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Behind Paraguay's Presidential Ouster

Published by InterPress Service.

In Paraguay, like Honduras, very little change has occurred in the gross inequities in land distribution.

When Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo was impeached on June 22 in a lightning-quick legislative manoeuvre, the hemisphere was shocked, with some governments calling it a 'parliamentary coup' and refusing to accept the vice president sworn in as the new president.

The episode exemplifies the current dilemmas facing Latin American democracies — 21st century presidents are ousted today by apparently democratic means of social protests, congressional opposition, or Supreme Court decree rather than old-fashioned military coups. These constitutional clashes between branches of government and between elected governments and their citizens represent in one sense democratic progress. But at the same time they reflect the continued struggle of rural and urban poor to share power with the dominant elite, and the use of formal legal mechanisms to impose one political vision over another.

In the Paraguayan case, after 60 years of governance by one political party (and 35 of those by one man), citizens elected an independent priest without a strong party or social movement to support him. His proposals to reform an extremely unequal distribution of land, 80 per cent of which is owned by a fraction of the population, were stymied by a Congress controlled by two political parties representing the interests of landed elites.

Tragic Deaths
A clash between police and land-occupying peasants resulted in several tragic deaths on both sides. Whereas in other countries facing similar clashes over natural resources — and distribution, mining projects and failure to protect environmental preserves — the police chief or minister of the interior might be replaced, in the Paraguayan case the traditional parties in the Congress aimed higher, using legal impeachment procedures to force out a president.

Lugo was given less than 24 hours to prepare his defence, and a two-hour trial in the Senate. The Organisation of American States and many neighbouring governments questioned whether due process and right to a reasonable defence were practiced, and refused to recognise the new government.

The use of constitutional mechanisms to carry out political power struggles is certainly an advance over the use of force. But when constitutional processes are carried out in dubious manners, they harm the credibility of democracy across the region.

Similar impeachment measures have been used to remove unpopular presidents in the last two decades. In 1993, after alienating many factions including his own party with his neoliberal austerity policies, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez was forced out by Congress, charged with alleged corruption when he used a presidential reserve fund to provide personal security for newly-elected Nicaraguan President, Violeta Chamorro, in the midst of the ongoing contra conflict in 1990.

In Ecuador, three presidents unpopular for their economic policies were removed from office on shaky impeachment charges: Abdala Bucaram in 1997 on charges of "mental incompetence" though no psychiatric examination was ever done, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 on charges of "abandonment of office" after he had been physically removed by a civil-military junta, and Lucio Gutierrez in 2005 on similar charges of abandonment while he sat in the presidential palace. In 2009, Congress impeached Honduran President Manuel Zelaya after he had been forcibly exiled by the military acting on a secret Supreme Court order.

Underlying many of the constitutional conflicts in Latin America are fundamental disagreements over how, and whether to achieve a more equitable distribution of national resources while promoting economic growth.

In Paraguay, like Honduras, very little change has occurred in the gross inequities in land distribution during more than two decades of democracy. When urban and rural poor began to use the ballot box and protest to demand change, and gained a champion in the figure of president Lugo inevitable clashes ensued.

The clashes became enmeshed in legal contests between branches of governments as each used its constitutional prerogatives to defend the interests it represented. Whereas the established elite interests 'won' the constitutional battle in Paraguay and Honduras, forcing out presidents advocating change for the poor, in other cases indigenous and social groups were able to force out leaders pursuing conservative economic policies, such as the repeated ousters in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Until Latin American societies are able to reformulate the fundamental social pact, through tax reform and consensus on redistribution and growth policies, to address the fundamental inequities in the region with the highest average income gap in the world, countries will continue to face political volatility even in the age of constitutional democracy.

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