Was the Impeachment of Fernando Lugo a Coup?

As mentioned late yesterday, Paraguay’s Senate had voted to remove President Fernando Lugo from office barely 24 hours after the Chamber of Deputies had brought forth articles of impeachment. Although Lugo had originally appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the impeachment was unconstitutional as he had not been given due process and time to adequately prepare his defense, after the Senate’s ruling, Lugo said he would respect the decision, and Vice-President Federico Franco assumed the office of the Presidency. Many people in Paraguay were understandably outraged; Lugo had in particular championed for the rights of and equality for the landless and the poor, positions that ultimately played no small role in his impeachment. There were clashes in the streets through the night, as police used tear gas and water cannons against those who protested the removal of the democratically-elected president. (AS/COA has a great roundup on the events and of some of the long-term causes behind Congress’s sudden impeachment.) Meanwhile, the region quickly condemned the Congress’s actions, and Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Venezuela have already announced they will not recognize the new government, while it is unclear as yet what position the United States will take. Suffice to say, the removal of Lugo from office more than a year before the next president is scheduled to take office has thrown the country in turmoil, to say nothing of the sudden exertion of authority from Paraguay’s Congress.

All of that said, in the immediate fallout of the impeachment, the question has emerged: Was the impeachment effectively a coup?

Some say yes. Twitter was abuzz with the word “coup” last night, with some even saying Paraguay shows the Honduras coup having hemispheric impact. I don’r really buy that latter argument – in Honduras, the military forced President Manuel Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint and then had Congress and the Supreme Court retroactively legalize the action; even the internal Truth Commission’s investigation in Honduras ruled that Zelaya’s removal was a coup. By contrast, in Paraguay, the military sat on the sidelines awaiting the results, and Lugo was not forcefully exiled out of the country. However, that does not mean it wasn’t a coup.  Beyond Twitter comments and speculations, Brazilian magazine Carta Capital  made a more compelling case that it was a coup, in that Congress undid the will of a plurality of electors and undermined the very basic operations of politics and political power in presidential models.

Others are more circumspect, with Boz arguing it technically isn’t a coup, as Congress followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the impeachment law. Technically, that is true – Congress did not once waver from the process of impeachment as outlined in the Constitution. However, Lugo did not do anything unconstitutional (as the Paraguayan constitution defines executive powers), so while the impeachment was technically legal, the motivations behind his removal were clearly partisan and not based on any real constitutional violations of powers. That Congress can now remove a president in just over 24 hours reveals there are some gaping loopholes in that law as it’s currently defined.

Additionally, as I said yesterday, the impeachment has revealed a true institutional threat to electoral politics and checks and balances in Paraguay; if Congress can remove somebody they do not like that quickly, it not only undermines the people’s power in choosing their presidents; it also undermines the power of the president himself, at least greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the checks and balances that are constitutionally supposed to define the dynamics of power between the Paraguayan President and Congress. The fact that this impeachment was successful simultaneously establishes the precedent for Congress to annul the people’s choice for president and grants Congress considerable power over the President.

So….was it a coup? I’m inclined to say “no” – at least, not in the traditional sense, generally associated with the overthrows of democratically elected governments that took place in Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, or even Honduras in 2009, to give just a few examples. However, I think the idea of an “internal coup” here might also be useful. While we tend to refer to military regimes as monolithic, unified, monodimensional entities, scholars of military dictatorships often point out that military regimes themselves are full of competing and differing voices, and that the power struggles and dynamics of dictatorships are not just a case of a repressive state over dissenters, but also military officials and their allies jockeying for power behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of these types of power struggles – Pinochet’s marginalization of the commanders of the other armed forces in Chile after 1973 is a good example. However, these power struggles could and did lead to what are known as “internal coups,” in which one faction effectively maneuvered (again, usually behind the scenes) to remove their opposition.

Brazil’s military dictatorship is a particularly useful case in understanding these processes. The so-called “moderate” wing of the military governed from 1964-1967 [though it still employed torture, censorship, manipulation of laws, removal of political rights, etc.]. However, in 1967, the “hard-liners” took over and governed until 1974. In 1968, as street protests and opposition increased, the hard-liners used an incidental speech from  Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves to usher in the most repressive phase of the dictatorship, in what came to be known as the “coup within the coup,” or, put another way, an “internal coup” that fundamentally shifted the direction of the dictatorship.  when “moderate” Ernesto Geisel became president. By 1977, the hard-liners were concerned about Brazil’s gradual return to democracy as Geisel had envisioned it, and some armed forces, led by Army Minister Silvio Frota, planned a revolt that would overthrow Geisel and return the hard-liners to power – thus, an “internal coup.” However, Geisel managed to outmaneuver Frota, ultimately preventing the planned internal coup and removing Frota from office, preventing the hardliners’ internal coup from removing the moderate wing, and Geisel and his hand-picked successor, João Figueiredo, governed Brazil until the end of the military regime in 1985.

While Paraguay is certainly not a military dictatorship, I think the institutional dynamics of Brazil’s internal coups, which were simultaneously legal from a technical perspective but had the express intent of removing those in command at the time, provides a useful means to understand what happened in Paraguay. Indeed, I think what we’re seeing in the case of Paraguay is what an “internal coup” looks like in democratic (but still elite-dominated) politics in Latin America in the early-21st century.

Certainly, I could be convinced otherwise – these are just early observations on a process that will play out across the following months and even years – but I think understanding this as an example of how an internal removal of an elected official over partisanship can occur in a democratic system is useful, as it also allowing for an understanding that, even if Congress technically did not violate the constitution, neither did Lugo; Congress simply used the vagueness in its constitutionally-defined power to impeach to overthrow a man whose (legal) policies it did not like – an “internal coup” in democratic Paraguay.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Augusto Pinochet, Bolivia, Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Coups in Latin America, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, How To Overthrow a Government, International Relations, Land Reform, Latin American Politics, Legal Issues in Latin America, Paraguay, The "Left" in Latin America, The "Right" in Latin America, Truth Commissions, Venezuela. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Was the Impeachment of Fernando Lugo a Coup?

  1. Anonymous says:

    You should mention that the congress do not actually hold their positions via suffrage.

    • Well, no and yes -it’s not direct elections, but given that the parties get a representation in Congress that reflects the percentage of the votes their candidates got in national elections, it’s still through suffrage – just not “direct” elections for individual candidates in the style of, say, Brazil or the United States.

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