and his band of leftist acolytes in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, all of whom consider Lugo an ideological ally. “Chávez and his cohorts set the tone of the region’s reaction,” laments Peruvian journalist Álvaro Vargas Llosa. Not to be outdone, the Communist regime in Havana issued one of the most laughable statements in recent diplomatic history: “The Cuban Government declares that it will not recognize any authority that does not come from the legitimate suffrage and the sovereignty exercise of the Paraguayan people.”

To understand the significance of what has transpired in Paraguay, it is useful to compare the events surrounding Lugo’s ouster with the big Latin American political crisis of 2009, when the Honduran supreme court ordered the removal of President Manuel Zelaya, who was subsequently arrested and flown to Costa Rica by the military.

In each case, democratic institutions used legal and constitutional means to remove an unpopular president from office. In each case, the president’s removal was overwhelmingly supported by the legislative and judicial braches of the national government. In each case, one aspect of the process in Paraguay, the speed of Lugo’s trial; in Honduras, Zelaya’s exile to Costa Rica was held up by critics as evidence that the whole thing amounted to a coup. And in each case, Venezuela reacted furiously and drummed up a chorus of regional outrage.

Many journalists and policymakers in Latin America (and the United States) still refuse to acknowledge that Zelaya’s removal was lawful. But a 2009 Law Library of Congress study concluded that “the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.” To be sure, that same study also affirmed that Zelaya’s exile violated Article 102 of the Honduran constitution, and Ramón Custodio, a senior official in the interim Honduran government that took power following Zelaya’s removal, later said that sending him to Costa Rica was an “error.” (We should, however, recall that the Honduran military had a very good reason for shipping Zelaya abroad: The Chávez acolyte had made clear his willingness to use violence to maintain power.)

Back in 2009, the Organization of American States (OAS) responded to Zelaya’s ouster by temporarily suspending Honduras. (The country was readmitted in June of last year.) At the time of this writing, the Washington-based regional body had yet to suspend Paraguay over Lugo’s removal, but there was rampant speculation that it might do so.

Whatever one thinks of the impeachment controversy, it would be utterly hypocritical and morally unserious for the OAS to expel Paraguay after repeatedly turning a blind eye to the obliteration of democracy in Venezuela, not to mention autocratic abuses in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

Four years ago, for example, Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista Party blatantly stole municipal elections (including the mayoral election in Managua), prompting the United States and Europe to freeze economic aid. A year later, the Sandinistas used thuggish and illegal kangaroo-court tactics to abolish presidential term limits, thereby allowing Daniel Ortega to seek reelection. The country’s 2011 election, won by Ortega, was marred by still more Sandinista shenanigans. While the European Union’s chief election observer, Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo, agreed that Ortega was the victor, he was dubious of the Sandinistas’ official victory margin. “I am not saying that they won cleanly and transparently, because we don’t know what would have happened without all these tricks and ruses,” Yáñez-Barnuevo said.

At no point during this relentless assault on democracy was Nicaragua suspended from the OAS. Nor has Venezuela been suspended despite Chávez’s creation of a virtual dictatorship. Nor has Bolivia been suspended despite experiencing more than six years of political persecution and democratic erosion under President Evo Morales. Nor have Argentina and Ecuador been suspended despite their governments’ persistent attacks on press freedom.

By now, the double standard employed by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza (in office since 2005) is embarrassingly obvious. Regardless of their misdeeds, Chávez and other autocratic leftists have no need to fear punishment from Latin America’s premier multilateral institution.

But the problem goes beyond Insulza. If Latin America’s most powerful nations were truly serious about defending democracy in their own region, the OAS might have taken a real stand against the dictatorial abuses of Chávez & Co. Instead, countries like Brazil have allowed the Venezuelan strongman to undermine democracy both at home and abroad, without raising a peep. Indeed, on the same day last month (June 29) that the South American trade group Mercosur suspended Paraguay from attending its meetings, the group also announced that Venezuela would soon become a permanent member.

A final word about Venezuela and Paraguay: Paraguayan officials have accused Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro of trying to incite a military coup to keep Lugo in office, and they have withdrawn their ambassador from Caracas. For that matter, Venezuela was apparently not the only country that attempted to trigger a pro-Lugo uprising among the Paraguayan armed forces: As Foreign Policy blogger Francisco Toro notes, “Ecuador’s ambassador to Paraguay also tried to instigate a military revolt, qualifying the episode as a full-fledged international conspiracy.”

Just don’t expect the OAS to pay much attention.

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