When Fernando Lugo won the April 2008 elections, becoming the first non Colorado Party President of Paraguay in 61 years, he promised that the country was going to enter a period of renewal and change. At that time, nobody could foresee that after four years, Lugo would be ousted as president on June 22nd, 2012, via a constitutionally legal, but highly controversial, impeachment process.
Lugo’s elected vice-president, Federico Franco, was sworn in the same day and has passed 100 days in charge in the midst of an ongoing bitter debate between those who continue to support Lugo and those who were glad to see him leave. Franco’s cabinet, purged of Lugo’s allies, has also changed the approach to key policies in energy and agriculture, deepening the divide in the country. Though this political experience, an unprecedented one in Paraguay, remains fresh, there are already some lessons to be taken from June’s events.
Reflections on Lugo’s Demise
Lugo won the election supported by the APC (Alianza Patriótica Para el Cambio) which was an alliance of several political parties coming from the left and right of the political spectrum. The Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), led by Franco, was the most prominent among them. This alliance, based on heterogeneous and contradictory interests, began to crack as early as July 2009 with the withdrawal of the PLRA. The party accused Lugo and his left wing allies of reaching a deal with the opposition Colorado Party about the presidency of the National Parliament, disrespecting Franco, and marginalising the PLRA in government. The experience of the APC shows once again that an alliance established by heterogeneous sectors to win elections cannot guarantee successful governance when it reaches power.
The withdrawal of the PLRA from the APC did not mean its departure from government. Franco remained as vice president and tensions between him and Lugo continued to escalate. In this sense, far from changing things Lugo also continued a tradition of poor relations between president and vice in Paraguay’s immature democracy. Previously, this had happened during the presidencies of Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993 – 1998), Raúl Cubas (1998 – 1999) and Nicanor Duarte Frutos (2003 – 2008).
Once again, far from changing things, Lugo failed to break the bi-partisan dominance of Paraguayan politics. Even though the APC grouped together several political parties, the PLRA and the Colorado Party have remained the country’s leading political forces. Lugo’s victory in the 2008 elections was possible due to about 500,000 voters belonging to the PLRA, and also due to hundreds of thousands of Colorados who voted him as they were frustrated with the traditional way of policymaking and their party’s increasing internal fights.
Lugo’s inability to implement the changes he promised meant he fell victim to the expectations he himself had raised. During the political campaign he promised to bring change to Paraguayan politics and to work for transparency and for the solution of the country’s very serious social problems. Once in power, Lugo was not able to meet the mobilised population’s demands for political renewal. On the contrary, owing to some actions, for many people Luguismo soon became a synonym for nepotism, corruption and more of the same bad practices. To make things worse, three additional events contributed to undermine the president’s initial popularity: the increasing violence in the rural areas, more radical activity by the EPP terrorist organisation, and question marks over his personal character after his admission that he fathered two children while he was a bishop.
Far from solving the country’s social contradictions, Lugo’s critics say he exacerbated them by supporting landless peasants that occupied private land, harassing landowners of Brazilian origins and their descendants (the so-called ‘Brasiguayos‘), and being permissive with the EPP’s actions. Some political sources claim that Lugo ousted Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola as he was seriously interested in dismantling the terrorist group. He replaced Mr. Filizzola with another Filizzola, Carlos (Rafael’s cousin), who proved to be ineffective in stopping the spiral of violence in rural Paraguay and bringing the EPP under control.
Lugo also gave birth to a crucial paradox: however hard he tried to deepen the gap between the Colorados and Liberales, he ended, involuntarily, bringing them together in a united front against him. It happened soon after the Campos de Morumbí massacre on 15th June, when 17 people were killed. Lugo was forced to remove Carlos Filizzola from the Interior Ministry and replace him with Rubén Candia Amarilla, a former Colorado prosecutor. The appointment of Candia Amarilla stoked political tensions, with the Liberales thinking it was a maneouvre of Lugo to establish an alliance with the Colorados for the 2013 elections.
Meanwhile, some Colorados thought it was an attempt to divide their party. Candia Amarilla belonged to the sector led by party leader Lilian Samaniego, who was being challenged at the time by Horacio Cartes, the leader of the most important movement within the Colorado Party and one of the pre candidates to Paraguayan presidency for the next year’s elections. Shortly after the appointment of the new interior minister, both parties reach a consensus to hurry through the impeachment of the President.
The political events of Paraguay have also brought to surface an increasing debate about the real democratic vocation of MERCOSUR. Almost at the same time as the regional block suspended Paraguay, accusing the new government of a ‘parliamentary coup’. The remaining MERCOSUR members – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay – proceeded to approve the admission of Venezuela, something had been impossible due to the strong opposition of the Colorado dominated Paraguayan parliament. Some sectors in Paraguay continue to say that the motives behind the country’s temporary suspension had more to do with this opportunity to admit oil-rich Venezuela into MERCOSUR than the impeachment of Lugo.
On the other hand, the new government in Paraguay, far from helping to calm the waters, is becoming increasingly controversial, specially with some issues that are subject to deep public debate. These include more radical violence by the EPP; more accusations of nepotism; and the kind of personal crusade the President is performing in order to allow Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) to settle a big plant in Paraguay. This company has had a wide range of accusations, from being highly environmentally hazardous to having supported dictatorships and genocide actions in some places where it has established in previous decades. In this context, rumors that RTA financed the impeachment are common in Paraguay nowadays.
Rumours of vested interests behind (and in favour of) Lugo’s impeachment have also arisen from Franco’s very controversial decision to approve the use of GM seeds. Lugo had been resisting pressure from major agricultural companies such as Monsanto to introduce the new seeds. The new seeds are specifically for cotton and corn, two crops that are key to Paraguayan agriculture: the former has traditionally been produced in small plots, while the latter is one of the most important sources of nutrition for the popular classes. While the Government claims that the measure will contribute to the modernisation of Paraguayan agriculture, many peasant organisations reject it stating that, apart from being beneficial only to some major agricultural companies, it is very harmful for the environment and the population´s health condition.
Many Questions, Few Answers
Though some lessons have been learned from Lugo’s impeachment, the uncertain future in Paraguay politics invites many more questions.
It is very likely that Lugo will be elected senator in next year’s elections. What role is he going to play in Paraguayan politics? Will Paraguayan society overcome the current division among those who favored the impeachment and those who still support Lugo? How will the PLRA and the Colorado Party contribute to political stability after next year’s elections? (The answer to this question is key, especially taking into account that while the PLRA reached the Presidency through the impeachment after 76 years out of power, the Colorado Party will try to recover the presidency in the next year’s elections after the 2008 defeat).
And finally: do the main political actors have a real vocation for change? Or, as has been so common in the recent Paraguayan political history, are things going to change so that nothing really changes?