One month after the ousting of Fernando Lugo, Socrates Fabiano discusses what the white coup in Paraguay means for South American politics

In June 2009, many in Latin America felt a sense of dèjá vu. The elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, who was leading a centre-left government in the country, was flown to Costa Rica in a military plane, after being dismissed from his presidency due to an overnight decision by judges of the Honduran Supreme Court.

The event was reminiscent of the 1960s and 70s when military coup d’états sponsored by the United States swept away democratically elected governments across the continent. But in Zelaya’s case, the means were a little different: instead of tanks and soldiers, it was a republican institution (the Supreme Court) which ousted the president from power, creating a ‘legal aspect’ which aimed to give legitimacy to the process. Needless to say, behind the manoeuvre were Honduran conservative forces who were not at all happy with some of Zelaya’s policies, such as his relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

June 2012, and a sensation of dèjá vu was again felt in the region. This time it happened in Paraguay, a country with a population of just over 7 million people, which saw its left-wing president Fernando Lugo overthrown by another ‘white coup’. Again, the manouevre appeared to be based on legality. Lugo was dismissed from office after the Paraguayan Congress approved his impeachment with a big majority of votes in both legislative houses. It may have gone through a legal process, ok. But it was not legitimate in any way whatsoever, just as in Honduras three years earlier.

The trigger that started the impeachment process was a conflict between police and carperos (organized peasants claiming land rights) in the rural zone of Paraguay, on June 15. The clash left 6 policeman and 11 carperos dead, and was immediately turned into a national crisis by opposition media and parties. It was the opportunity they were waiting for.

Right after the deaths, the opposition Colorado Party managed to co-opt congress members of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (ARLP) – until then, allied within the Lugo government. Together these parties had the majority of votes in Congress, and they opened a process of presidential impeachment alleging ‘bad performance of duties’. This was on June 21 and Lugo was given only 16 hours to prepare his defence. On the next day, he had only 2 hours to explain it. This made very clear that his destiny was already decided beforehand.

Lugo was dismissed from the presidency with the votes of 39 out of 45 possible of Paraguayan senators. In his place, his vice-president, Frederico Franco from the ARLP, the party that had betrayed him, took office.

Lugo has accused the businessman Horacio Cartes of being behind the coup. Cartes is expected to be the presidential candidate for the Colorado party at the next elections, which are programmed to be held next year. His party represents the most conservative forces in Paraguay. It governed the country for six decades, including 35 years of military rule. This dynasty was only brought to an end in 2008, when Lugo was elected.

Immediately after the impeachment, Lugo was backed by South American governments who put in place a ‘diplomatic siege’ on the new Paraguayan president, withdrawing their ambassadors from the capital, Assunción, and refusing to recognise Franco’s rule as legitimate. Moreover, thousands of Lugo’s supporters took to the streets, demanding his return to power. This was despite the fact that Lugo’s public response to the plot was very timid and weak.

But none of this caused any big change in the situation, and Franco remains as the new Paraguayan president.

In the days following the coup, Wikileaks published a memo which showed that US embassy in Assunción had been aware, at least since 2009, of attempts by the Paraguayan opposition to oust Lugo from the presidency via an impeachment. There was also other curious news involving the United States government. Lopez Chavez, a right-wing congressman, is said to have held talks with Pentagon representatives to discuss the creation of a US military base in Paraguay, on the borders with Bolivia. It’s no surprise therefore that the US didn’t take long to recognise the new government.

Now, a month after the coup, the government of Franco is trying to get rid of everything that is still left from the former government. Many public employees considered sympathetic to Lugo have been dismissed. Some radio stations that opposed to the coup are threatened with being shut down.

So Latin America has seen the second left-wing government ousted by a ‘white coup’ in three years. The question that remains is: who is going to be the next?