Post-Coup Paraguay: An Interview with Fernando Lugo

Fernando Lugo

“The people see me as the President. The coup leader Franco has perhaps formal control over the army and police, but that does not mean that he can control the population. And basically we believe that the people are sovereign to decide who should be president.” – Fernando Lugo

The left-leaning bishop Fernando Lugo was elected in 2008 as President of Paraguay. With his election, 61 years of rule by the conservative Colorado Party ended. Similar to what has happened in several other Latin American countries in recent years, the new government set up social programs and longstanding relations with the United States were slowly replaced by alliances with neighboring countries.

During his entire term, Lugo had a large majority in Parliament against him, and his Vice President, who was of a different political party, openly revolted against him in recent years. On June 21-22, Lugo was removed from office through impeachment on the part of parliament through a “political trial”. The impeachment of the President through a “political trial” is a special structure provided for by the Paraguayan Constitution. It allows for one chamber of parliament to start an impeachment process against the President, and for the second chamber to pass judgement on whether they find the president guilty of what the first chamber accused him of. Lugo’s lawyer Adolfo Ferreiro who defended Lugo in this impeachment trial explains how it could come to an impeachment without the president breaking any law: “Those behind this try to make believe they can start such a political trial without reason, just because they don’t like the president. They say that the reason for the trial is not important, as long as they have the necessary votes to win such a trial. They now try to confuse this with a ‘vote of non-confidence’ as it exists in some parliamentary systems. This type of vote exists in some European countries with a parliamentary system. There the government is elected by parliament and can be removed by parliament again through such a vote. Here, on the other hand, we have a presidential system, so the president is elected directly by the people and there is no direct relationship between who is president and who has a majority in parliament.”

Ferreiro was known in 2008 to publicly oppose Lugo’s candidacy and he continues to be a critic of close allies, such as the government of Venezuela. His defense of Lugo in the defense procedures is therefore generally considered as being based on an objective reading of the Paraguayan Constitution.

Lugo himself sees the entire thing as a coup d’etat: “You can call this a coup d’etat 2.0, a parliamentary coup or an express coup — many names for the same thing, a coup that is different than what we saw in the 1970s: there are no tanks or dead in the streets, and they are very careful to try to give the entire thing some kind of legal legitimacy. However, none of that changes the fact that there has been a breach of democratic principles here, and that consequently, what has happened here has been a coup d’etat.”

Re-politicization of government institutions

There have been many discussions on what concrete changes the coup-government will enact. One of the most often mentioned points is the issue of employment in the public sector. Lugo’s secretary of public employment until March this year was Lilian Soto, and she is quite proud of the changes they did in the hiring process: “Under the Colorado party, what got you a job was that you had political connections and family connections. We changed that to a formal process of checking education and experience of possible candidates.” Soto quit her job to run as presidential candidate in the 2013 elections for a feminist party and therefore felt she could not ethically continue to be part of Lugo’s government.

Lugo explains that the coup government now is trying to undo this — by deliberately dismissing people en masse based on their political ideology. “Until now, this has mainly happened in the ministries and government entities that deal with agriculture and pesticide control. In these days the labor unions of the workers in these sectors are starting to get active. That will be the next big fight.”


Lugo sees some similarities with the coup in Honduras in 2009, in which President Mel Zelaya was removed: “What is true for both cases is that a violation has taken place of democratic principles, and that the term of a democratically elected president was cut short.” But he also sees major differences: “In Honduras, we saw a coup d’etat that was closer to the original of the 1970s, in that the military had a major role. Also, there is a difference in the geo-political circumstances. In South America we are currently experiencing some important advances in regional integration, such as the trade agreement Mercosur and most recently the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). That was not so important when the coup happened in Honduras. I think these organizations represent an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), which is rapidly in decline. I will not deny that the OAS has achieved a lot in the last fifty years, but with the current polarization between United States, Canada and Mexico on one end and South America on the other, we have tried to find regional alternatives. The coup d’etat now attempts to attack the regional integration efforts.”

None of the three countries neighboring Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina have recognized the new government, nor accepted the process which brought them to power. On the contrary, the governments of these countries are among the strongest critics of what has happened. From the supporters of the coup, a common solution that is given is for Paraguay to instead work with other countries. Lugo believes this is quite unlikely to happen: “Geographically and politically, it is possible for some countries, such as Chile, Peru and Colombia to sign direct free trade agreements with the United States. But in the case of Paraguay, that is very difficult. We do not have our own coastline. And the river is under shared ownership. In order to use them as transport routes for cargo ships, we depend on agreements with Brazil and Argentina. In addition, during the neoliberal decade of the 1990s, Paraguay lost control of its airline. All this makes it difficult for Paraguay to cooperate with other countries without working together with its neighbors.”

National sovereignty vs. multinationals

Lugo believes that one could see the coup as a battle between the state and multinational companies: “If we look at some of the first things the coup makers have done, it is quite clear where this is going: First they opened the doors for genetically modified food, second they decided that soya-production should not be taxed, third the multinational Rio Tinto Alcan was allowed to establish itself in Paraguay. These are three important decisions that we had been discussing in a two year participative process in which we tried to study exactly what the consequences would be. Now all this was rushed through at an incredible pace. This shows just how important the question of national sovereignty in the process is.”

The contract with Rio Tinto Alcan is among the most criticized by Paraguayans opposed to the coup. The signing parties agree for it to run for 30 years, during which the company will get a major share of electricity produced by a major water-power plant that Paraguay co-owns for a preferable price. Lugo however believes that such deals signed by the current government will not be honored in the future, once a democratic regime has been reestablished: “I strongly doubt that the Paraguayan people will be respecting such a license that gives a single company the right to the electricity for a price as low as they have been talking about. This whole deal is very questionable.”

President of the people and the international community

Although Lugo has no control over the state apparatus, he still sees himself as president: “The people see me as the President. The coup leader Franco has perhaps formal control over the army and police, but that does not mean that he can control the population. And basically we believe that the people are sovereign to decide who should be president. I also doubt that Franco really governs the country. Besides the population, also the international community still sees me as the legitimate president of Paraguay. And in our age that is extremely important, it is almost the sole determining factor. “

Franco had indicated shortly after the coup, that he would ask Lugo for help in asking other countries not to sanction Paraguay. Lugo does not think anything of that plan: “I think most people will understand that we will not cooperate with the organizers of the coup.”

To individuals abroad who want to help Lugo democracy in Paraguay, Lugo recommends: “If one wants to support the democratic processes here, then the best you can do is to start following what is going on here. If the media reports on Paraguay, then that helps our democracy the most.”

The next presidential elections were already scheduled before the coup took place. The OAS has focused on finding out whether conditions will exist for free elections to take place. Lugo believes this is not enough: “It is a problem only to look at the future like that, and never to see the here and now. It means that one forgets what happens now and that things are not currently OK — that those formally in charge right now did not get there because the people wanted them to be there. That is why we will continue to focus on the current situation!”

Johannes Wilm is a PhD student at Goldsmiths College, University of London in social anthropology. His blog in english is in spanish