The questionable removal of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay by the country’s Senate, nine months before the end of his five-year-term in April 2013, raises questions about the state of democracy in South America, much as the coup in Honduras did three years ago for Central America. For a region with a recent transition to democracy, this is worrisome. For a country like Paraguay, dominated until 2008 by 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the Colorado party of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), that veritable archetype of the Latin American dictator, this is especially so.
Twenty-odd years into democratic transition and consolidation in Latin America, we were hearing that democracy had stabilised, that the concern was no longer of coups, but of the quality of democracy and the latter’s ability to deliver the goods and services citizens expected. Free and fair elections were taking place, alternation in power was the rule and civil liberties and press freedom were respected. The real challenge now, we were told, was how to move from these “low-intensity democracies”, to governments that ensured not just the respect of political and civil rights, but also those of social and economic ones. Latin America’s economic boom over the past decade and the social policies of some governments around the region were starting to make that happen, in a part of the world that continues to have the most unequal distribution of income anywhere.
A tad premature
As it turns out, those self-congratulatory pats on the back were a tad premature. On the most basic procedural aspects of democracy, the respect of the will of the people and of the mandate they give to their top leader, i.e., the President, the region has some way to go, as evidenced by what happened to Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and now Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. In parliamentary systems, governments come and go, depending on parliamentary majorities. Not in presidential systems. Presidents are elected for fixed terms, which they are supposed to complete, unless something truly extraordinary happens and/or he or she commits egregious constitutional violations.
Much has been made of the fact that this could not be called a “parliamentary coup” because there were overwhelming majorities voting against the President both in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies. Yes, the Constitution of Paraguay is poorly worded. It allows for articles of impeachment against the President for poor performance, which basically means whatever any given majority wants it to mean. Yet, impeaching the head of state is no small matter.
Following proper procedures is thus of the essence. That is what the rule of law is all about. The notion that you could give the President less than a day to prepare his defence, and a mere two hours to present it — as the Paraguayan Senate did when Mr. Lugo had asked for a couple of weeks to do so — stretches credulity. Yet, that is exactly what happened. When asked why the rush, Federico Franco, President Lugo’s VP and now his successor said “to avoid civil war”. If you believe that, you will believe anything. Paraguay is no closer to civil war than Switzerland is. It is South America’s second poorest country, very conservative, with many issues, but certainly not on the verge of civil war.
To read the articles of impeachment against President Lugo is to peruse a list of humdrum administrative situations, not very different from those faced by any government around the world on a bad (or even a good) day. The trigger that led to the impeachment was a confrontation between the police and landless peasants over a land occupation, a critical question in agrarian Paraguay. A number of peasants and policemen were killed, and the President, as governments tend to do, replaced both the minister of the interior and the police chief. Nothing surprising — yet a few days later, the head of state found himself out of office, as a result of the golpeachment, as it was called in Brazil (with “golpe”, for coup).
The bottom line is that Mr. Lugo, a former man of the cloth, known as “the bishop of the poor”, and not one to share in the customs and habits of the Paraguayan elite (no ties and pinstripe suits for him), a provincial and unsophisticated lot as it is, was disliked by the parliamentarians, who decided to get rid of him. The bearded, Mao-suit clad, liberation-theology-supporting priest just wasn’t their type, no matter what the people wanted. And this leads to the alleged reason for his highly irregular ouster, that is, “poor performance”.
Legitimacy in performance
In addition to legitimacy of origin — that is, being elected in free and fair elections — the issue of legitimacy in the performance of governmental functions has come to the fore in the region. Given the ups and downs of the Latin American economies, highly dependent on the international business cycle, economic and social crises have sometimes led to the premature termination of governments unable to cope. From 1995 to 2005, Ecuador went through seven or eight Presidents, as did Bolivia. Argentina did not do too badly, with three Presidents in one week at the height of its economic crisis in 2000-2001.
So, how did Paraguay fare under President Lugo? Was the country going down the drain, to “hell in a hand-basket” under the ministrations of the good bishop?
Well, not really. Although hit, like every other country, by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, in 2010, the Paraguayan economy grew 14.5 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world, comparable to the rates clocked by Singapore or some of the Gulf Emirates, and Paraguay’s highest in 30 years. It grew again at 6 per cent in 2011, and prospects are upbeat for this year as well. In other words, the country is booming, and doing better than it ever did in the past. This is largely driven by the cultivation of soya, of which Paraguay has become the fourth largest producer in the world, with 8.4 million tonnes in 2011, and some $1.5 billion in exports, much of it to China. President Lugo, aware of the significance of the Indian market for soya as well, had visited India in May. It is said that soya has become so significant that it has replaced smuggling as Paraguay’s main economic activity.
The last thing that could be said of Mr. Lugo is that he mismanaged the economy. If anything, he was much too cautious in the handling of social demands, and too accommodating to established interests. Though he had promised land reform, and his approval ratings were at 84 per cent in the early days of his government (as opposed to 17 per cent for his outgoing predecessor) he was unable to make headway on it, not surprising in a country as conservative as Paraguay.
Paraguay’s neighbours, which tried to prevent the crisis, realised full well the implications of it. Many have withdrawn their ambassadors from Asunción, in some cases for consultations, others permanently. In a Mercosur summit meeting in Mendoza, Argentina, a week later, chaired by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and with the attendance of the Presidents of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and others, Paraguay was suspended from that regional entity, as per the democracy clause of the treaty. A committee to oversee the human rights situation in the country and the road to the April 2013 presidential elections was established. From Asunción, Mr. Franco replied that Paraguay might leave Mercosur and Unasur for good, and sign an FTA with the United States instead.
This raises an interesting question. Should the United States, the alleged champion of democracy worldwide, embrace and sign FTAs with countries that are forced to leave regional integration schemes for violating the democratic clause? The equanimity with which the U.S. State Department reacted to the soft coup in Paraguay (“We urge all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay’s democratic principles” (sic)) hints that, after legitimising the coup in Honduras, and accepting without as much as a blink the ouster of President Lugo in Paraguay, the defence of democracy and the rule of law in the Americas is not a high priority in Washington these days.