Constitutional coup topples progressive president in Paraguay

Paraguay’s revolutionaries and people will draw lessons from the Lugo presidency as they continue the fight for independence and freedom.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The recent ousting of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo has received perhaps more critical attention in the West than have many other similar such moves aimed at undermining and overthrowing progressive leaders in the oppressed nations. Perhaps it was the brazen and hasty nature of Lugo’s impeachment, and the obvious signs of foreign involvement, which obliged the otherwise compliant western media, as well as a number of left-wing organisations, to give it a degree of attention.

Fernando Lugo is a “former roman-catholic bishop of an impoverished rural diocese” who was elected to the presidency of Paraguay as part of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC). Ideologically, he has expressed a commitment to ‘liberation theology’ – a left-wing catholic doctrine which is considered heretical by the Vatican owing to its socialist sympathies – and has “described his political views as somewhere between those of Presidents Chávez (Venezuela) and Morales (Bolivia) and the more moderate stances of Presidents Lula (Brazil) and Bachelet (Chile)”.

His election in 2008 was considered a further victory for the emerging left in Latin America and was seen by many commentators as a result of “Washington’s intense focus on the Middle East” and thus “diminished influence in Latin America”. (‘Paraguay moves a bit to the left’, Los Angeles Times, 22 April 2008)

However, once in power, Lugo was not able to bring about many of the reforms that he desired, owing to both the deformed nature of Paraguay’s economic and political structures – the result of decades of underdevelopment at the hands of western monopoly capital – as well as the fact that, whilst popular among the masses, he lacked a parliamentary majority, powerful party backing – or even a supportive vice president!

Paraguay’s state and economy

Moreover, any elected leader of Paraguay, who must abide by existing constitutional frameworks, faces innumerable historical challenges and constraints.

The history of Paraguayan development up to the current era is best characterised as one of imperialist dependency and under- (or mal-) development. A useful outline of the theory of ‘dependency’ (a term current among academics who are loath, or find it inopportune, to speak of ‘imperialism’ when this is what they really mean), comes from the historian Walter LaFeber, in his book on US foreign policy and its impact on central American nations:

Dependency may be generally defined as a way of looking at Latin American development, not in isolation, but as part of an international system in which the leading powers (and, since 1945, the United States in particular), have used their economic strength to make Latin American development dependent on – and subordinate to – the interests of those leading powers.

This dependence … has stunted the Latins’ economic growth by forcing their economies to rely on one or two export crops, or on minerals, that are shipped off to the industrial nations. These few export crops … make a healthy domestic economy impossible … because their price depends on an international marketplace which the industrial powers, not Latin America, can control. Such export crops also blot up land that should be used to grow foodstuffs for local diets. Thus malnutrition, even starvation, grow with the profits of the relatively few producers of the export crops.

Dependency also skews [Latin-] American politics. The key export crops are controlled by foreign investors or local elites who depend on foreigners for capital, markets, and often for personal protection. In the words of a Chilean scholar, these foreign influences become a ‘kind of fifth column’ that distorts economic and political development without taking direct political control of the country.

Thus dependency theory denies outright a cherished belief of many north Americans: that if they are allowed to invest and trade freely, the result will be a more prosperous and stable [Latin] America. To the contrary … such investment and trade has been pivotal in misshaping those nations’ history until revolution appears to be the only instrument that can break the hammerlock held by local oligarchy and foreign capital.” (Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, 1993)

The particular history of Paraguay during the 20th century confirms this general picture. From the Chaco war of the 1930s, to the CIA-backed Stroessner dictatorship that ruled from 1954-89, we see countless examples of how foreign and domestic exploiting classes sought a path of development for Paraguay that was completely at odds with the most basic needs of its people.

The result of this path of development is tragically predictable. The modern Paraguayan economy “remains heavily dependent upon its traditional agricultural exports … [while the] industrial sector is still largely underdeveloped, with much of the population still employed in subsistence agriculture … [As a result] growth tends to be limited by Paraguay’s imports of manufactured goods, as well capital goods that are necessary to supply the industrial and investment requirements of the economy.”

The ‘traditional agricultural exports’ mentioned above – principally soybeans, animal feed and cotton – are almost entirely controlled by elite forces. In most regions of Paraguay over 80 percent of the land is controlled by as little as 2 percent of the population – primarily foreign multinationals, such as Cargill, and wealthy private landowners both domestic and foreign, such as the so-called ‘Braziguayos’ (Brazilian nationals) – with the result that most Paraguayan agricultural labourers are forced into a kind of neo-feudalism.

This inequitable distribution of land is one of the most pernicious legacies of the Stroessner dictatorship, which oversaw the transfer of a good deal of public land into private hands.

Paraguay’s agrarian, import-dependent development model has a number of important political consequences. Most notably, “Paraguay is heavily influenced by the economic conditions of its larger neighbours, Argentina and Brazil” and a “significant part of the country’s commercial sector consists of importing goods from the United States and Asia for re-export into neighbouring countries” which necessitates that “Paraguay and the United States have good relations”.

The relationship between Paraguay and the United States during the Lugo presidency is best characterised as ‘close but fraught’. For a president elected on a moderate, reforming mandate without a clear parliamentary majority, there could be no question of a clean break with foreign dependency.

When Lugo was elected in 2008, the United States was providing “an estimated $11.6m” in aid “to support child survival and health … development assistance … international military education and training … international narcotics control and law enforcement assistance … [and] the continuation of a Peace Corps programme in the country”. (‘Paraguay: background and US relations’, United States Congressional Research Service, 2 February 2009)

The course of Paraguayan development under Lugo was further constrained by Paraguay’s existing commitment to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – an independent, bilateral United States foreign aid agency that was established under the Bush presidency to promote “development with accountability”.

The reality of ‘development with accountability’ is a “competitive selection process” in which prospective compact members are expected to submit to the mandate of the MCC in areas as vital to effective national sovereignty as trade policy; fiscal policy; inflation rates; land rights and access; political rights and civil liberties – with some areas of concern having deliberately vague descriptors (eg, “voice and accountability”). Paraguay is currently a ‘threshold member’ of the MCC compact and is the target of a $30.3m ‘stage II’ threshold programme that will allegedly “focus on anti-corruption efforts in law enforcement, customs, and the healthcare and judicial sectors”. (‘Paraguay threshold programme’,

On a domestic level, Lugo’s ability to effect meaningful change was constrained by the congressional balance of power, which continued to favour traditional, right-wing parties, and by the above-discussed economic balance of power, which favoured domestic elites and foreign corporations.

When elected in 2008, Lugo was obliged to enter into a coalition with the conservative PLRA (led by the former vice-president Federico Franco, now installed as president in place of Lugo), which gave his first years in office a distinctly ‘moderate’ character. Despite an election campaign which “emphasised empowering the poor, agrarian reform, health reform, and putting an end to endemic corruption”, Lugo was frustrated in many of these areas by the realities of the existing domestic and international political balance.

As Pepe Escobar has pointed out, “Lugo was in fact facing a Sisyphean task – trying to steer a weak state, with minimum income from taxes (less than 12 percent of GNP), and under severe pressure by powerful transnational lobbies and comprador elites.” (‘Welcome to “democraship”’, Asia Times Online, 4 July 2012)

Lugo’s downfall

Despite many early concessions, efforts to remove Lugo began as early as 2009, when the US embassy in Asuncion reported that opponents of the Lugo presidency were “now working together to assume power via (mostly) legal means should President Lugo stumble in coming months” and noted “increased reports of a possible ‘constitutional’ plot against Lugo”. At the time, however, there was no real international backing for any coup attempt, leaving it effectively a non-starter; the US embassy cables reported that “For all his foibles, President Lugo remains Paraguay’s least-worst option.” (

This did not dissuade certain die-hard opponents of the new president from conspiring against him, however, as Lugo himself revealed in 2008 when he “publicly exposed a conspiracy plotted by former President Nicanor León Duarte and General (r) Lino Oviedo”.

This grudging designation of Lugo as imperialism’s ‘least-worst option’ gradually began to shift, however, as Lugo demonstrated an unwillingness to submit to the more overt political mandates from Washington and elsewhere. Lugo began strengthening ties with more independent nations such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela – harking back to the initial fears raised by his commitment to ‘liberation theology’ – and expressed a desire to reduce US involvement in Paraguayan affairs.

Antagonism with the US came to a head when Lugo refused to accept the deployment of 500 US troops in Paraguay under the ‘New Horizons Programme’, a prospective deployment which was seen by many commentators as part of a process to establish a permanent US military base in the country and thus complicate any further moves towards national self-determination.

On the economic front, Lugo fell foul of western corporate forces – particularly those representing the agribusiness giants Monsanto and Cargill, which were concerned at Lugo’s attempts to introduce graduated income tax and suggestions of future land reform programmes. This, coupled with the new worries of the US state department, created a new base of international support for action to remove Lugo.

As Mempo Giardinelli points out: “Although timidly, and not without contradictions and setbacks, the Lugo government was coming to signify a more than interesting change for the Paraguayan people,” and this deviation from the status quo was wholly unpalatable to those whom the status quo most benefited. (‘Paraguay: two centuries of coups’, Granma International, 6 July 2012)

When action was finally taken to remove Lugo, the condensed series of events were roughly as predicted by the US embassy telegram of 2009: the use of an apparent political outrage, in this case the Curuguaty massacre, as a rallying point for opposition to Lugo within the Paraguayan congress and as justification for rapid impeachment.

The reality of the particular events which ‘justified’ the impeachment remain hotly disputed, with no cohesive narrative yet to emerge. What can reliably be established is that a stand-off occurred between police and peasants, who were protesting what they (not without justification) considered to be the inequitable distribution of land in the north-eastern regions of Paraguay – where large tracts of the land are controlled by foreign corporations and domestic elites, as a result of constitutionally-dubious decisions taken by the Stroessner regime during the late 1960s.

The stand-off turned violent after shots were fired, though accounts vary as to by whom and directed at whom – it is not, at this stage, conspiratorial to mention that several different reports have suggested the presence of agents provocateurs within the peasant groups – and led to a protracted fire-fight between police, peasants and others. After the initial battle, a number of different sources seem to indicate an attempted cover-up operation by police and special forces in which a number of people were extra-judicially detained and a great deal of potential evidence destroyed.

What should be clear is that, whatever the reality of the events which took place in Curuguaty, the process that followed them was motivated by concerns that were far from humanitarian. Those who remember the ‘massacres’ in Srebrenica (Bosnia) or Houla (Syria) would do well to further remember the way in which an emotionally-potent but wholly inaccurate version of events was used to create a climate favourable to overt and predatory imperialist actions.

In the case of Paraguay, Lugo was obliged, by the apparent ‘disgrace’ brought to his supporters by the events in Curuguaty, to hand over control of key positions within his government to the Colorado Party (the traditional party of the compradors and big landowners) and its elite backers – apparently believing that these concessions to his political opponents would help him to stave off an attempted impeachment. With their new, even greater influence, however, Lugo’s opponents from both sides of the ‘political spectrum’ (such as it is in modern Paraguay) quickly reached an agreement and Lugo was given just two hours to prepare his official case against impeachment.

Lessons from the Lugo period

Marx long ago noted that the working class would not be able to lay hold of the ready-made state machinery – it having grown up out of the very class relations that the revolution seeks to overcome – but would, instead, have to smash that state machinery and rebuild their own state on new foundations.

In order for the Paraguayan people to defeat both their domestic and international exploiters they must begin to fight on their own terms, not on terms offered to them by their exploiters. They must reject the legitimacy of the Paraguayan state, which has been custom-built to facilitate the rape of their country and its natural resources. They must make a materialist analysis of their situation and begin to organise in such a way that they may issue a real challenge to imperialist monopoly-capitalism, both in Paraguay and in Latin America.

Duty of solidarity

We have no doubt that many lessons from the Lugo period will be drawn and developed by those to whom they can be of the most benefit – the Paraguayan people and their revolutionary representatives. It is up to them to determine their line of advance, while our task is to support their fight against imperialism in all its forms.

And it is our duty today to offer solidarity with their struggle against the counter-revolutionary forces that are currently seeking to smash the national-liberation struggle, of which the Lugo presidency has definitely been a component part. Whatever criticisms we might make of Lugo’s presidency, we must echo Mempo Giardinelli’s reminder that Lugo’s opponents were “seeking to bring down the democratic government on account of its virtues, not on account of its defects” and that, given the highly complex material circumstances in which the class struggle in Paraguay is conducted, it is not always possible to prefer ideological purity to pragmatism.

It is also our duty to offer solidarity with the ongoing struggle to develop the revolutionary movement in Paraguay. Though the forces of reaction may currently have the upper hand, we have no doubt that these trials will only strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary movement in Latin America and its supporters in Paraguay.

Victory to the Paraguayan people!


Paraguay moves a bit to the left LA Times

Inevitable Revolutions – United States in Central America

Paraguay – Background and US Relations Wikileaks

Paraguay Threshold Program Millennium Challenge Corporation

Welcome to democraship Asia Times

Paraguayan pols Wikileaks

Paraguay – two centuries of coups Granma International