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The dubious removal of Paraguay's former bishop president

  • 03 July 2012

The recent questionable removal of Paraguay’s left-wing president Fernando Lugo probably broke some type of world record.

With just two hours for Lugo’s lawyers to prepare his defence, the former Catholic clergyman, once known as ‘Bishop of the Poor’, was ousted in a 39-4 vote by the Senate within twenty-four hours of his original impeachment.

Denouncing his removal from the presidency, in which he still had a year left to serve, Lugo summarised the event as a 'parliamentary coup d’état'. He has a point.

The developments which led to the impeachment revolve around the deaths of 17 people, including six police officers, on 15 June. That day, authorities were attempting to evict a group of families who had engaged in a land seizure in the Department of Canindeyú. This was not the first time such an incident occurred, but it was the bloodiest. 

When Lugo’s centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) won the 2008 presidential elections, expectations by Paraguayans were high as 50 per cent lived below the poverty line – 35 per cent in abject poverty. 

During the electoral campaign, the student of liberation theology claimed his administration would reduce poverty and redistribute land. According to Eric Stadius from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, roughly two per cent of the Paraguayans  control three-quarters of all property.  

Once in office, the Lugo administration did attempt to carry out a mild land reform program. It also sought to increase taxes on soybean, as the South American country has recently become its fourth largest exporter in the world.

Despite the president’s plans, the opposition Colorado Party, through the legislature, constantly blocked his progressive reforms. 

In response, Lugo repeatedly sought to work with the opposition. He engaged in one political compromise after another to the point where sectors of his own constituency became seriously disgruntled. Eventually, some of Paraguay’s landless peasants decided to act independently, as they did in Canindeyú. 

Releasing a communiqué on that event, Paraguay’s National Committee for the Recovery of Ill-Gotten Lands placed the incident into a broader perspective:

The slaughter in the department of Camindeyú was the result of a historic class conflict in Paraguayan society, the product of the support of the three branches of state, of a system of accumulation and hoarding of land in the hands of a few… The violence will continue if we do not initiate, once and for all, the return of lands belonging to the Paraguayan people that today are