Reaction to the highly accelerated constitutional removal of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo appears to be correlated to an individual’s job. Although condemned by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, it is hard not to think that they are grateful for the excuse to suspend Paraguay from the trade bloc Mercosur and get on with business — Venezuela’s accession to the bloc, held up by the Paraguayan congress, was approved last week, and talk (perhaps overly optimistic) of a Mercosur-China trade deal is now active after being off the table because of Paraguay’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Over in the Organization of American States, reaction is even more muted, with a very tentative mission of non-South American countries calling the situation ‘calm’ and hoping that the organization will escape more of the sort of attacks seen at the recent Cochabamba general assembly.
While this is a cynical reading, the regional reactions seem to support it. Paraguay had its political rights suspended from Mercosur in symbolic keeping with the bloc’s governing agreements, but this punishment did not extend to economic sanction. Trade continues and, more importantly for Brazil and Argentina, electricity continues to flow from the giant Itaipu and Yacyretá hydroelectric complexes. For his part, newly installed Paraguayan President Federico Franco has been clear that he does not particularly care about foreign relations and wants to devote his efforts to remedying Lugo’s mistakes. In other words, Franco could care less about participation in Mercosur meetings provided that trade, both legal and illegal, continues.
It is this sort of deeply cynical approach to democracy promotion and protection that has drawn the ire of commentators well versed in the region. The most recent blast comes from Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald, who point blank blames regional leaders such as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela for the ‘flexible’ approach to constitutional procedure in Paraguay. He writes: “They have remained silent before so many violations of democratic rights in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in recent years that they have helped create a climate of “anything goes” in the region.” In broad strokes Oppenheimer is right. A more nuanced approach grounded in the region’s history points to an approach that recognizes that sustainable democratic forms must come from internal negotiations. The problem is that this often results in a somewhat blinkered view of democracy, something which has been remarkably prevalent in Brazilian foreign policy over the last twenty years.
The Brazilian daily O Estado de São Paulo has taken more direct aim at the democratic credentials of Mercosur by asking how the bloc can suspend Paraguay and use that as an opportunity to welcome Venezuela into the club. Like Oppenheimer, the complaint from the Estadão editorial board is that a rather self-serving and pragmatic approach to democracy is being taken within the bloc. What we are discussing here is the difference between the strict legality of democracy and its practical applied reality. Arguments such as that by Javier El-Hage in Americas Quarterly are very clear that there was nothing specifically illegal or extra-constitutional about Lugo’s impeachment. The problem is the impeachment process failed the very important democratic ‘sniff test’. For Estadão this is a particular problem with respect to Venezuela, a country it has long attacked as descending into authoritarianism through democratic means under Chávez. For like-minded critics the decidedly awkward question is how the dominant leaders of Mercosur — Dilma and Kirchner — will be able to reconcile the bloc’s well-established democratic credentials with the sort of political conduct attributed to Chávez by his detractors.