Paraguay: 'institutional coup' places heavy burden on embattled President Franco

While some speak of a rout by police of unarmed peasants at Curuguaty, an eyewitness saw police killed by rounds fired by well-trained snipers. Peasant occupiers were armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails.

On June 15th,  the ongoing conflict between Paraguay’s government and impoverished peasant who had occupied the Morumbi Ranch in the Curuguaty region escalated into armed conflict between national police forces and occupiers.  At the Morumbi ranch, the occupiers’ refusal to obey orders resulted in the deaths of six police officers and eleven occupiers. The police had received orders to intervene and clear out the occupiers at the Morumbi ranch.  Called 'carperos' (tent-dwellers) for their ramshackle dwellings on occupied land, peasant farmers had repeatedly shown signs of belligerence and refused to vacate the forested area at the ranch. This confrontation was considered by the local press to be a massacre of national proportions, causing a political turmoil and further deteriorating the fragile support for President Fernando Lugo in the National Congress. 

In Curuguaty, I witnessed the violence that pitted the occupiers against Paraguayan security forces. The peasants occupying the ranch were equipped with Molotov bombs and rifles, with a considerable amount of back up. It was clear that among the campesino farmers there were snipers or well trained shooters who fired rounds at six police officers, wounding them in those parts of their bodies not covered by body armor - e.g. neck, upper part of the chest and shoulders.Snipers were shooting from a medium to close distance and the bullets were coming from above, therefore from tree tops.

Former President Lugo, last week faced impeachment proceedings that sealed his political doom after he took actions in support of landless peasants who had occupied farms and plantations. Lugo has been accused of showing poor leadership, having declined to resolve agricultural reform and land distribution to the poor, who comprise more than thirty five percent of the Paraguay’s people.

Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, was removed from office in a 39-4 vote on June 22 by the opposition-controlled Senate for fomenting land seizures and violence, just 24 hours after the lower house of Congress voted to impeach him. Riot police held back thousands of Lugo supporters gathered outside Congress in the capital city, Asuncion.

(Former President Lugo)

On June 20th, five days later, the former President gave a belated press conference and condemned the use of violence by the occupiers while giving assurances that public order and democratic government would be upheld. On the same day, the Colorado Party decided to propose an impeachment plan or a political trial against former President Lugo and condemned his passive attitude towards the occupiers. On the following day, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) supported the impeachment while its president, Blas Llano, called upon the four PLRA ministers to immediately resign from their positions in the Paraguayan executive branch.  The lower chamber of Congress voted in favor of a political trial, and the following day the Senate also approved going ahead with a political trial of President Fernando Lugo.  In the Senate, there were a few deliberations in favor and against the political trial, but ultimately it was the loss of the lives of seventeen people that caused Lugo to lose his presidential seat.

Federico Franco, who had served as Lugo’s vice-president, was elected by the Paraguayan national Congress on June 22nd, at 6:30 pm to serve out Lugo’s term until elections are held in 2013.  A few hours later, the newly installed President Franco called upon his fellow countrymen from Lopez Palace for support and maturity. He assured the public that the rule of law will prevail throughout the Paraguay.  

Speaking at a news conference on June 23, Franco said “there is no coup here,” in reference to objections raised by former President Lugo’s supporters in Paraguay and foreign governments. Speaking confidently to the international press, and flanked by officers of the military, Franco admitted that his situation is not easy and that there are “complications with the international community,” even while he defended the legality of Fernando Lugo’s impeachment and dismissal. “There is no coup here, no institutional breakdown. It is a legal situation that the Paraguayan Constitution and the laws allow in order to make a change when the situation is non-viable.” Franco added, “I’m calm,” and said his priority is to organize his homeland and make the necessary contacts with neighboring countries at the appropriate time.

After taking office, President Franco also confirmed a zero tolerance for violent groups such as the Paraguayan Peoples’ Army (Ejercito Popular Paraguayo - EPP), which are at war against the Paraguayan government.

On the same occasion, President Franco announced the first persons to be named to his cabinet: Minister of Interior Carmelo Caballero and Foreign Minister José Félix Fernández Estigarribia. The latter is expected to secure the support of the governments of neighboring countries for the nascent government. President Franco announced that the new National Police Commander is Aldo Pastore, who has done an excellent job in the past against organized crime and regional drug cartels.  Pastore has been closely involved in the conflict with the EPP. His deputy will be Carlos Altenburger. Within the next week, other nominations to the cabinet are expected.

Various member nations of the Union of South American Nations - UNASUR, including; Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador - have refused to recognize the newly-elected Paraguayan head of state and his incoming government.  Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have registered their categorical refusal to recognize the newly formed Franco government.  Miguel Insulza, president of the Organization of American States, expressed concern for the effect that the move against Lugo would have upon democracy in Paraguay.

In Argentina, Peronist supporters of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will hold a special session on June 25 in which they will discuss their objections to the  ‘institutional coup” which took place in Paraguay on July 22. Peronist Senator Miguel Angel Pichetto said that his caucus’ views were congruent with the Kirchner’s that they would not recognize “the government that came out after the shameful coup which ousted president Fernando Lugo.” Pichetto claimed that Paraguay’s congress did not guarantee Lugo’s right to a legal defense, and that what happened was “clearly an institutional coup, which recalls the worst antidemocratic experiences in Latin America.”

As someone who has lived in Paraguay during the last years of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos presidency, and during the first year of President Lugo´s administration, I must emphasize that Paraguay’s political system suffers from fragile democratic standards, a damaged justice system, lack of agrarian reform, corruption in all areas of society, impunity, and over 2.5 million people living below the poverty line.  Throughout 2012, Fernando Lugo rapidly lost his peoples’ support, due to his 75 expensive trips abroad, which cost Paraguayan tax payers dearly.  It is clearly time for Paraguay to have a new figure at the helm of state, with the support of both the Colorado Party and the Authentic Radical Liberal party. The two arch-rival parties have now orchestrated an alliance that has brought to power the first president the Authentic Radical Liberal Party since September 1940, when President Jose Felix Estigarribia died in a plane crash.  

As he forms his government, President Franco will immediately begin to analyze the situation in Curuguaty in the following days.  President Franco, who was once a fervent supporter of Lugo, is known to be an honest political figure and very popular among the poor campesinos and Paraguay’s people overall. There are many expectations for reform during Franco’s government. This will have to be in short order, since he is only expected to stay in office for a little more than thirteen months, until August 15th, 2013.
 

Spero columnist Peter Tase is a former Peace Corps volunteer who reports from Asuncion, Paraguay.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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