Under Barack Obama’s watch, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo is the second Latin American leftist president to have been deposed from office in a scenario orchestrated by his political opponents and very close friends of the U.S. Embassy in Asunción. Nil Nikandrov predicts that this pattern of constitutional "soft" coups against defiant leaders - successfully tested by Washington in Honduras and, now, in Paraguay - will be extensively replicated in other countries over the coming years. The insidious interference by Uncle Sam in the domestic affairs of the region will apparently not be relegated to the ash heap of history any time soon.
- President Fernando Lugo said Friday, 15 June, he accepts the Paraguayan Senate’s decision to oust him after a turbo-charged impeachment process in which the law was "twisted like a fragile branch in the wind." It is not Fernando Lugo, but "Paraguayan democracy that has been deeply wounded."
The operation launched by the US Department of State and the CIA with the aim of displacing Paraguay’s first leftist president Fernando Lugo entered the final phase on June 16, when police forces were dispatched to evict squatters from the Morumbí farm in the Curuguaty district, near the Brazilian border. The land holding is known to be owned by Paraguayan businessman and politician Blas Riquelme. Upon arriving to the site, the police unexpectedly came under professional gunfire from rifles with the caliber high enough to drill bulletproof waists. The chief of a special operations police unit (GEO) and his deputy were shot dead, and the police to which instructions had been issued to avoid using force was left with no choice but to return fire. Eleven civilians were mowed down and dozens – wounded as a result.
The bloody incident in Curuguaty immediately drew response from the Paraguayan legislature, with the parliamentarians and senators, mostly representatives of right-centrist parties, charging that president Lugo had lost his grip on the situation and was unable to run the country. Even the Liberal Party which upheld Lugo’s candidacy in the 2008 elections distanced itself from its former protégé. Overall, Lugo faced an impeachment which he described as the parliament’s “express coup”.
Lugo’s legal counselors were given practically no time to prepare for his defense vis-a-vis the parliament, but, in fact, it was clear that the critics of the president had no intention to dive into details and the senate’s verdict was a foregone conclusion. The whole operation which led to the displacement of Lugo was carefully planned so as to rule out an unbiased parliamentary inquiry and was implemented as a snap offensive. No doubt, part of the motivation behind the rush was to have Lugo ousted before Paraguay’s UNASUR peers could convene for consultations and decide on a set of measures in his support.
The victory must have been easy for the coordinators of the plot from the US embassy in Asunción. It is true that Lugo’s presidency was fairly nominal since the parliament, the police, and the army in Paraguay were on the side of the opposition. Having thrived on USAID funding for decades a cohort of NGOs were prepared to orchestrate mass protests if the anti-Lugo plan stalled but did not have to, and - apart from the death toll in Curuguaty – the overthrowing of the legitimate president in Paraguay deserves to be listed as an exemplary case on the record of the US intelligence community.
A team of UNASUR envoys headed by the organization’s secretary general, Venezuelan Alí Rodríguez Araque, toured Paraguay, met with Lugo and with a parliamentary delegation, and witnessed the impeachment procedure, but were unable to redirect the developments. The Paraguayan Senators showed little regard for the visitors, not to say that they were openly hostile. Lugo, it must be noted, showed a complete lack of will to par the challenge – contrary to his initial pledge to defend himself at the parliamentary hearings, he simply watched them on TV from his residence. Citing his commitment to law, the president being lawlessly ejected accepted the impeachment ruling (to which only four senators said No). Lugo’s inaction can be largely attributed to his having no leverage under the circumstances: over the three years of his presidency, he failed to build a popular support base and, when the pressure peaked, still had no party of his own or a populist movement to back him. Street protests demonstrating support for Lugo erupted incoherently on the impeachment day but were dispersed by the police which used water machines, tear gas, and rubber bullets against the crowds.
Paraguayan vice president Federico Franco who was sworn in without delay as Lugo was out is to stay in office until the ousted president’s term expires in August, 2013. The elections are due the same month, and Washington openly favors Colorado party leader Horacio Cartes, a businessmen whom, according to ABC Color, US DEA briefly suspected of money laundering and complicity with drug cartels. The twist in Cartes’ reputation is reflected in some of the cables put on display by WikiLeaks, and chances are US agencies have assembled such a stockpile of reports implicating Cartes that Washington should have no difficulty keeping him – like quite a few Latin American presidents - under tight control.
While Lugo’s unfinished term was marked with Paraguay’s sluggish drift towards Latin American populist regimes, the right-conservative takeover promises that the country will fully submit to the US dictate. The agenda looming on the horizon likely includes efforts to destabilize UNASUR by forming within the alliance a dissenting bloc to balance the influences of Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It can be expected as well that new life will be breathed into Washington’s other project – the bracketing within some sort of a new union of Chili, Peru, Columbia, and Mexico – in order to weaken Brazil internationally.
UNSAUR secretary general Alí Rodríguez Araque said the dismissal of Lugo was unconstitutional and was tantamount to a disguised coup, and further stressed that many of Latin American governments would deny recognition to Franco. Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff cited the charters of UNASUR and MECOSUR to suggest expelling Paraguay from the groups over the violation of democratic norms. Argentine’s Cristina Kirchner also opined that sanctions against Paraguay would be appropriate. She described the developments in the country as a coup and mentioned in the context the coup attempts against R. Correa and E. Morales and the putsch in which M. Zelaya had been deposed in Honduras. The Argentinian leader stated firmly that such undemocratic phenomena are unacceptable for the region and said action would be taken in line with the decisions to be made by MECOSUR. Ecuadoran president R. Correa expressed support for D. Rousseff’s call to put to work the provisions of the UNASUR charter which warrant various forms of pressure – non-recognition of the corresponding governments, exclusion of countries guilty of undemocratic conduct from the alliance, and the closure of borders – as punishment for putschists. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega contributed similar statements on the issue.
Prospects for a serious investigation into the shooting incident in Paraguay are bleak. The bloodshed helped the opponents of F. Lugo by adding credibility to their grievances list, while the majority of Latin America watchers discern parallels between the recent Paraguayan drama and the April 2002 shooting at the Llaguno Bridge in Caracas. In the latter case, snipers randomly fired on anti-Chavez protesters, Chavez’s supporters, and whoever happened to pass by. The incident was blamed on the forces under Chavez’s command, but curious circumstances surfaced later: for example, a CNN correspondent managed to record an interview with the army officers opposing Chavez who, as it transpired, were aware of the planned sniper attack and the imminent fatalities.
- Blas Riquelme, owner of the land where - in all likelihood staged - armed clashes took place on 15 June, involving police forces, snipers and landless "campesinos," leaving 17 people dead.
Several versions of the Curuguaty shooting incident are found on the web. One potential explanation is that the responsibility lay with Blas Riquelme who hired the snipers via his army connections but then, however, it remains unclear why the snipers fired on the police. An alternative version is that the episode was a provocation staged by the Paraguayan People’s Army, a shadow group supposedly forged by the police to fight extremists. This hypothetic origin may be the reason why the army lives on despite the intense work being done in Paraguay by invited US and Colombian anti-terrorism experts.
Alvarado Godoy wrote on the site titled Descubriendo Verdades (Disclosing the Truth) that the whole episode had been “montaje fabricado”, essentially a show following a certain blueprint. He claims to have information that the operation involved US Navy Seals who stayed in Paraguay to train the country’s marines (Fusna). The storyline does not sound exotic considering how often US citizens get caught with sniper rifles across Latin America, as recently in Argentine and Bolivia. The CIA, DEA, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency routinely hire contractors to pull off covert operations with firearms being used.
The straightforward forecast is that the pattern successfully tested by the US in Honduras and Paraguay – the pseudo-constitutional displacement of defiant leaders – will be extensively replicated in Latin America over the coming years. Yet, Washington would be naïve to believe that the accompanying violence can be contained. In Honduras, the puppet government of P. Lobo clings to power at the cost of waging a terror campaign which already took hundreds of lives of progressive politicians, journalists, trade union activists, student and Indian leaders, and that almost surely is what the future holds for Paraguay.