What will Washington do about Fernando Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay?

Source: The Guardian Unlimited, Comment Is Free

A coup d’etat is taking place right now, Friday afternoon, in Paraguay.

That is how it has been described by a number of neighboring governments. And the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is treating it as such, taking it very seriously. All 12 foreign ministers (including those of Brazil and Argentina, who are deeply concerned) flew to Asunción Thursday night to meet with the government, as well as the opposition in Paraguay’s Congress.

The Congress of Paraguay is trying to oust the president, Fernando Lugo, by means of an impeachment proceeding for which he was given less than 24 hours to prepare and only two hours to present a defense. It appears that a decision to convict him has already been written, and will be presented Friday evening (at 20.30 GMT). It would be impossible to call this due process under any circumstances, but it is also a clear violation of Article 17 of Paraguay’s constitution, which provides for the right to an adequate defense.

The politics of the situation are clear enough. Paraguay was controlled for 61 years by the rightwing Colorado party. For most of this time (1947-1989), the country was ruled by dictatorship. President Lugo, a former Catholic bishop from the tradition of liberation theology who had fought for the rights of the poor, was elected in 2008, but did not win majority backing in the Congress. He put together a coalition government, but the right – including the media – has never really accepted his presidency.

I met Fernando Lugo in early 2009, and I was impressed with his patience and long-term strategy. He said that given the strength of the institutions aligned against him, he did not expect to gain all that much in the present; he was fighting so that the next generation could have a better life. But the opposition to him was ruthless. In November of 2009, he had to fire his top military officers because of credible reports that they were conspiring with the political opposition.

The main trigger for the impeachment is an armed clash between peasants fighting for land rights with police, which left at least 17 dead, including seven police officers. The land in dispute was claimed by the landless workers to have been illegally obtained by a Colorado party politician. But this violent confrontation is merely a pretext, as it is clear that the president had no responsibility for what happened. Nor have Lugo’s opponents presented any evidence for their charges in today’s “trial”. President Lugo proposed an investigation into the incident; the opposition was not interested, preferring their rigged judicial proceedings.

Lugo’s election was one of many across South America – Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador – in which left governments were elected over the past 14 years, changing the political geography of the hemisphere. With that, came increasing political unity on regional issues – especially in confronting the United States, which had previously prevented left governments from coming to power or governing.

So, it is not surprising to see the immediate and urgent response by South American countries to this coup attempt, which they see as a threat to their democracies. UNASUR Secretary General Ali Rodriguez insisted Lugo must be given “due process” and the right to defend himself. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said that UNASUR could refuse to recognize the next government – in accordance with a democracy clause in UNASUR’s charter.

Correa was also one of the staunchest opponents of the coup three years ago in Honduras, which ousted democratic left President Mel Zelaya. Honduras continues to suffer from extreme violence, including the murder of journalists and political opponents, under the regime that was established under the coup.

Zelaya’s ouster was a turning point for relations between the US and Latin America, as governments including Brazil and Argentina, which had previously hoped that President Obama would depart from the policies of his predecessor were rudely disappointed. The Obama administration made conflicting statements about the Honduras coup, and then – in opposition to the rest of the hemisphere – did everything it could to make sure that the coup succeeded. This included blocking, within the OAS, efforts by South American nations to restore democracy in Honduras. At the latest Summit of the Americas, Obama – in contrast to the summit of early 2009 – was as isolated as his predecessor George W Bush had been.

The Obama administration has responded to the current crisis in Paraguay with a statement in support of due process. Perhaps, they have learned something from Honduras and will not actively oppose efforts by South America to support democracy this time. And certainly, South America will not allow Washington to hijack any mediation process, if there is one – as Hillary Clinton did with the OAS in Honduras. But Washington may still play its traditional role by assuring the opposition that the new government will have support, including financial and military, from Washington. We will watch what happens.

It remains to be seen what more UNASUR will do to oppose the right’s coup in Paraguay. It is certainly understandable that the organization sees it as a threat to regional democracy and stability.