BOGOTA, Colombia — The specter of a military-style coup was largely a distant memory in South America until Paraguay’s Congress, in a blistering-fast hearing, ousted President Fernando Lugo for “poor performance of his duties.”
Now, leaders across the region are warning that a new kind of coup, one dressed up in a legal veneer, could emerge as a danger to the democratic order. The president’s removal 11 days ago has embroiled Paraguay’s neighbors, most prominently the regional powerhouse Brazil, in an impassioned debate over the rule of law and what collective actions should be taken to punish the politicians who threw out Lugo.
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.”
He said his government’s policies were centered on “the rights of the citizenry,” particularly landless peasants in one of the continent’s poorest countries.
“That bothered them,” he said of the Paraguayan establishment. “They could not tolerate that an outsider could come in and do politics in a way that was differentfrom the traditional.”
A landlocked country with just 6.5 million people, Paraguay is known as a smuggling haven and a sanctuary for fugitives. Nazi war criminals flocked to the country during the iron-fisted rule of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who held power for 35 years until 1989. Even after democracy’s return, presidents were hastily ousted.
Lugo soon found that he was unable to enact many of the broad reforms he had promised. He lost supporters after several women came forward and publicly accused him of fathering children while he had been a priest. He was unable to control a small but violent guerrilla group, and his government’s inability to stop land invasions stiffened the resolve of his political rivals.
To make matters worse, Lugo battled lymphatic cancer for much of his presidency.
Although rumors of his ouster began to swirl as far back as 2009, his opponents finally had a pretext two weeks ago, when six police officers and 11 landless farmers died in a clash that lawmakers argued Lugo did nothing to prevent.
Just six days later, the lower house voted 76 to 1 to impeach Lugo. The next day, June 22, the Senate voted 39 to 4 to oust him, giving Lugo’s attorneys only two hours to offer a defense. Supporters took to the streets, but their protests quickly faded.
“Paraguay has acted within its jurisdiction and sovereignty, and if other countries don’t understand, that’s their problem,” Bernardino Hugo Saguier, Paraguay’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, said by phone from Asuncion. “We are being submitted to a persecution by other countries.”
But statesmen across the region, as well as constitutional lawyers, rights groups and academics, say the ouster is at worst “a constitutional coup,” or at best a violation of democratic principles.
“The term ‘coup d’etat’ in Latin America sounds militaristic, but what happened in Paraguay was a coup d’etat, undoubtedly,” said Santiago Canton, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous arm of the OAS that investigates violations against the democratic order. “That they decide to initiate a political trial against a president and in 24 hours they make a decision and he is given two hours to defend himself is a joke. It’s a travesty of justice,” he said.
In the phone interview Friday, Lugo said his representatives would make a case before Paraguay’s Supreme Court that his trial was unconstitutional.
“It’s possible the Supreme Court will acknowledge the unconstitutional nature of the process and declare invalid what happened . . . in the Senate,” he said. “But I think it will be difficult for that to happen.”
Lugo said he may instead focus on a return to political office — perhaps a run for the Senate, a body packed with his enemies.
“There’s a small door open,” he said.“I am going to think about it, analyze it, talk to many people about it and decide later on.”