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Pressure from the Region Could Be Decisive in Paraguay’s Crisis

Natalia Ruiz Diaz Jun 27, 2012

The international community, and especially the rest of South America, could play a key role in the crisis triggered in Paraguay by the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo and his replacement by Federico Franco, his vice president.

The refusal of neighbouring countries to recognise the Franco administration poses a major challenge to the new government.

While Franco presented his cabinet at the presidential palace Monday, Lugo – who was ousted by a congressional vote Friday – announced a shadow cabinet to monitor and oversee the actions of the new government.

Meanwhile, Argentina and Venezuela recalled their ambassadors, and Venezuela cut off all oil shipments to Paraguay.

Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay called their ambassadors home for consultations, and the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc decided not to invite the new Paraguayan government to the Jun. 28-29 summit in the Argentine province of Mendoza.

Franco complained that the neighbouring countries had gone too far, and argued that the impeachment procedure was carried out in accordance with the constitution.

Lugo, a moderate leftist, was impeached on five charges of malfeasance in office, in the wake of a deadly clash between landless farmers and police when the former were being evicted from land that they had occupied. Six police and 11 peasants were killed in the incident.

Organisation of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza and many other leaders in the region said the impeachment trial, in which Lugo was given just two hours to defend himself, violated due process.

The five charges were that Lugo was politically and criminally responsible for the bloody Jun. 15 clash in which 17 people died in Curuguaty in northeastern Paraguay; that he signed, without consulting Congress, a Mercosur democracy clause that allegedly restricts national sovereignty; that he failed to curb growing insecurity and crime; that he instigated and facilitated occupations of land; and that he held a political rally in a military barracks.

Although the entire impeachment process took less than 24 hours, Lugo respected the decision and stepped down, explaining that he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

Franco was immediately sworn in by Congress, and is to serve out the rest of Lugo’s term, which ends in August 2013.

Lugo later called the impeachment a “parliamentary coup” and an institutional breakdown in the democratic process, and said he hoped to be at the Mercosur summit to explain his version of events to the other presidents of the bloc, which is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

“One of the most important actors at this point is the international community, because the country is very vulnerable,” political scientist Milda Rivarola told IPS. “There are many ways to economically suffocate Paraguay because it is a landlocked country and because of its weak institutions.”

Paraguay is the smallest member of Mercosur, accounting for just 0.7 percent of the bloc’s GDP, compared to 80 percent for Brazil, 17.8 percent for Argentina, and 1.5 percent for Uruguay.

If the bloc were to adopt sanctions, Rivarola said, it would help make it more clear who exactly is behind the government of Franco, who has the support of large rural estate-owners and the business and industrial chambers.

“These sectors are sovereign like the state. They backed the impeachment trial, but if economic sanctions are adopted, they will not want to pay the costs,” the analyst added.

Lugo, a former Catholic bishop known as “the bishop of the poor”, won the 2008 elections backed by an alliance of leftist movements and parties, and by the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), the country’s second-largest party.

But the PLRA withdrew its support from Lugo after four years of government during which it held four ministries, and voted in favour of the impeachment motion brought by the Colorado Party, whose 61-year grip on power – including the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner – came to an end when Lugo was elected.

“The PLRA withdrew its support because the situation was unsustainable; we tried to convince Lugo of the need to co-govern, but he was always stubborn, and those around him were as well,” lower house lawmaker Enrique Salyn, who Franco named minister of public works and communications, told IPS.

The incident in Curuguaty was the straw that broke the camel’s back, said Salyn.

The circumstances surrounding the violent incident have not been clarified. Sectors opposed to Lugo blame the landless farmers for the killings, while sources close to Lugo say the peasants occupying the land were infiltrated by people who ambushed the police.

The estate in question is in the name of the Campos Morombí SAC y Agropecuaria, an agribusiness company belonging to Blas N. Riquelme, a Colorado Party businessman and politician. But according to the Office of the General Prosecutor and the National Institute of Rural Development and Land, the property actually belongs to the state.

The Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ) – which from 2003 to 2008 investigated human rights abuses committed during the Stroessner dictatorship – also stated in its final report that the property had been put in the hands of the state, to be distributed as part of the land reform programme.

“There is a serious crisis in the countryside, which no government has been able to resolve, and where Lugo also failed to show signs of a real solution,” said Rivarola.

She said it was likely that the massacre would never be clarified.

The land question is the biggest source of conflict that Franco faces.

“The commitment is to try to regularise land tenure in that area; at least to start drawing up a land registry, to regulate the situation,” Salyn said.

Senator Sixto Pereira of the Tekojoja Popular Party, a Lugo ally, told IPS that what happened was “a blow to the democratic process…dealt by the party leadership to defend the oligarchy that possesses ill-gotten land.”

Evidence that there was a plot were the incoherent and unsubstantial arguments behind the accusation and the lightning speed of the impeachment trial, he said.

Rivarola said Lugo and those close to him had been blind to the magnitude of the crisis that was brewing. She also said Congress failed to foresee the international consequences that the country would suffer.

The latest agricultural census, carried out in 2008, found that 85.5 percent of the farmland is in the hands of just 2.06 percent of the population.

And the CVJ reported that 6.75 million hectares of land were illegally sold or handed over during the Stroessner regime, and one million in the following 15 years – in other words, 64 percent of the land sold or distributed between 1954 and 2008; 33 percent of all farmland; and 19 percent of the national territory.

This article was originally published by IPS.

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