Paraguay’s Presidential Change and the Regional Democratic Picture

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.

This sort of complaint lies at the heart of the the argument from Sérgio Malbergier, a columnist for another major Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo. Malbergier turns the ousting of Lugo into an examination of what sort of leadership role Brazil is going to take in the region and asks whether or not it will do what is necessary to help a country such as Paraguay stay on the democratic path. While not well publicized, there is a very strong history of Brazil intervening quietly, but extremely directly to make sure Paraguay stays on the democratic path. Although Arturo Valenzuela’s account of one of the most serious threats to Paraguayan democracy focuses on the US role, the reality is that Brazil was the central actor during the 1996 coup attempt by General Lino Oviedo against President Juan Carlos Wasmossy. Not only did Wasmossy run to the Brazil’s embassy for succor, he also was quickly flown to Brasília for consultations with the Brazilian president, who directed his military to place strong informal pressure on their Paraguayan counterparts to stand down. Similar pressures have continued over the last fifteen years, varying from closing illicit smuggling routes across the border to pressure contrabanding elites, through to more direct statements of the need to heed the constitutional path and the use of almost vice-regal interventions by Brazilian presidential representatives behind closed doors.
The unstated premise underlying Malbergier’s article is that the scenario in Latin America has changed. A decade ago there were still some questions about democratic permanence in the region. The situation today is different. Maintenance of democratic forms is a prerequisite for any leader seeking to stay in power — just ask Bolivia’s Morales, Ecuador’s Correa and even Venezuela’s Chávez. Thus, while in 2002 it would have been enough to forcefully push for maintenance of democratic forms, the critique from commentators is that a far more muscular approach to supporting operational and applied depth to the forms of democracy is required today. And this is precisely where the response from Argentina and Brazil, the only countries that really matter to Paraguay, falls down. To his credit, Chávez in Venezuela has pushed the point beyond symbolism by creating a real cost to Lugo’s ouster by cutting shipments of subsidized fuel to Paraguay. Kirchner and Dilma have simply excluded Franco from a meeting where he would have had less of a voice than Uruguay, whose protests over the whisking of Venezuela into the bloc were largely ignored.
Lost in this call for direct pressure to maintain substantive democracy in Paraguay is consideration of why this case is any different than a number of other global examples involving the US, EU, Australia and South Africa. Pressure to ‘force’ a country down the democratic path requires massive political will and commitment from the imposing country or region, with the Eastern European example arguably being the only real example of this taking place. The simple reality is that the sort of internal dialogue necessary to support such an interventionist policy has not taken place in Argentina or Brazil. In the Paraguayan case there has been no widespread recognition in neighbouring countries of the impact that democratic consolidation and sustained development in Paraguay would have on the security situation in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Foreign policy, even on a regional level, has remained an economic question. Unfortunately, recent events in Paraguay are unlikely to change this.
–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Argentina, Brazil, Democracy, MERCOSUR, OAS, Paraguay

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