Security & Strategic Review - June 2012 (ISSN 1741-4202)

PARAGUAY: Lugo’s ouster: events & motives still unclear

The most violent yet eviction of land invaders triggered a highly irregular impeachment and removal from office of President Fernando Lugo, only nine months before presidential elections scheduled for 23 April 2013. This in turn led to the suspension of Paraguay from the South American blocs to which it belonged. Nothing in this sequence of events was straightforward: questions remain unanswered regarding what actually happened, who was responsible and what was being sought in the three areas affected: security, internal politics and regional diplomacy.

The catalyst was the 15 June eviction of a large number of families (some say 100) from an estate owned (the invaders say by irregular means) by a prominent businessman, Colorado politician — former senator and presidential candidate — and businessman, Blas Riquelme, in Curuguaty, in the northern border department of Canindeyú.

The invaders had been led by the Liga Nacional de Carperos (LNC, ‘National League of Tent People’) an organisation set up two years ago that advocated more radical action to settle idle and ill-acquired land that that pursued by the existing organisations of peasants and landless people. The eviction had been ordered by a court and was entrusted to a large force of police (by some accounts more than 300), including elements from the Fuerzas de Operaciones de Policía Especializada (Fope), spearheaded by the Grupo Especial de Operaciones (GEO) from Ciudad del Este.

There was a shootout in which six police officers and 11 civilians were killed. Both sides concurred in blaming infiltrated provocateurs for having fired first: the squatters blamed gunmen in the hire of the landowners, while the government was more vague, saying that it could not rule out the involvement, direct or indirect, of the guerrillas of the Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP). No evidence of the latter was produced; Canindeyú is not among the areas where the EPP has been known to be active, but links between the LNC and the EPP had been suggested in the past.

One thing is clear: the police did not fire first. The first two fatalities were the chief and deputy chief of the GEO unit, and the former was filmed as he prepared to lead the approach, assessing that there were no more than 50-or-so squatters in the area and ordering that, should resistance be encountered, only tear gas and rubber bullets were to be used. A photograph taken by the police and analysed by military intelligence was said to show the squatters armed (with handguns and shotguns) and deployed in ambush formation as the first officers approached. Later video evidence showed scenes of great confusion.

In the political arena, the immediate reaction to the news was to portray the event as the worst episode yet of excessive use of force by the police. From across the political spectrum in congress came demands for the dismissal via vote of censure or impeachment, of Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola and the chief of police, Paulino Rojas. President Lugo promptly demanded and got the resignation of both and replaced them, the former by Rubén Candia Amarilla, a Colorado politician who had served as chief prosecutor, the latter (provisionally) by Arnaldo Sanabria, the senior police officer in the district where the Curuguaty episode had taken place.

The reaction was a sudden change of focus in congress. The opposition Colorados called for Lugo’s impeachment, a proposal swiftly taken up by the Partido Patria Querida (PPQ)  and the Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Éticos (Unace) — and within hours also be the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), the biggest force in the Alianza Patriótica por el Cambio (APC), the coalition that had secured Lugo’s election in 2008.

There have been previous bids by the opposition to impeach Lugo, most notably on charges of having encouraged land invasions and of having acted against Paraguay’s national interest by signing Mercosur’s December 2011 Ushuaia II protocol that amended the Ushuaia I Democratic Commitment protocol, mandating sanctions not only for the ‘rupture of democratic order’ but also for the ‘threat of rupture [..] a violation of constitutional order or any situation that should place at risk the legitimate exercise of power and the rule of democratic values and principles’. As on prior occasions, this latter impeachment bid failed, chiefly because the PLRA held back, but the Paraguayan congress refused to ratify Ushuaia II.

In the wake of the Curuguaty incident, the PLRA sided with the opposition, for reasons unknown, and ordered its members holding ministerial positions to resign. On 21 June the lower chamber of congress almost unanimously voted to proceed with impeachment, drew up a charge sheet and submitted it to the senate, constitutionally entrusted with acting as the judge in such proceedings. Lugo was accused of mal desempeño de sus funciones (somewhere between ‘improper performance of his duties’ and misfeasance), citing his alleged fostering of land invasions and of a permanent climate of confrontation, his signing of the Ushuaia II protocol, and responsibility for the Curuguaty incident.

That same day the senate took up the case and gave Lugo 24 hours to prepare his defence. Almost immediately the leading member countries of Alianza Bolivariana para las Américas (Alba) — Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua — rejected the impeachment as tantamount to a coup. Argentina concurred. Other countries went as far as to state that the proceedings were ‘illegitimate’ (though not necessarily illegal) because they denied Lugo a reasonable opportunity to answer the charges brought against him. Brazil led others advocating a wait until a consensus had been reached in Mercosur and Unasur.

The Alba countries called for non-recognition of the Franco government and the exclusion of Paraguay from regional bodies until the ‘restoration of democratic order’. Mercosur announced the exclusion of Paraguay from the Mercosur summit scheduled for 28 June in Mendoza, Argentina; Unasur did likewise for one to be held the following day. On 26 June the permanent commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) was unable to reach a consensus, but the secretary-general, José Miguel Insulza, decided in any case to send a fact-finding mission to Paraguay.

On 22 June Lugo was ruled guilty as charged and removed from his post. His Vice-President, Federico Franco, long openly estranged from Lugo, was immediately sworn in as Lugo’s successor; Lugo, while describing the proceedings as a farcical ‘express impeachment’, conceded that the congress had observed the letter of the pertinent constitutional provisions, and accepted the senate’s decision.

The consensus reached in the Mercosur and Unasur summits was to suspend Paraguay until democratic order was restored (which in the normal course of events, means until August 2013 – when the new president of Paraguay takes office). Neither went for the imposition of sanctions. There was, however, an extra twist to Mercosur’s resolution: the members agreed to incorporate Venezuela as a full member, a decision held up since 2006 because the legislatures of two countries withheld ratification: Brazil (whose lawmakers relented in 2009) and Paraguay, whose senate has remained adamant — ironically invoking reasons similar to the clause they reject in the Ushuaia II protocol, which has now been invoked against them. So far, the only answer to cui bono? in the international aspect of this affair is: Venezuela.

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