Lugo, a leftist whose 2008 election ended six decades of one-party rule in Paraguay, has been the most vociferous critic of a Congress that, in a matter of hours, voted to abruptly end his presidency.
“I think this was a coup, a coup against democracy, a blow against the popular will,” Lugo told The Washington Post in a telephone interview Friday from the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion. “This was a parliamentary coup, unjust because, in reality, none of my rights were respected, nor due process, nor the right to a defense.”
Lugo’s ordeal stuck a chord in a region of mostly left-leaning leaders who rule countries in which coups and military dictatorships were once common.
The region’s most ideologically committed populists, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, declined to recognize the new Paraguayan government of Federico Franco, while Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other countries ordered their ambassadors home for consultations. At a summit Friday in Argentina, the Mercosur trade bloc and the Union of South American Nations suspended Paraguay until a new government is elected in April.
Unlike Brazil and Argentina, the continent’s two biggest countries, which quickly rushed to defend Lugo, the Obama administration responded cautiously. The State Department expressed concern about the speed of the proceedings that led to Lugo’s removal but did not pull its ambassador from Asuncionor say that constitutional procedures had been violated.
The incident provided an unexpected victory for Chavez. His country on Friday was admitted to Mercosur, a foreign policy priority that for years had been blocked by Paraguay’s Congress.
“This is a win-win for everybody,” Chavez said on Venezuelan state television. He also lashed out at the United States, as he frequently does, alleging that Washington had backed Lugo’s opponents but providing no proof.
A former Catholic clergyman, Lugo said the hard-line Colorado Party, which controls Paraguay’s Congress, considered his presidency a threat. Although he would have been constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Lugo said the party wanted to wipe away every vestige of his leftist administration in the run-up to the April vote.
“Sometimes, it is hard for anyone to understand the irrationality of politics in Paraguay,” he said. “The only explanation we can offer is that if the democratic process and Fernando Lugo’s government continued, then possibly the traditional parties would not have returned to power in 2013.”