World and Nation

In Paraguay, democracy appears doubtful; trial for President Lugo

RIO DE JANEIRO — In the span of a few hours on Friday, Paraguay’s Senate convened its members, read a list of accusations and put President Fernando Lugo on trial. Dismissing his request for more time to mount his defense, the senators abruptly voted to oust him from office, spurring a fierce debate across Latin America over the fragility of democratic institutions in a region with a long history of dictatorships.

The Senate’s rush to remove Lugo, who accepted the vote’s outcome and was quickly replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, was even more confounding since the next presidential elections in Paraguay are just nine months away. Various regional leaders, including Presidents Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, denounced the ouster as a “coup d’etat.”

Various riffs on that assertion quickly surfaced around the region, including descriptions of the ouster as a “parliamentary coup,” a “constitutional coup,” even a “golpeachment,” merging the Portuguese terms for “coup” and “impeachment,” which spread throughout social networks in Brazil.

“In this era of globalization, it appears that even impeachment proceedings, which should be measured and deliberate given what is at stake, have become accelerated,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research institute. “The Congress may have acted in accordance with the Constitution, but this is a setback for democracy nonetheless.”

In some ways, the way in which Lugo, 61, was ousted says a great deal about Paraguay itself. His election in 2008 ended six decades of one-party rule, the first time in the country’s history that a president from one party peacefully transferred power to another. Allowing him to finish a five-year term, however, proved to be a bridge too far.

Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who won initial popularity as an advocate for Paraguay’s peasants, always faced resistance from the country’s deeply conservative political establishment. Moreover, Paraguay’s constitution incorporates strong checks on executive power, reflecting distrust of strong leaders after the long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.

The president needs cooperation from Congress for key decisions, including naming members of the Supreme Court and directors of the big hydroelectric dams, Itaipu and Yacyreta. For practical purposes, Lugo was hobbled throughout much of his presidency, emasculated by legislators and eviscerated in the country’s media.