Behind the Paraguayan coup

Ousted president Fernando Lugo created enemies at home and abroad by thwarting US military goals.

Paraguayan Congress moves to remove President Lugo from office
Lugo had been a longtime political activist for landless peasants before he took office as president [EPA]

New York, NY – Shortly after Fernando Lugo was elected president of Paraguay, I wrote an article outlining many of the challenges facing the country’s idealistic new leader. A man who never previously held elected office, Lugo had been a longtime political activist championing the needs of Paraguay’s landless peasants. Incensed by social injustice all around him, he spoke out against the country’s right-wing Colorado party. In a shot across the bow of vested elites, Lugo proclaimed his support for land reform.

That kind of talk did not go over very well among Paraguay’s right wing, which recently acted to remove the president in what is being seen as a possible coup d’etat. Following a skewed vote in the opposition-controlled Congress, Lugo was removed from office for allegedly encouraging land seizures. In an upset, Vice-President Federico Franco of the Liberal Party assumed the presidency.

Needless to say, however, the actual circumstances surrounding the land occupations are subject to some debate. According to authorities, peasant squatters opened fire on police as the security forces moved in to eject them. The peasants, however, claim that the police had in fact conducted a massacre.

Buildup, under the radar

There’s no evidence that the US played a role in the impeachment, though to be sure the US defence establishment had plenty of reason to be unhappy with Paraguay’s left-leaning president. Indeed, documents released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks show that, behind the scenes, US officials had misgivings about the Paraguayan leader’s distancing from the US Southern Command.

Paraguay: Impeachment or political coup?

Even before Lugo came to power, Washington saw Paraguay as a key regional ally against leftist Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Perhaps, Washington reasoned, the Pentagon could provide medical and humanitarian relief to impoverished Paraguayans. It all sounded relatively benign, though the Bush White House was careful to employ the stick, bluntly informing Asunción that if the authorities failed to host US troops then Washington would cut off millions in aid.

In the event, such threats were probably unnecessary: a right wing Colorado government proved all too willing to comply, and, in May 2005, the Paraguayan Senate dutifully approved entry of US troops, granting the forces total immunity from local jurisdiction. A contingent of 400 Marines was deployed to the South American nation, with groups rotating in and out of Paraguay for a period of weeks or months.

What’s with the ‘New Horizons’ programme?

Under the US Southern Command’s so-called “New Horizons” programme, the Marines conducted medical readiness training exercises though farmer organisations were suspicious of US intentions. In an effort to get behind the story, writer and reporter Ben Dangl spoke with Orlando Castillo, a human rights campaigner associated with a local group called Service, Peace and Justice. According to Castillo, the medical training amounted to mere “observation operatives” aimed at identifying dangerous rural leaders.

Digging further, Dangl discovered that State Department reports didn’t even mention funding for health works in Paraguay, though counterterrorism funding was shown to have doubled. Meanwhile, the deputy speaker of the Paraguayan parliament publicly admitted that of the 13 exercises going on in country, only two were of a civilian nature.

Despite such links, US Southern Command General Brent Craddock was careful not to take anything for granted. In July 2006 he visited Asunción and met with government officials. In an encouraging development, Paraguay’s vice-president requested greater military cooperation. Other authorities, however, were more cautious, and expressed concerns about the delicate political environment and the “potential Paraguayan Congressional resistance to the extension of immunities to US soldiers for a new round of exercises in 2007”.

The head of Paraguay’s armed forces held Chávez in low regard, but said he was not prepared to defend US military exercises in Congress. In an ominous sign, the commander remarked that “some retired officers and various groups … are supporting the Bolivarian movement in Paraguay, including Monsignor Fernando Lugo’s Citizen’s Resistance organisation”. Chávez, the general complained, was “trying to foment dissent in Paraguay, especially in the interior”.

Despite such warnings, US officials were intent on pursuing the military relationship with Paraguay. “We recognise some Paraguayan politicians oppose US military exercises,” the US embassy noted, “but share Gen Craddock’s optimism about finding a way to retain the support we need in Paraguay’s Congress to continue the exercises on terms we find acceptable with regard to protections for our soldiers.”  

The turning tide

The political milieu was beginning to look rougher, however, and in a sea change, the Paraguayan Senate and executive branch, which had come under pressure from neighbouring left-leaning countries, rescinded legal immunity for the US Marines. Reportedly, the decision prompted US troops to leave Paraguay. It’s clear from diplomatic cables, however, that military collaboration continued, albeit somewhat “under the radar”. According to the State Department, US Special Forces equipped and trained Paraguayan troops with the “implicit” support of the Asunción government.

Washington, however, was concerned about what a Lugo presidency might mean for US interests. Shortly after Lugo was elected in 2008, the US ambassador sat down with the new president to discuss bilateral relations. As the conversation turned to military matters, Lugo reportedly recoiled and “physically pushed back his chair”. Reporting later to his superiors, the ambassador noted – perhaps somewhat charitably – that Lugo’s response to a possible military Status of Forces Agreement and a new DEA mobile phone intercept programme was hardly enthusiastic.

From there, things got even rockier. The following year, Lugo outright rejected a further US troop deployment under New Horizons. In a press conference, the president audaciously remarked that “we don’t see it as convenient that the Southern Command has a presence in Paraguay”. Justifying his decision, Lugo pointed out that the South American Community of Nations or Unasur had questioned the wider US military role in the region. Foiled, US ambassador in Asunción. Liliana Ayalde declared: “It’s a regrettable decision.”

Political fallout

US officials were not the only ones to be disappointed by Lugo’s decision. Domestically, the president’s rejection of US forces caused a firestorm of protest from the right-wing opposition. Take Vice-President Federico Franco, who just recently took over the reins of power from Lugo during the impeachment or “quasi-coup”. He remarked: “I am not in favour of prohibiting any type of assistance which might help to improve the health of the Paraguayan people.”

It’s no secret, however, that the US saw Chávez as a threat in the Southern Cone and recommended concrete steps to prevent the spread of South America’s left tide.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the dreaded Colorado party railed against Lugo, arguing that it was inconvenient to cut military ties with the US at the precise moment that leftist Bolivia was building up its arms capacity. Others claimed that Lugo’s move was designed to placate Hugo Chávez and would only serve to undercut the Paraguayan armed forces.

Caught amid a political firestorm, the Lugo administration did its best to play defence. Foreign Minister Héctor Lacognata remarked that his boss’ decision would not affect overall Paraguay-US relations. In private discussions with Washington, Lacognata reportedly said Paraguay was “interested in deepening our mil-mil relationship”, but that his country “needed a break to mark a shift from the past administration”. He apparently added that other US Special Operations units were welcome to stay in Paraguay.
Such promises notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton griped that the Lugo regime had “been reluctant to provide a written request for assistance or to provide in writing status protections for US military personnel not accredited to the embassy”. In her comments, Clinton almost seemed to throw in the towel, remarking that “although it is important to continue to work with Paraguay and maintain the successful relationships that have been built, regional political sensibilities must be considered … the long-term presence of significant numbers of US Special Forces in Paraguay could engender negative regional reactions that would undermine regional policy objectives”.

US strategy in the Southern Cone?

Since the WikiLeaks cache leaves off in late 2010, we don’t have insights into Clinton’s more recent thinking; needless to say no-one has leaked information from the Pentagon that would illuminate the Paraguay imbroglio in greater detail. It’s no secret, however, that the US saw Chávez as a threat in the Southern Cone and recommended concrete steps to prevent the spread of South America’s left tide. Take, for example, one cable emanating from the US embassy in Santiago, suggesting that Washington should enhance relations with regional military leaders who shared concerns over Chávez’s rising influence.

In rebuffing the US, Lugo sought to break Washington’s big push into the Southern Cone, a trend which has received scant attention in the mainstream media. Just recently, as I pointed out in a column, the Pentagon sought to install a base in the remote Argentine Chaco region just over the border from Paraguay. Local authorities claimed the base was aimed at providing disaster and humanitarian relief. Amid a public backlash, the project was shelved, though it demonstrated that the Buenos Aires incident had little control over rogue provincial governors who had gone outside normal channels in approaching the Pentagon.

In neighbouring Chile, the Obama administration has fared somewhat better. Recently, the conservative Piñera government agreed to host US forces at a base in the coastal city of Concón. US troops, it is claimed, are in country to provide training in peacekeeping operations. Even tiny Uruguay, which forms part of South America’s left turn, recently hosted a contingent of US Navy Seals. The elite unit is ostensibly in country to train local forces how to board ships carrying illicit cargo and contraband.

Whatever the Pentagon’s official line about the role of its troops in South America, it’s clear just from looking at the map that the US has managed to encircle the region’s populist left bloc, namely Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. It is also apparent from WikiLeaks cables that the US views Brazil as a geopolitical rival in the region, and in the long term Washington might find that having a network of bases in surrounding countries serves its strategic objectives.

We may never get to the murky truth of Lugo’s removal from power in Paraguay. What is clear, however, is that by adopting such controversial positions Lugo further inflamed the right-wing opposition and discombobulated political elites in Washington.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff