Why “US Imperialism” Is an Inadequate Explanation for the Impeachment of Fernando Lugo

The AP ran a story this weekend on the US’s neutrality regarding the impeachment of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo. The closest the US has come to making a statement since Paraguay’s Congress removed Lugo three weeks ago was to say it would wait to see what the Organization of American States found and how the OAS as a whole might act (with the OAS’s findings reportedly to be released early this coming week). Indeed, some are seeing the US’s neutrality as evidence of US involvement in Lugo’s ouster:

Should the U.S. have done more to defend Lugo, despite the fact that he had lost the confidence of all but a handful of lawmakers in a country where the constitution enables any leader to be removed from office for mere “poor performance” with a two-thirds vote of the Congress?

A chorus of voices around the region — mostly leftists — is saying yes, and some squarely blame Washington for Lugo’s downfall.

“The coup in Paraguay was being prepared for a long time and is part of a continental policy imposed by the United States against democratic governments, with the complicity of the economic and political powers,” declared Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He urged the entire region to defend democracy by calling for the restoration of Lugo’s presidency.

Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, went even further, claiming without presenting any evidence that Lugo’s ouster was a “decision of the Pentagon.”

I have a hard time going that far with regards to the US’s involvement. While there is no question that the US remains an imperial power in many regards, it’s hard to see its [usually heavy] hand in Lugo’s ouster; indeed, the speed at which the institutional coup that removed Lugo took place left not only the US, but countries throughout Latin America, little time to react before Lugo was already out of office. Additionally, the US had little economically to lose or gain by Lugo’s ouster; indeed, if one wants to find a hemispheric power with a lot economically and politically riding on the status of the impeachment, one needs to look not at the United States, but at Brazil, which both trades and competes with Paraguay in agricultural production and which has a not-insignificant number of elite citizens who own land in Paraguay. Indeed, the pace at which other South American countries spoke out against the impeachment even while the US sat back does not suggest so much US involvement as a shift in geopolitics in the hemisphere in which other Latin American countries have an increasingly prominent voice in the region even while the US steps back from its coercive and bullying ways that characterized US foreign policy in the hemisphere for much of the twentieth century (and earlier). The editorial puts it best:

In short, the complex crosscutting relationships that increasingly hold South America together have rearranged themselves largely on their own, with the U.S. government little more than a bystander.

This, I think, gets at the crux of why strictly blaming US imperialism or the Pentagon for Lugo’s removal is foolish; it denies the complex and ever-changing regional politics and relations between countries in South America. To put all (or even a substantial amount) of the blame on the US is to deny South American countries any autonomy, agency, or self-interest; this is particularly ironic, given that those who blame US imperialism often do so in an attempt to undermine US hegemony in the region, even while they reinforce a narrative in which all of the power rests in the United States and none in other Latin American countries.

Of course, not helping the US’s neutral stance are reports that the US sent Pentagon officials down to Paraguay after Lugo’s removal to discuss the possibility of opening a US military base in the landlocked South American country. It is important to note that those early reports as of now emphasize that Paraguay initiated the request; indeed, it appears that Paraguay has been interested in hosting a US military base since at least 2005. But again, just because the US may have something to ultimately gain from Lugo’s removal does not mean it played a major role in the so-called “golpeachment.” Many countries, including China, Russia, Great Britain, and numerous other countries have taken advantage of unexpected political turmoil in other countries throughout the world; the US would not be the first to act in this way. Thus, while a military presence for the US in the region could be seen as imperialistic, that certainly doesn’t mean that it was the engine of the impeachment, and such an interpretation completely disregards broader geopolitical practices throughout the world. Meanwhile, as Shawn reminds us, to declare Lugo’s downfall is all the US’s fault is not only to ignore, but to completely deny the existence of, Paraguay’s own historical contexts, internal political struggles, and domestic policies.

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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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