Updates on Paraguay One Week after Impeachment – Franco, Mercosul, and Defining a Coup

It’s been one week now since Paraguay’s Congress brought impeachment charges against Fernando Lugo and only six days since the Senate removed him from office via what was no doubt one of the hastier impeachment processes in the history of the institution. While Lugo is out of office, plenty has happened in this past week as events continue to play out.

Paraguayans angered at the results had planned a “megaprotest” earlier this week (though they were hoping to gather 10,000, so “mega” may have been an overstatement). While the numbers for such a planned event were modest, that did not stop Lugo himself from saying he would lead a popular movement with the intent of returning to the presidency peacefully. Parguayans in Argentina also marched against the events and in support of Lugo this week. Meanwhile, interim president Federico Franco may be creating trouble for himself, as he purged the military of many of its top-ranking chiefs after they sat on the sidelines in last week’s proceedings, rather than taking sides. Franco is clearly trying to make the military more subservient to him and his party; however, alienating military officials who remained neutral during a constitutional process may prove to be a terrible idea for Franco and/or for presidents in the future. Franco’s government has also accused both Venezuela and Ecuador of meeting with Paraguayan military officials in an attempt to get them to support Lugo, accusations both deny. Also, if you were still convinced there was any doubt that Lugo’s removal was anything other than partisan bickering and personalist antagonisms, Paraguay’s Congress has effectively reconfirmed that it was strictly personal rather than constitutional.

Meanwhile, in the international arena, the members of Mercosur/Mercosul are meeting this week to discuss possible actions against Paraguay after having already suspended the country from meetings this week. Certainly, regional discontent is high. There has been talk that Mercosul could expel and sanction Paraguay, a move that would have “a major impact” on Paraguay and one that some Paraguayan manufacturers support, saying it would hurt the Mercosul countries too. I imagine some members in Mercosul, particularly Argentina (which was one of the first to take a strong stand against the impeachment) might lobby for this. However, I would be surprised to see a complete expulsion of Paraguay from the organization or total sanctions against the country. Argentina may want these things, and it may have the support of associate members like Ecuador, but I think Brazil is going to be more hesitant to take such a major step. Indeed, at least one report is suggesting that Brazil wants “political action” rather than sanctions, though what type of “political action” might be an adequate response from the remaining members of Mercosul is up in the air.

That Brazil is taking this stance really is not terribly surprising. Of the countries of Mercosur, Brazil has the most to lose in a complete alienation/marginalization of Paraguay, for a handful of reasons. Most notably, there’s the Itaipu dam on the Paraná river that Brazil and Paraguay control together; the dam, the fruit of alliances between the Brazilian military regime and the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, provides Brazil’s heavily-populated South and Southeast with much of its power, and a swift, unilateral action that completely marginalizes Paraguay could directly impact Brazil’s access to energy. Additionally, Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras has a presence in Paraguay, meaning Brazil has multiple avenues where energy considerations (be they power supplies or providing oil and other goods to Paraguay) enter into the equation for Brazil in ways that they don’t necessarily for Argentina. Finally, a lot of the landed elite in southern Brazil are sympathetic to their Paraguayan counterparts; indeed, Brazilian ranchers own a not-insignificant amount of land in Paraguay, too. Thus, Lugo’s efforts at land reform directly affected powerful conservative Brazilians whose voices the Brazilian government is likely to take into consideration in ways that Argentina would not have to. As a result, I think it’s not surprising to see Brazil willing to take a more hesitant, meticulous path to determine the actions Mercosul can take that will simultaneously express the region’s discontent with Paraguay writ large without drastically hurting what Brazil’s government perceives to be its national economic interests.

That’s not to say Brazil is completely complacent or willing to give Paraguay the benefit of the doubt; indeed, the fact that Brazil agreed to exclude Paraguay (but welcome Lugo) to the meetings shows that Brazil is also more than displeased with the Paraguayan Congress’ use of impeachment last week. But Brazil has very real diplomatic and economic issues to take into consideration too, and those issues could moderate the response from Mercosul. As I said in the Rio Times story, ““Members of Mercosur are going to have to consider whether or not it is worth it to take a stand against the undermining of democratic institutions, even if such a stance runs the risk of hurting their own national economic interests.”

Finally, regarding the broader political theory and analysis of the removal of Lugo last week, Greg has a piece up arguing against calling it a coup based on how a coup is generally defined. I don’t fully agree with all the particulars, but I think his concern about the word “coup” taking on an increasing vagueness is fair. However, I think this is an important caveat: “maybe we can add some adjective to “coup” as a qualifier. That’s fine as long as it conveys the legal process and the lack of violence (generally meaning lack of military action).” As I originally stated last week, I think that’s the way to go about it – that this isn’t a coup in the traditional sense, but I think that in calling it either an “internal coup” against Lugo (something that Congress’s willingness to pass laws that Franco is submitting that are the same laws it rejected when Lugo submitted only reinforces) or an “institutional coup” through which Congress asserted more authority over the executive and undermined a system of checks and balances is still a good way to call it a “coup” even while qualifying what type and how it operated.

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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.
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