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Hemisphere struggles with response to Paraguay president’s impeachment

A week ago, Paraguay’s Congress impeached and removed from office the country’s president, Fernando Lugo, just 10 months before his five-year term would have expired. The process was abrupt – Lugo was given just one day to prepare his defense against charges of “poor performance” – but his country’s neighbors still haven’t figured out how to respond.

Was it a coup d’etat deserving of condemnation, or a perfectly legal, constitutionally sanctioned transition of power?

The question is a serious one in a region that has made massive strides over the past two decades to shed its past of military coups against leftist presidents. Lugo was the first Paraguayan president not from the long-ruling Colorado party.

"Nobody wants this to become a trend that tarnishes this democratic period in our region, to which it has been so difficult to arrive, Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said last weekend about Lugo’s quick dispatch. He’s in Paraguay this week on a fact-finding mission.

The concern is important enough that it’s expected to dominate a summit meeting of the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay being held Thursday and Friday in Mendoza, Argentina. The meeting was supposed to be about a free trade agreement between the South American trading bloc Mercosur and China.

The presidents are also convening a meeting of Unasur, the Union of South American nations.

Missing from both meetings, however, is any representative from Paraguay, which belongs to both. The country’s membership was suspended while other South American nations try to figure out what happened. That’s a first for both groups.

On June 22, Paraguay’s Senate voted 39-4 to oust Lugo for what it termed “poor performance in office.” It cited several incidents, including a 2009 meeting with a political party at military quarters and the more recent handling of a “land invasion” by peasants June 15 that resulted in 17 people being killed, including police.

Prior to the Senate vote, the House of Deputies approved the charges against Lugo by a 76-1 margin.

Lugo did not challenge the decision and vacated office immediately. Vice President Frederico Franco, next in line, took over. Yet Lugo dubbed the proceedings a “parliamentary coup.” Franco said the process was proper, and he has formed a new government.

Predictably, perhaps, the harshest denunciation came from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who immediately cut off oil shipments to Paraguay. The leaders of Colombia and Chile also criticized the way Lugo was ousted, as did the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which said the speed with which he was removed from office – just 24 hours – calls into question whether due process was followed.

Asked during a briefing in Washington on Wednesday whether Lugo’s removal was a coup, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “was not judging this one way or another.” She said the Obama administration was waiting until Insulza returns to Washington from his fact-finding trip.

“We are not at this stage planning to rush to judgment on the events in Paraguay until we have that report back,” she said.

The 2008 election of Lugo, a 61-year-old former Roman Catholic bishop, was a landmark event in Paraguay, the first time the entrenched Colorado party had lost an election in 61 years and where a military dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, ruled from 1954 to 1989.

Lugo, dubbed the "bishop of the poor", was elected in large part on his promises to carry out land reform in a landlocked country of 6 million people that has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world. But he never had support in Congress, and his approval rating fell steadily while he was in office, according to the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro, from 84 percent in 2008 to 50 percent last year. Paraguayans’ confidence in government fell even more, from 84 percent in 2008 to just 37 percent last year.

But the handwriting had been on the wall for some time that Lugo could be forced from office if the circumstances were right. A U.S. diplomatic cable written in March 2009 and made public last year by WikiLeaks predicted much of what has happened in the past week.

The cable, classified “secret,” was titled “Paraguayan Pols Plot Parliamentary Putsch.” It described the risks Lugo faced from two major Paraguayan figures, cashiered Gen. Lino Oviedo and former President Nicanor Duarte Frutos.

“Duarte’s and Oviedo’s shared goal: Find a ‘cause celebre’ to champion so as to change the current political equation, break the political deadlock in Congress, impeach Lugo, and regain their own political relevance,” the cable said. “Oviedo’s dream scenario involves legally impeaching Lugo, even if on spurious grounds.”

The cable describes their efforts then as “mostly legal” and “a supposed democratic coup,” but it says that Lugo had been careful up until that point not give his enemies “the political or legal rope with which to hang him.”

The cable said that Lugo’s one advantage was that many found his vice president, now the country’s leader, to have “an oversized ego and a difficult personality.”

A cable filed in December 2009, after a visit by Arturo Valenzuela, then the State Department’s top official for Latin America, predicted that “while many are frustrated with the lack of progress under Lugo’s government, a muted optimism regarding Lugo’s potential should safeguard him against impeachment in the immediate future. But Lugo needs to take action and deliver results if he wants to finish his term.”

During a meeting with congressional leaders then, according to the cable, Valenzuela said he “understood that a constitutional impeachment process is not equal to a coup, but warned that Paraguay should not use impeachment as a mechanism to resolve short-term political problems without carefully thinking through the consequences.”

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