Lugo Faces First Challenges: Coup Plots and the Multi-Ring Political Circus of Paraguay

Very few who followed the political circus in Paraguay over the past two weeks were surprised when President Fernando Lugo announced that ex-General Lino Oviedo and ex-President Nicanor Duarte Frutos were plotting a coup d’etat. Lugo won the presidency in a contest between Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar and ex-General Oviedo on April 20th and, on August 15, Nicanor Duarte stepped down from the post as Lugo was sworn in.


Lugo at a campaign rally before elections

Very few who followed the political circus in Paraguay over the past two weeks were surprised when President Fernando Lugo announced that ex-General Lino Oviedo and ex-President Nicanor Duarte Frutos were plotting a coup d’etat. Lugo won the presidency in a contest between Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar and ex-General Oviedo on April 20th and, on August 15, Nicanor Duarte stepped down from the post as Lugo was sworn in. After a weekend of celebrations for Paraguayan Independence Day and the inauguration as president of the man formerly known as "the Bishop of the Poor," the chaos, which has continued to the present, began.

In the press conference that took place on September 1st, Lugo announced that General Máximo Díaz Cáceres, who acts as intermediary between the Paraguayan military and the parliament, was invited to ex-General Oviedo’s house to meet with the nation’s Attorney General Rubén Candia Amarilla, ex-president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, recently "elected" "president" of the Senate, Enrique González Quintana and other political leaders. According to General Cáceres, Oviedo asked about the "appearance" of the military to resolve a crisis over two separate senates formed by Duarte and Lugo. Immediately understanding the implications of the question, General Cáceres excused himself, left, and informed Lugo of the event.


Oviedo waves to supporters on his way to jail

Oviedo immediately denied everything and, presenting himself as the aggrieved in the situation, said that "Lugo has to make amends with me." Attorney General Amarilla called the accusations "absolutely false" and Quintana proclaimed "golpes" as "a thing of the forgotten past." 

Nevertheless, here at last was some evidence made public of the rumors of "golpes" which have been swirling around Asuncion ever since Lugo’s first week in office.

Originally, the rumors involved Paraguay’s Liberal Party Vice President, Federico Franco, a very correct, very traditional, conservative Catholic who Lugo had brushed off when he ‘neglected’ to include him in his first cabinet meetings. At that time rumors from military headquarters passed on to the civilian world had it that Franco was conspiring with unnamed military officers to find legal grounds for the impeachment of the President, enabling Franco to take the coveted throne of executive power.

 This minor drama between Lugo and Franco was eventually resolved and Franco, as candidate for a "golpista" [coup leader] was soon upstaged by the former president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who illegally registered to run for the senate while still serving as president (a no-no in Paraguay’s constitution) and wanted to be sworn in. Duarte Frutos’ possible partner in crime is ex-General Lino Oviedo, a man reputed to be as hungry for power as he is ruthless, cunning and irresponsible. Lino Oviedo is Implicated, along with then-President Raúl Cubas, in the murder of Vice President Luis Maria Argaña and suspected as mastermind of the ensuing March 26, 1999 massacre of six pro-democracy protestors, all resulting from his pardon for his part in a 1996 coup attempt. Oviedo was pardoned for his 1996 coup attempt by the Supreme Court of Paraguay just in time for him to run, and lose, a 2008 presidential bid against Lugo. He has never been tried for the murder of Argaña nor for the killing and wounding of protesters in what is known in Paraguay as "Bloody March."


Duarte at his last appearance as president (Getty Images)

Between the two of them, Duarte and Oviedo have been busy since Lugo’s election. They managed to get a vote called in the senate when most of the members were absent, electing their man, Enrique Gonzalez Quintana, to the presidency of the senate, and swearing Duarte Frutos in as senator.

The majority of the senate, composed of some Liberals, some other factions of the Colorado Party and the Alianza, Lugo’s coalition, rejected these actions and convened a parallel senate. Now, instead of the single Senate and Congress, there are two Senates and a congress in session.

According to a poll published the day that Lugo made his announcement that a coup plot was in process, 80% of the people of Asuncion think that Duarte Frutos should just go home with his token title of Senator for life as ex-president. Meanwhile, Duarte continues to bluster, sweat, swear, orate, hold forth in his little unofficial senate, and, according to rumor, plot coups in Oviedo’s home.

Paraguay Lags Behind in Facing the Past

Coup plots and political circuses are only part of the story here in Paraguay. In the midst of all this chaos, the Truth and Justice Commission issued its long-awaited report on human rights violations in the Stroessner era, almost as if to indicate what might await the country should a coup led by the ultra-right Oviedo take place.


Colorado rally

According to the document, one in five Paraguayans suffered some form of repression under the Stroessner dictatorship, which reigned for thirty five years, until 1989. Nearly three quarters of the acts of state terror were carried out by the national police (72%) while the rest were undertaken by civilian members of the Colorado Party (12%) and the Military (15%).

Coincidentally, the report was released the same week that two generals of the Argentine dictatorship were sentenced to life in prison in Argentina. In Tucuman, where the former generals were tried for the kidnapping and murder of a senator, protesters battled outside of the courtrooms with police in what would elsewhere be an unusual display of aggression: the protestors clubbed the shields of the riot police who maintained a defensive position, taking blow after blow from people who seem to no longer grant legitimacy to their national police forces.

On one hand, the coincidence points out that the impunity the South American dictators and their underlings enjoyed until the late 1980s is now coming to an end. The Southern Cone nations of Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and now Paraguay, have begun exhuming the past for possible prosecutions. On the other hand, the two simultaneous events showed how far behind the curve Paraguay is compared to Argentina in terms of dealing with the past and in terms of the level of organization of its social movements. In contrast with the trials in Argentina, there were no squads of riot police, nor large crowds of protestors outside the Municipal Theater, and Bishop Melanio Medina’s presentation of what was called a "preliminary report" was greeted with comparative silence and only occasional outbursts of anger from the audience.

While President Lugo intervened in the event to ask for pardon of the Paraguayan people on behalf of the Paraguayan state and said that the "fierce dictator should never again return to Paraguay," many Paraguayans have little confidence that the nation has turned a corner in politics, especially given that even then rumors of a possible coup were running wild through the capital city.

The Colorado Party, with a large number of Estronistas (as Strossener’s supporters are called) still filling its ranks, continues to dominate the legislative and judicial branches of government, making anything more than a simple denunciation of Stroessner difficult, at the very least. Indeed, the party only recently lost control of the executive branch which it dominated for over sixty years.

Fighting to Keep the Presidency


Rally For Lugo, Election Season

While Lugo has taken steps to replace some heads of different branches of the military and purge the national police of its worst elements, some fear these actions could backfire, especially given the context of great political instability facing the country. Certainly some in the National Police and the military would welcome a good housecleaning, but it’s also clear that military and police facing purges for crimes committed under the dictatorship would find it tempting to seek refuge in the Oveido mansion — and they certainly wouldn’t be alone.

Disloyal sectors of the military disposed to carry out a coup would find themselves in the company of that shadowy sector known here only as "la mafia," the smugglers of drugs and contraband, who Lugo has promised to pursue. Among the growing crowd plotting coups in the Oviedo mansion, members of two dominant sectors of Paraguay who see Lugo’s presidency as a threat to their interests would also be found: soy growers and the cattlemen aren’t likely to be left out in the cold by Oviedo and Duarte Frutos, especially as Lugo considers land reform. In short, Lugo has an impressive array of enemies lining up against him in the first two weeks of his rule.

Nevertheless, Lugo isn’t alone. During his September 1st press conference, Lugo appealed to the people, and many immediately gathered outside of the national Palace to show support for him and his presidency. Also at his side, Lugo has the majority of Parliament, the Constitution and the people of Paraguay who have elected him and are more committed to him now than they were four and a half months ago when they elected him president. Even a majority of the sectors of Colorado Party have shown their support of Lugo and condemned any plots against the executive.

Meanwhile, Lugo’s most hardcore supporters have lost no time in organizing themselves. The Frente Social y Popular [Popular Social Front], formed a mere month after the election of Lugo, has called for a major mobilization of the people for Thursday, September 4th. The Frente represents dozens of the hundreds of social movement organizations who are likely to turn out in the thousands to support their president.

Some supporters, however, feel that Lugo still needs to make the transition from his persona as the good Christian bishop to that of Chief Executive of the nation. As president, Lugo has yet to show he is willing to defend himself by rolling up his sleeves and going to fisticuffs with his opponents at the appropriate moment.

Oviedo and Duarte Frutos appear to be getting ready for the brawl as they have been practicing in the Senate for nearly two weeks — and they seem to think they’re only in the first round. Oviedo is known to thrive on chaos, and appears to be clear on how to use it to his political advantage. As a fighter he is ruthless, and his partner in crime, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, is an experienced political animal.

Lugo may win this first round, but awaiting Lugo after this battle may be his own Vice President Franco, preparing for the second round with legal devices, and watching his president’s every move for a possible misstep. Franco could easily find backing with those same forces now allied with Duarte Frutos and Oviedo.

The president’s opponents are prepared to play for keeps. Fernando Lugo has yet to prove he will be an even match. 

Clifton Ross is the translator and co-editor with Ben Clarke of "Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews from the Zapatista National Liberation Army." He has also written, edited or translated a half dozen other books of poetry, fiction, interviews and translations from Latin America. Most recently, Ross wrote, directed and produced "Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out," a feature-length documentary released May 20 of this year and available from PM Press ( He can be reached at