The Significance of Paraguay

What happened last month in Paraguay was not a coup, nor was it a violation of the national constitution. But it did result in President Fernando Lugo, a left-wing former Catholic bishop, swiftly being expelled from office, and it has caused a diplomatic firestorm throughout Latin America.

Here’s a brief summary of what prompted Lugo’s dismissal.

On June 15, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, 17 Paraguayans -- six police officers and eleven landless farmers -- died in a shootout following a land protest in Curuguaty, near the border with Brazil. The campesinos had been illegally squatting on an estate owned by a former Paraguayan senator and prominent member of the conservative Colorado Party, which ruled the country (first under a dictatorship, then, after 1992, under a democracy) from 1947 to 2008. The bloodshed occurred when Paraguayan police moved to evict them. Afterwards, Paraguay’s interior minister and national police chief both resigned.

But Lugo’s critics in the national congress weren’t satisfied. They pointed to the Curuguaty incident as evidence of his broader incompetence. They accused him of encouraging violent land occupations in ‪the Paraguayan town of ‪Ñacunday. And they blamed him for the country’s deteriorating security climate.

These charges, among others, became the basis for an impeachment proceeding, which commenced less than a week after the Curuguaty shootout. On June 21, in a near-unanimous (76–1) vote, the 80-member lower house of congress impeached Lugo. A day later, the 45-member upper house tried and convicted him of “poor performance” in office. Once again, the vote was overwhelming (39–4). At that point, Lugo was formally removed from office and replaced by his vice president, Federico Franco. All of this received the blessing of Paraguay’s supreme court.

No serious critic of the Paraguayan congress has denied that lawmakers acted within their authority under Article 225 of the nation’s 1992 constitution. Yet there are valid concerns about the speed with which they acted. Indeed, the entire impeachment process took less than two days, and Lugo’s attorneys were given a mere two hours to mount their defense.

In my view, it is fair to condemn Paraguayan legislators for rushing Lugo’s trial. That tainted the process and gave it the whiff of impropriety. But it is not fair to label Lugo’s ouster a coup, or to dismiss President Franco as illegitimate, or to suggest that Paraguay is no longer a “real” democracy. After all, Article 225 says nothing about the speed of an impeachment trial. While Lugo and his lawyers may have deserved more time to prepare and deliver a defense, they were not entitled to more time under the constitution.

Was impeachment an excessively harsh punishment for Lugo’s weak performance as president? Perhaps, but the Paraguayan constitution gives legislators broad discretion in determining whether impeachment is warranted. Outsiders can certainly question the prudence of trying and convicting Lugo of “malfeasance.” They can also question the hasty nature of the process. But even if the Paraguayan congress acted imprudently and hastily, its actions were undeniably lawful.

Unfortunately, the Latin American debate over Paraguay has been dominated by Hugo Chávez and his band of leftist acolytes in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, all of whom consider Lugo an ideological ally. “Chávez and his cohorts set the tone of the region’s reaction,” laments Peruvian journalist Álvaro Vargas Llosa. Not to be outdone, the Communist regime in Havana issued one of the most laughable statements in recent diplomatic history: “The Cuban Government declares that it will not recognize any authority that does not come from the legitimate suffrage and the sovereignty exercise of the Paraguayan people.”

To understand the significance of what has transpired in Paraguay, it is useful to compare the events surrounding Lugo’s ouster with the big Latin American political crisis of 2009, when the Honduran supreme court ordered the removal of President Manuel Zelaya, who was subsequently arrested and flown to Costa Rica by the military.

In each case, democratic institutions used legal and constitutional means to remove an unpopular president from office. In each case, the president’s removal was overwhelmingly supported by the legislative and judicial braches of the national government. In each case, one aspect of the process -- in Paraguay, the speed of Lugo’s trial; in Honduras, Zelaya’s exile to Costa Rica -- was held up by critics as evidence that the whole thing amounted to a coup. And in each case, Venezuela reacted furiously and drummed up a chorus of regional outrage.