Impeaching the president of Paraguay

Fernando Lugo has been thrown out of office over a bungled land dispute which left 17 people dead

On June 15 the army was deployed to try to settle a land ownership dispute. The soldiers arrived at a remote reserve north of the capital, Asunción, on a mission to restore order and halt violence between police and farmers who had occupied the estate. In total, 17 people were killed, of whom seven were police officers. President Lugo agreed to get rid of his interior minister and head of police but overall, the leader’s response to the rural violence was criticised for not being quick enough but he has strongly denounced calls that he was politically responsible for the deaths.

Moreover, his general handling of rural unrest in the longer-term was questioned and Lugo has firmly denied any links to the left-wing Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) which has carried out guerrilla attacks on some village police stations. The general flavour of the whole debate soured and the opposition Colorado Party saw a chance really to twist the knife on Fernando Lugo and cultivated support amongst member’s of Lugo’s coalition in order to secure the confidence vote.

On Friday 22 the Paraguayan Senate ruled by 39 votes to 4 to give Mr Lugo the boot, following a 73-1 majority in the lower house in favour of the impeachment. But just as the senators in Asunción were quick to send the president on his way, governments across the region were quick to condemn the decision and announce their refusal to recognise the new leader.

Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela all denounced the ruling as a ‘covered-up coup’ with the Ecuadorian leader, Rafael Correa, calling the decision “absolutely illegitimate”. Argentina and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors. However, the Paraguayan army has accepted the ruling and the vice-president, Federico Franco, has been formally sworn in as the interim leader until the next set of presidential elections next year. There is no re-election in the small, land-locked, South American state but it is so far unclear whether Franco will stand or will be allowed to stand, given the unusual circumstances of his promotion.

For his part, outgoing president Lugo spoke soon after the ruling:

“Today it isn’t Fernando Lugo who took a hit, it’s Paraguay’s history, her democracy, which has been profoundly wounded… although this has been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I submit myself to the decision of Congress. I would like to thank all Paraguayans who stood by me”.

Lugo should be praised for stepping aside so assuredly even though he wholeheartedly rejects any allegation of misconduct in his public office. He called the ruling “unjust” and says he has stepped aside ‘in the name of peace’. The removal of a president is often a messy process, as we are witnessing in the Middle East at the moment and as we saw in Honduras a couple of years ago when President Zelaya was flown out of the country in the middle of the night by the army.

Sometimes having a pop at the politician in the top job can be nearly impossible, as they surround and cover themselves in hidden documents, spin doctors, closed doors and parliamentary privilege. But on other occasions a president or prime minister suffers a blink-and-you-will-miss-it dismissal. The political process this time round in Paraguay was worryingly swift but regional instability could simmer for longer.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.