Paraguay: "express coup d'etat" in wake of peasant massacre

Paraguay's Senate voted June 22 to remove populist President Fernando Lugo from office—a move blasted by Lugo as an "express coup d'etat." While saying he would abide by the decision, he added, referring to himself in the third person: "Today it is not Fernando Lugo who is receiving a coup, but Paraguay's history, its democracy." Legislators quickly swore in the vice president, Federico Franco, as Paraguay's new leader. The Senate move came the day after Paraguay's lower house Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach Lugo over charges of malfeasance—mostly related to a clash last week between peasant squatters and police that left 17 dead. The affair had already led to the resignation of Lugo's interior minister and chief of police. The Senate gave Lugo just two hours to defend himself in a public trial; he declined to appear, instead sending lawyers to request 18 days to prepare his defense. They were rebuffed by the Senate president, Jorge Oviedo, leading to the vote of 39 to 4, with two absent.

Franco was a part of Lugo's ruling coalition, and married to a deputy from his Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), Emilia Alfaro. But as the impeachment went ahead on June 21, he assured lawmakers: "I haven't agreed with many of President Lugo's decisions... I was elected, just like him, on April 20, 2008 to administrate a country, but he has ignored me."

Lugo had about a year left in his five-year term, and was eligible to run for re-election. Anger over the peasant massacre ironically appears to have provided a convenient pretext for his removal by the entrenched and deeply conservative oligarchy. Right-wing opposition lawmakers had recently accused Lugo of breaking the law by allowing leftist parties to hold a meeting at an army base. Opponents were also incensed that Lugo signed an agreement allowing the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to exert pressure on any of its members if an elected leader is overthrown. Two paternity claims against Lugo from his time as a Catholic bishop were widely exploited in the country's press.

After the Senate vote, UNASUR sent a diplomatic mission to Asunción, Paraguay's capital, the delegation issuing a statement charging that the ouster of Lugo "did not respect due legal process." Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff signaled that Paraguay could face sanctions, potentially including its expulsion from the Mercosur trade bloc, and other multilateral groups. Long at issue between Paraguay and Brazil is the Itaipu hydroelectric dam on the Río Paraná that forms the border between the countries. Franco said immediately after he was sworn in that Paraguay would redirect its energy policies to promote industrialization, including a review of electricity exports to Brazil and Argentina.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, who traveled to Paraguay as part of the UNASUR delegation, denounced Lugo's removal as a "new type of coup," saying a "truly shameful act has been committed." In Washington, an emergency OAS meeting was called on the Paraguay crisis, where the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua likewise characterized the removal of Lugo a coup d'etat and called on the body to take urgent action. (NYT, AP, AFP, El Tribuno, Jujuy, Argentina, Buenos Aires Herald, June 22)

Supporters of Lugo took to streets by the thousands as the Senate voted, and were driven back by mounted riot police and water cannon assaults. The Paraguay National Coordinating Table of Campesino Organizations (MCNOC) has declared a "massive and peaceful" mobilization, and called for peasants from across the country to converge on Asunción. Peasant protests in support of Lugo were registered in several rural departments of the country. A national campesino mobilization had already been called to demand clarity on the facts of last week's massacre, but "support of the government" has been added to the objectives—indicating an unwillingness to accept Lugo's removal. (Página 12, Argentina; Rebelión via La Linea de Fuego, AP, June 22)

Campesino leaders contested widespread claims that the peasant squatters at Morumbí hacienda in Canindeyú department, the site of the massacre, had been heavily armed. "What happened was a slaughter of our comrades," declared Damasio Quiroga, general secretary of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement. "Many lies are being told to discredit the campesinos, who are struggling to obtain their own land to work, who are fighting for the rights given to them by the land reform."

Quiroga also asserted that the death toll in the massacre had been underestimated. "I confirm that up to now, 11 comrades have been murdered," he told an Argentine newspaper by telephone from Canindeyú. "We have information that there are more dead comrades, we were told there are injured, and we also knew that some being held captive were executed.”

Quiroga said he was also critical of Lugo for not following through on his promises to move forward with an agrarian reform program and address the problem of "ill-gotten lands"—large expanses of state land that late dictator Alferdo Stroessner distributed among his military officials and cronies. (Página 12, Argentina, June 2, via Aletho News)

Repression of the peasant movement had continued under Lugo, as was clear even before the Morumbí massacre. Victoriano López, a campesino leader in Ñacunday, Alto Paraná department, was detained by the National Police May 28 on suspicion of plotting land invasions. The "preventative detention" of López was denounced by local organizations of carperos—the word in Paraguay for peasants without sufficient lands. (, May 28)

See our last post on the struggle in Paraguay.

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