Category Archives: Paraguay

Guides to understanding events in Paraguay

Thanks to Bill Smith at the University of Miami for flagging this piece on events in Paraguay by the University of Birmingham’s Andrew Nickson. As Nickson points out in “Paraguay’s presidential coup: the inside story ” (probably the best short piece available on Paraguay), the only way to get a handle on Lugo’s ouster is to understand the intimate details of internal Paraguayan politics. This includes understanding how the national elite have manipulated land reform laws and captured virtually the entirety of the state and political system to advance their own individual interests. Nickson succinctly maps out the family connections that form the underpinning of the perversions of constitutional structures in Paraguay. This is probably the one piece you should read on Paraguay.

If you are looking for a more detailed mapping of the background to political and economic affairs, the University of Bath’s Peter Lambert wrote a superb overview of the country for Freedom House entitled “Countries at the Crossroads 2011: Paraguay“. Lambert is another leading scholar on Paraguay and co-editor with Andrew Nickson of the definitive collection on Paraguay’s first decade of democracy, The Transition to Democracy in Paraguay (MacMillan, 1997), which unfortunately now appears to be out of print. The pair have a new book with Duke University Press coming out later this year entitled, The Paraguay Reader: History, Culture, Politics.

Other recent academic articles of interest on Paraguay include

Robert Andrew Nickson. “The general election in Paraguay, April 2008” Journal of Electoral Studies 28.1 (2009): 145-149.

Robert Andrew Nickson. “Political economy of policymaking in Paraguay” Losing ground in the employment challenge: The case of Paraguay. Ed. Albert Berry. New Brunswick (USA) and London (UK): Transaction Publishers, 2010. 265-294.

Brian Turner, “Paraguay 2009: Many Differences and Little Change,” Revista de Ciencia Política 30 (2) (2010).


If you are looking for book length reading, Hugh O’Shaughnessy’s The Priest of Paraguay: Fernando Lugo and the Making of a Nation is a bit thin on its treatment of Lugo, but provides a great deal of insight into the underlying political and social conditions in Paraguay as viewed through the role of the Catholic Church in that country. It is worth a read.

A far more irreverent approach that focus on the entertaining and titillating, but nevertheless gives the reader a good sense of the extent to which Paraguay stands as a unique case in South America is the travel memoir At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig by John Gimlette.

As a British Ambassador to Asuncion once noted (I forget which one), be careful when turning your attention to Paraguay. The country is strangely captivating and tends to breed obsessive interest that never quite goes away.

–Sean Burges

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Good OpEd from Canada on events in Paraguay

Michael Harvey, president of the Canadian Council for the Americas and one of the top minds on Latin America in Canada, has just published an OpEd on events in Paraguay in Embassy Magazine, a weekly publication focusing on Canadian foreign policy and the diplomatic community in Ottawa. An earlier version of Michael’s OpEd is below.

Paraguay: Worse than a Coup d’état, a Blunder
Michael Harvey, President, Canadian Council for the Americas

In Paraguay on June 22, 39 Senators of 43 voted in favour of impeaching President Fernando Lugo. The day before, 76 Representatives of 77 did the same. With such a clear vote, strictly complying with Paraguay’s constitutional requirements for impeachment, why are countries like Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil claiming there has been a coup d’état?

The root of the current crisis was a confusing incident between police and peasants who had occupied land. 11 peasants and 6 police officers died, with accusations about who fired first not leading to much clarity. However, this bloody incident was simply an excuse that allowed Congress to remove the President under Paraguay’s rather vague constitutional grounds of “poor performance of his functions.”

The Congress took only 30 hours between beginning to deliberate and declaring Lugo “guilty” of being a bad President. Worse, they gave him only 2 hours to prepare his defence. What some refer to as a “kangaroo impeachment” was imprudent and far from serious, but was it “illegal” or a “coup d’état,” meriting the invoking of democracy clauses that call for the suspension of non-democratic countries from bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS)?

I would argue that it was not illegal, much less a coup. There was no violence. The military was not involved. Former President Lugo is not in jail, nor being expelled from the country. The Vice-President took over. The Supreme Court said the proceedings respected the constitution, which was expressly drafted to give Congress greater control over Presidential actions (not surprising as the country was coming out of the bloody Stroessner dictatorship).

Impeachment is not criminal law. It is political. Richard Nixon was impeached, and Bill Clinton was not, in hearings that did not exactly meet the standards of serious criminal law.

In the end, the legality of the issue hardly matters when it comes to international response. The Paraguayan Congressmen should have remembered the legendary reaction of Talleyrand when he learned of the murder of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon I. “It was WORSE than a crime, it was a blunder!”

The Paraguayan Congress has created a major crisis with its country’s neighbours. Brazil and Argentina are by far the most important external actors in Paraguay and are leading the charge to exclude new President Federico Franco from participating in the meetings of the South American Common Market (Mercosur) and the South American Community of Nations (Unasur). They are being egged on by others, especially Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay. These countries have argued that Lugo’s right to due process was violated, making this a “legislative coup d’état.”

The hypocrisy of this position is quite impressive. Mercosur’s Presidents have invited Venezuela to join the organization, despite the fact that Venezuelan “democracy” features a judiciary that takes orders from the President, and a National Assembly whose powers are regularly transferred to the President as well, behind a very thin constitutional facade.

What role should Canada play in this sad affair? Rather limited. Has the Paraguayan Senate overstepped the limits of the acceptable? Yes. Has Mercosur overreacted, with considerable hypocrisy? Yes. Nonetheless, the other members of Mercosur are Paraguay’s peers, and most important partners. Canada does not even have an embassy in Paraguay.

Ironically, the OAS, whose Secretary General Insulza has flown to Paraguay to investigate the situation, has been handed a bit of an opportunity thanks to Paraguay’s neighbours’ overreaction. Insulza should report back to member states that Paraguay’s Congress went too far to avoid criticism but constitutionality is not at issue. He could usefully point out that democracy entails a balance between the executive, legislative and judicial powers and that Paraguay is not the only country in the Americas grappling with these issues. Canada could take advantage to draw attention to the glass houses inhabited by some of the most eager stone throwers.

Unfortunately, no quick solution is in sight. Unless Paraguay’s neighbours go so far as to invoke sanctions, which is unlikely as it would cause real pain to themselves, Paraguay’s new President Franco should be able to wait out the storm and run the country normally until elections take place next year. In the end, not being invited to the profusion of Latin American summits may turn out to be more of a relief than a punishment.

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Filed under Analysis, Democracy, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, MERCOSUR, Paraguay, Uncategorized

Lugo’s ouster in Paraguay — the Mercosul implications viewed from Uruguay and Brazil

More details are starting to come out with respect to last week’s Mercosur summit meeting and the decision to suspend Paraguay’s political rights. The online newspaper Mercopress has a series of fascinating reports on Uruguay’s reaction to the whole process, which can be summarized as follows:

Story #1 — Uruguay agreed to Venezuela’s July 31 entry into Mercosur as part of a negotiation to prevent Argentina and Brazil from imposing economic sanctions on Paraguay. Why? The political class staged the disruption so why punish the people, mused Uruguay.

Story #2 — There was not a unanimous agreement between the three remaining Mercosur presidents (Dilma, Kirchner, Mujica) that Venezuela should join the bloc, although Argentina and Brazil contest this.

Story #3 — Brazil and Argentina will benefit most from Venezuela’s accession to Mercosur. Brazil has a large trade surplus with Venezuela (and its firms get paid with regularity).

Story #4 — Uruguay vice president Astori is calling the outcome of the last Mercosur meeting a major blow against the already fragile institutional framework of the bloc.

Story #5 — Uruguay is claiming that it was Brazil that pushed so hard to bring Venezuela into the bloc. (This fits with much of the sustained pressure from various presidential advisors in Brasília.)

Story #6 — Former Mercosur cheerleaders and ex-Brazilian diplomat, Rubens Barbosa is now publicly worrying that Argentina is going to kill the trade bloc. Barbosa is currently head of the foreign trade council of the São Paulo Federation of Industrial Entreprises (FIESP), one of Brazil’s most important business groups.

Story #7 — The opposition in Brazil’s congress is complaining that the Dilma government is reducing Mercosur to little more than a political plaything. The bloc was once a critical part of Brazil’s foreign economic engagement strategy.


Rapid Analysis: Mercosur is not really in any more trouble than it has been for the last several years. The difference with this latest instance is that the internal discord and contradictions are now becoming very public. Ultimately, it will take a political decision from Brazil that trade deals with other countries are critical for things to move in Mercosur. Argentina matters and Paraguay and Uruguay have demonstrated they can exercise a veto, but none of these countries, or Venezuela for that matter, will be willing to block a major shift in Mercosur policy direction if it is something that Brazil really wants.

–Sean Burges

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Filed under Analysis, Argentina, Brazil, Foreign Policy / Diplomacy, MERCOSUR, News brief, Paraguay, Trade, Uruguay, Venezuela

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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Lugo’s Ouster in Paraguay — a view from Brazil

Matias Spektor, one of the leading international relations scholars in Brazil, has published a penetrating column in the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo on his country’s reaction to the rapid-fire constitutional ousting of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay.

Spektor makes the forceful point that Brazil needs to do more to help Paraguay become a stable democratic country. As he notes, the Brazilian national interest extends far beyond ensuring continued operation of the giant Itaipu hydroelectric complex, source of 25% of electricity for Brazil. Close to half a million Brazilians work along the frontier in the agro-industrial sector. Paraguay is the source for an immense network of contraband goods, narcotics and illegal arms, all of which have a direct and negative impact on the lives of Brazilians by feeding organized crime in major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The only sure way to curtail these networks is to transform the economic and political fundament of Paraguay.

In the past Brazil has played a crucial role in stabilizing Paraguay. The subtext to a paper I published in 2000 with Dominique Fournier was that Brazil was playing a tutelary role in Paraguay, ensuring that the corrupt ruling networks in the Colorado Party at least stuck with the form of democracy in the hopes that this would provide the cracks in which a genuine democracy could take root. Little has changed in the intervening ten years, with Asunción now being one of the most important posts for Brazilian diplomats. Lugo’s election — he came from completely outside the established political system — seemed to suggest that this strategy of quiet pressure for more democracy might be working. The point that Spektor makes is that last week’s ouster of Lugo shatters this illusion and points to the need for a much more forceful role from Brazil in Paraguay’s internal stabilization if Brasília is to retain any credibility as a regional leader able to deliver positive outcomes.

This latest political calamity in Paraguay matters far more than it might seem. While in itself small and relatively insignificant, regional responses to the crisis in Paraguay as well as the apparent strategic thinking guiding the movers and shakers in Asunción serve as a bellwether for Latin American approaches to democracy, development and regional self-management. More to come on this.

–Sean Burges

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