In 2008, a bishop from the combative region of San Pedro, where important peasant struggles had been carried out, became president of Paraguay with the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC). Aided by a strong division within the Partido Colorado -which had been in power for an uninterrupted period of 61 years, 35 of which were under Stroessner’s dictatorship- Fernando Lugo managed to win the elections and open up a new chapter in the country’s history.
But as soon as he made the decision to get involved in politics, encouraged by the support of citizens and social movements alike, especially the peasants, the ‘bishop of the poor’ encountered a dilemma: whether to run with his small party Tekojojá (‘Equality’, in indigenous guaraní language) and lose, or whether to try and win by making an alliance with the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), a traditional political force clandestinely founded by Domingo Laíno in 1978 as opposition to Stroessner’s dictatorship, which re-grouped some sectors from the old Liberal Party that had governed Paraguay between 1904-1936.
The ghost of what had happened in Mexico in 2006, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador denounced being victim of election fraud, seemed familiar enough in Paraguay. So Lugo decided to side with the liberals -capable of providing votes, as well as making sure they were counted. He chose to seize the opportunity, maybe the only one he would have, of a Partido Colorado deeply divided between Blanca Ovelar, Nicanor Duarte Frutos’ candidate, and Luis Alberto Castiglioni, considered ‘the (US) embassy’s candidate’. The pro-Stroessner tripod made up of the government, armed forces, and the Partido Colorado had already started to crumble after the fall of the dictator.
And so, Lugo won. But at the cost of having a liberal vice-president -Federico Franco, who would later distance himself from the president in the midst of a division within the PLRA- and an almost non-existent parliamentary representation. Despite the fact that there had been important protests since Stroessner’s fall in 1989 (such as the one in 2006, against Duarte Frutos’ re-election attempts), Paraguay was far from being like Ecuador, where president Rafael Correa had enough social support to close down Congress and call for a Constitutional Assembly, or Bolivia, where Evo Morales has a massive indigenous-popular support base with important mobilisation capabilities.
Lugo also inherited a country impregnated by the colorados‘ political culture, where the fight for the state apparatus is ruthless, as made evident by the murder of former vice-president Luis María Argaña in 1999 -shortly before the resignation of president Raúl Cubas, who was at the verge of being impeached. An important character at the time was the right-wing, populist military officer Lino Oviedo, who was once protected by former Argentine president Carlos Menem, and who nowadays leads the Ethical Citizens National Union (also known as Ethical Colorados Union), which took part in the parliamentary coup.
Lugo’s presidency was based, at least at the beginning, in the politics of the ‘poncho juru‘ (in the centre, like the opening in a poncho). But even though he did not make consistent reforms, his government was -despite its contradictions- an interlocutor for the peasants and, for the first time, left-wing politicians were awarded some of the ministries. This caused enough concern within the landowners to have the spokesman for the ‘brasiguayos‘ -Brazilian-born land owners and their descendants- Aurio Fighetto, declare shortly after the coup that “the ‘carperos‘ (landless peasants who were occupying farms) were in the [government] Palace.” Such was the argument he was willing to use to ask Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to recognise the new government. His colleague and president of the Association of Christian Businessmen, Luis Fretes, said with brutal honesty: “I believe Franco is going to be much firmer in terms of respecting private property.”
The issue of land is key to understanding anything that happens in Paraguay (80% of fertile land is owned by 2% of landowners). So is a variety of illegal activities -drug trafficking, smuggling, kidnappings- linked to the state, which has been permeated by a host of different criminal organisations.
There is no longer a massive exploitation of tannin (red quebracho) which enslaved thousands of peasants, and the centre of Paraguay’s economic activity is not timber or yerba mate production anymore. But although these products have been partially replaced, the logic of an enclave economy has remained, in an equally perverse way, with the new star crop: soy.
Today, Paraguay is the world’s fourth largest soy exporter. The area used up by soy plantations went from one to three million hectares between 1997 and 2012. And the borders between legality and criminality are diffused. Which is why, in the north of the country, the term ‘narco-stockbreeders’ has been coined.
In the midst of its extreme weakness, Lugo had to face an untimely guerrilla movement, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), apparently organised by ex-militants from the Free Country group (some of its members have been accused of being involved in the kidnapping and murdering of president Rául Cubas Grau’s daughter, Cecilia, in 2004) and whose links and aims are not very clear. With only a handful of members, the EPP carried out actions such as destroying machinery in a soy farm accused of polluting a whole town -Concepción-, attacking a military barracks in San Pedro (the region where Lugo used to be a bishop), setting off a bomb in the national court and -the most important one- the kidnapping of landowners Luis Alberto Lindstron and Fidel Zavala in 2009. The latter was forced to distribute beef amongst the poor, ‘courtesy of the EPP’, and pay ransom before being released from the 3-month captivity. Leader Carmen Villalba, from prison, claimed responsibility for all these actions. Meanwhile, some members of the opposition accused Lugo of being an accomplice to the EPP -and even of being a member of it!
As all this was happening, it started to surface that the president had various illegitimate children (despite the fact that, as a bishop, he was supposed to be celibate) and he was victim of a cancer that threatened his life.
Within that context, Lugo’s political survival seemed like a miracle: as well as Congress, he had the justice system, a stronghold of the old, corrupt politics, against him; the fraudulent bourgeoisie, which, despite continuing with business as usual, mistrusted the president’s left-wing entourage; the mass media, who shamelessly conspired in favour of the impeachment as they waved around the ‘Hugo Chávez ghost’; and his own vice-president. In this situation, only the divisions within the right and the popular mobilisation (or rather, the threat of it) managed to keep the former bishop in power.
The problems were not only a product of the conservative parties’ conspiracy, but also of the lack of internal cohesion within the government. In cabinet, there were “from obedient disciples of neoliberalism in finance, to apprentices of repressors in Interior, to great ignorants in agriculture, or conservative ex-activists in the social ministries. (Thus) what happened was bound to happen: uncertainty first, and disappointment later,” writes the recently deceased sociologist Tomás Palau on his book ‘Lugo’s Government: Legacy, Administration, and Challenges’. Despite all this, he highlights the creation of the Executive Coordination for Agrarian Reform and the writing of a report from the Truth and Justice Commission and the National Institute of Rural Development and Land about illegally-acquired land, some 8-million hectares of it, as well as the beginning of a reform aiming to guarantee free and universal healthcare.
The key was perhaps what former minister Hugo Richer highlighted some time ago: “Lugo’s government can’t be called left-wing, but thanks to him the left managed to grow and to gain an amount of political influence that it had never had throughout Paraguayan history.” This may not seem much in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, or Ecuador, but it is enough to upset the elites in a country “watched over” by the huge statue of Chinese anti-communist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. And it is impossible to understand the recent conflicts without the ‘anti-communist’ key, very much a part of the Paraguayan political culture thanks to the strong predominance of the colorados, crucial in holding up Stroessner in power for 35 years.
In the last few years, various groups started up the Frente Guasú (‘large’ in guaraní), which brought together centre-left and left-wing political parties, from social democrats to marxists, as a -sometimes critical- support base for the government.
But -as was already evident in 2009- the impeachment was around the corner, waiting for the right opportunity. In the last few days, it was revealed that the US embassy in Asunción had warned back in 2009 about a plan to remove Lugo as soon as he “made a mistake”, and that the conspiracy was led by Lino Oviedo and Duarte Frutos to put Franco in charge (cable from 28th March 2009, leaked by Wikileaks). Despite the affinity of the US with the new president, the parliamentary coup seems to be more related to internal causes -and the brutal power disputes- than to the traditional ‘CIA coup’.
The ‘mistake’ was the recent massacre of peasants and policemen due to a land-owning conflict in Curuguaty and the later appointment of former colorado prosecutor Rubén Candia Amarilla as Interior Minister. This appointment did not go down well with the left and deepened the liberal divide, whilst activating the internal struggles within the Partido Colorado, which rejected it.
Lugo accused Horacio Cartes, an important colorado leader, of being behind the coup. Cartes is a stockbreeder who entered politics not too long ago, but already has a high chance of becoming president of Paraguay in 2013. Apparently, Cartes thought his candidacy would be threatened by an alleged agreement between Lugo and his party’s president, Lilian Samaniego, who was once Cartes’ ally and is now an internal rival. According to Cartes’ supporters, Lugo would have plotted to enter into an alliance with Samaniego to lend her his support from government, ahead of next year’s presidential elections. This led them to support the former president’s removal.
As the correspondent for La Nación newspaper from Buenos Aires wrote, the three pillars holding Franco are the church (which immediately blessed the new president), Congress, and the business community, especially that related to the agricultural industry. He ‘forgot’, however, to mention the media. ABC Color, owned by the Zucolillo family, was an active part of the anti-Lugo conspiracy and there was not a single day since 2008 in which they did not warn about the ‘Chavista threat’. Now, the newspapers are publishing ‘nationalist’ columns which see the reactions of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay as a new Triple Alliance, like the one that massacred Paraguayans in the 19th century. And they claim that the “Paraguayan race” shall overcome.
With Franco, the liberals reached power for the first time in 76 years, and can now use the state resources until the 2013 elections to campaign and improve their chances. There is no doubt that, as political scientist Marcello Lachi points out, “politics here are not refined.” And controlling the state (and its resources, such as employment) is key to winning elections. This explains the urgency with which they acted, only a few months before an election in which Lugo could not be re-elected. Historical PLRA leader Domingo Laíno, however, has strongly condemned the coup and supports Lugo.
The colorados, meanwhile, are excited at the prospect of returning to power, like the PRI in Mexico, counting on the discredit the liberals will suffer now that they are governing on their own. They have so far managed to break up the APC, and the polls look promising for next year’s election. “If the left and the liberals go their separate ways in the election, the colorados will win with at least 35% of the vote,” says Lachi. There is no second round in Paraguay.
Lugo -whose first reaction was to leave office after being impeached and who did not call for social mobilisation- has regained the initiative and announced that he will go around the country garnering support, denounced the government as “fake”, and received important shows of support from around the region. However, it is unclear whether he is really looking to lead the resistance to an already settled government, or to begin his campaign to become a senator in 2013.
Translated by: Celina Andreassi.