Global Insider: Fear of a Coup in Paraguay

During a summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) last week in Buenos Aires, the assembled heads of state discussed the possibility of a coup in Paraguay at a closed door meeting called by Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. In an e-mail interview, Council of the Americas’ Senior Director of Policy Christopher Sabatini explains the significance of the UNASUR meeting.

WPR: What about the current political situation in Paraguay would lead President Lugo to believe a coup is imminent?

Sabatini: President Lugo has had tense relationships with the military since he was inaugurated on Aug. 15, 2008, largely stemming from the fact that Lugo comes from a party not traditionally tied to the military in Paraguay. Since coming to power, Lugo has clashed publicly several times with the military, including late last year, when he removed high-level leaders of the military command, again claiming that there were rumors of an impending coup.

The Paraguayan military — more than any other military in South America — remains a throwback to a past era, when militaries were often politicized, nearly autonomous, and largely conservative institutions with little civilian oversight. While other countries — like Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil – have taken tremendous strides to reduce the economic and institutional prerogatives of the military, this hasn’t happened in Paraguay.

In Paraguay, since the time of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military has been closely tied to the Colorado Party, which continued to govern after the democratic transition that forced Stroessner to step down in 1989. When Lugo came to office, he attempted to curtail the military’s prerogatives, while at the same time initiating a series of policies regarding the redistribution of land and other goods. His social justice rhetoric and some of his early policy initiatives brought him into sharp conflict with many of the traditional elite of the Colorado Party — and many of the military’s closest allies. The relationship, based on ideological and institutional distrust, was never going to be easy, even from the start.

WPR: What can Paraguay’s South American neighbors do to intervene in the situation preemptively?

Sabatini: There should be a multilateral effort, just as there was in 1996 in Paraguay, to avoid a democratic breakdown. These matters are always difficult, because feelings of distrust have accumulated, along with a sense of urgency on the part of the domestic actors. But the relevant multilateral institutions need to make clear that they will not tolerate an interruption in the democratic process, which includes — but is not limited to — the unconstitutional removal of an elected president. What do they have at their disposal to prevent this? First, groups like the Organization of American States and MERCOSUR — both of which have clauses that make membership conditional on democratic government and practice — can attempt to use their good offices to broker a compromise. Failing that, they can send a clear message that a government that comes to power through unconstitutional means will be suspended from both institutions and will lose the diplomatic and economic benefits of membership.

WPR: What is the significance of such a meeting at UNASUR, in terms of the group’s emergence as a regional forum?

Sabatini: UNASUR is not the best organ for this sort of defense of democracy diplomacy. First, the OAS and MERCOSUR have performed these functions successfully — though not always perfectly — before, including in Paraguay. By contrast, UNASUR is untested, since it has never engaged in this sort of activity. Second, UNASUR is by its founding a military alliance. Having a military alliance serve as a broker or diplomatic platform for resolving a dispute between a civilian elected president and the military is inappropriate, if not foolish. Third, UNASUR is extremely polarized and includes members which themselves have a less-than-stellar-track record in defending democratic rights, exerting non-partisan democratic oversight over the military and seeking broad-based consensus in the region.