Paraguay: Worse than a Coup d’état, a Blunder
In Paraguay on June 22, 39 Senators of 43 voted in favour of impeaching President Fernando Lugo. The day before, 76 Representatives of 77 did the same. With such a clear vote, strictly complying with Paraguay’s constitutional requirements for impeachment, why are countries like Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil claiming there has been a coup d’état?
The root of the current crisis was a confusing incident between police and peasants who had occupied land. 11 peasants and 6 police officers died, with accusations about who fired first not leading to much clarity. However, this bloody incident was simply an excuse that allowed Congress to remove the President under Paraguay’s rather vague constitutional grounds of “poor performance of his functions.”
The Congress took only 30 hours between beginning to deliberate and declaring Lugo “guilty” of being a bad President. Worse, they gave him only 2 hours to prepare his defence. What some refer to as a “kangaroo impeachment” was imprudent and far from serious, but was it “illegal” or a “coup d’état,” meriting the invoking of democracy clauses that call for the suspension of non-democratic countries from bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS)?
I would argue that it was not illegal, much less a coup. There was no violence. The military was not involved. Former President Lugo is not in jail, nor being expelled from the country. The Vice-President took over. The Supreme Court said the proceedings respected the constitution, which was expressly drafted to give Congress greater control over Presidential actions (not surprising as the country was coming out of the bloody Stroessner dictatorship).
Impeachment is not criminal law. It is political. Richard Nixon was impeached, and Bill Clinton was not, in hearings that did not exactly meet the standards of serious criminal law.
In the end, the legality of the issue hardly matters when it comes to international response. The Paraguayan Congressmen should have remembered the legendary reaction of Talleyrand when he learned of the murder of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon I. “It was WORSE than a crime, it was a blunder!”
The Paraguayan Congress has created a major crisis with its country’s neighbours. Brazil and Argentina are by far the most important external actors in Paraguay and are leading the charge to exclude new President Federico Franco from participating in the meetings of the South American Common Market (Mercosur) and the South American Community of Nations (Unasur). They are being egged on by others, especially Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay. These countries have argued that Lugo’s right to due process was violated, making this a “legislative coup d’état.”
The hypocrisy of this position is quite impressive. Mercosur’s Presidents have invited Venezuela to join the organization, despite the fact that Venezuelan “democracy” features a judiciary that takes orders from the President, and a National Assembly whose powers are regularly transferred to the President as well, behind a very thin constitutional facade.
What role should Canada play in this sad affair? Rather limited. Has the Paraguayan Senate overstepped the limits of the acceptable? Yes. Has Mercosur overreacted, with considerable hypocrisy? Yes. Nonetheless, the other members of Mercosur are Paraguay’s peers, and most important partners. Canada does not even have an embassy in Paraguay.
Ironically, the OAS, whose Secretary General Insulza has flown to Paraguay to investigate the situation, has been handed a bit of an opportunity thanks to Paraguay’s neighbours’ overreaction. Insulza should report back to member states that Paraguay’s Congress went too far to avoid criticism but constitutionality is not at issue. He could usefully point out that democracy entails a balance between the executive, legislative and judicial powers and that Paraguay is not the only country in the Americas grappling with these issues. Canada could take advantage to draw attention to the glass houses inhabited by some of the most eager stone throwers.
Unfortunately, no quick solution is in sight. Unless Paraguay’s neighbours go so far as to invoke sanctions, which is unlikely as it would cause real pain to themselves, Paraguay’s new President Franco should be able to wait out the storm and run the country normally until elections take place next year. In the end, not being invited to the profusion of Latin American summits may turn out to be more of a relief than a punishment.