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Constitutional Coups… intervention for the 21st century

25 June 2012

There is no coup here, no institutional breakdown. It’s a legal step that the constitution and the laws of my country permit in order to make a change when the situation becomes unworkable.

— Federico Franco, de facto President of Paraguay

Didn’t Obama accept this excuse from the Micheletti Government in Honduras when they bent the law to hustle their president out of the country a few years back, too?  While the U.S. might buy such bullshit, the government’s this side of the Rio Bravo del Norte know coups when they see them.

A couple of quick reminders.  While the Paraguayan Chamber of Deputies had the constitutional authority to vote for impeachment, the rationale seems pretty thin… basically, a botched police operation (on behalf of a major land-owner) was used by the right-wing parties to claim that Francisco Lugo was just not up to the job.

The version of events from the media and police is that a group of agents was attacked when it entered the estate of millionaire Blas Riquelme – who was linked to, and enriched by, former dictator Alfredo Stroessner – which was being occupied by members of the Carperos Campesino Movement. [Translator’s note: Carperos are landless campesinos struggling to obtain land promised to them by land reform.] The Rural Association of Paraguay adds to this tale the “certain” link between the farmworkers and the guerillas of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP): “This fact, plus the use of automatic weapons and explosive devices, suggests something more than a simple group of landless campesinos. It was a heavily armed and organized group, capable of dealing a fatal blow to regular police forces.”

It is an implausible version of the facts, given that the composition of victims so far indicates that there were more dead among rural farmworkers (11) than police (7); the latter group included two members of the Special Operations Group.

The account by campesino Quiroga differs from that offered by most of the media, the police and the landowner’s association. “There is no truth to the claim that there were automatic weapons in our comrades’ camp. I can tell you, comrade, that we have no connection to any guerrillas; for us, the EPP does not exist. They are inventing the story to discredit campesinos when they organize better, because we do not want to continue hoping that someday the ill-gotten lands will be given to us, we campesinos are fighting for our rights.”

Even if Lugo was responsible in some way for the deaths, the Senate trial was highly irregular. The Paraguayan Constitution calls for accused persons to have an “adequate defense”, but with only 24 hours to prepare a defense (one assumes President Lugo didn’t have to spend much time hiring lawyers, anyway), that is not adequate. And, when one of the Senators said, “We already know the facts,” there is something more than a little hinky about the process.

“…in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles”

The U.S. made some non-committal statement (“We urge all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles”) , but so far has not shown any willingness to even acknowledge that there was a coup… constitutional or otherwise.

Since the late 2000s, relationships between Washington and Asunción have been deteriorating. The mysterious Mariscal Estigarribia Airport project, built by U.S. military personnel in the early 2000s, was widely suspected of being a “front” for U.S. penetration into that landlocked country (and a way to keep an eye on supposed pro-Arab residents in northeast Paraguay). The country is dirt poor, and, much to Washington’s chagrin, even under the former Colorado Party rule, was turning to it’s leftist neighbors and Cuba for development assistance.

In September 2009, Paraguay

… rejected an extension of a military cooperation deal with the United States. On Thursday, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said his government would stop conducting a series of military exercises with US troops. Lugo cited recent hemispheric opposition to an agreement extending the US military presence inside Colombia.

While those might be of concern to U.S. strategic thinking, more to the point is Paraguay, while still stuck with U.S. “assistance” in training the military, and with the large landowners´stranglehold on the economy,  was making progress towards land reform and in forging economic and political integration with its less-foreign dependent neighbors:  Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia.  The coup has the happy advantage for the U.S. of suspending Paraguay’s participation in Mercosur… the South American common market.

And, it needs to be mentioned, that with Presidential elections in Paraguay scheduled for next year.  The right is split among three parties — Colorado, Authentic Radical Liberals and “Ethical Citizens” — and these parties have warring factions within themselves, but all agree that the left, which came to power in a coalition behind Lugo (the 99 percenters) , is a bigger threat to them all, than any of the rightist parties are to each other.

But, it isn’t only the left that sees the kangaroo impeachment trial as a regional issue.   The regional cooperative body, UNISUR, recognizes Fernando Lugo as the legitimate chair of their organization (it rotates among the presidents of the member states), although it is expected that under the circumstances, the chairmanship will pass to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala when they meet to discuss the situation later this week.

While, as expected, the left-ier of the regional states, notably Venezuela and Ecuador, have been the most condemnatory of the “parliamentary coup”, UNISUR member Chile — under a rightist administration as well as the conservative governments of Costa Rica and Mexico (not a UNISUR member, but an interested party) have  recalled their ambassadors for consultation and are considering further sanctions.

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