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Lugo’s missteps eroded fragile support in Paraguay

Associated Press

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) – The alliance that voted Fernando Lugo out of the Paraguayan presidency was an unlikely marriage of the country’s two main political parties, rivals who had long checked each other’s powers in Congress.

Although subject to deadly persecution just three decades ago, the Liberal Party joined with its former persecutors, the Colorados, last week to push an impeachment that has a widespread criticism. What made that possible was another political trend in this impoverished, landlocked country, the disenchantment of hundreds of thousands of leftists and poor farmers who had formed the president’s political base.

Many who had once seen the former bishop as their champion were increasingly put off by his missteps and sparse accomplishments. The final disappointment came earlier this month, when Lugo showed seeming indifference to the deaths of landless protesters in a firefight with police over a land dispute.

The end game concluded Friday, when in Lugo’s hour of need, the kinds of huge protests that could have pressured Congress to back down and perhaps even saved his presidency never materialized. Instead, the lower house voted 76-1 to impeach on Thursday, and the Senate gave Lugo the boot with a 39-4 vote after a fast-track trial the next day.

“What happened was that he had pretty much alienated everybody, and the incredibly lopsided votes in both houses are indicative of that,” said Greg Weeks, a political scientist specializing in Latin American politics at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

“The failure of Lugo to maintain any sort of significant support from anybody meant that when it happened, it happened incredibly fast, and there was no outpouring of support at all,” Weeks added. He contrasted Lugo’s ouster to massive demonstrations sparked by attempts to depose Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 2002 and Honduras’ Manuel Zelaya in 2009.

“Basically Lugo made everybody mad,” Weeks said.

A liberation theology-inspired former Roman Catholic bishop, Lugo won an historic election in 2008 that ended six decades of Colorado rule by cobbling together a congressional alliance between the more conservative Liberal Party and left-leaning allies.

Right away, Lugo alienated his new partners in Congress by giving them just token participation in his Cabinet. Later the Liberals complained they were not being consulted on important decisions, such as the response to farm invasions by landless protesters and an army offensive against the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EPP, an upstart rebel band primarily dedicated to ransom kidnappings.

Lugo’s public image also took a hit from paternity suits filed by four different women, one of whom was 16 years old at the time of the alleged liaison with Lugo, when he was still a bishop in sleepy San Pedro province. Lugo has recognized two of the children, DNA tests showed a third wasn’t his and one claim is pending. The teen was of legal consenting age, but the scandal was still too much even in a society where macho attitudes die hard.

Questions also surfaced about the health and energy levels of Lugo, 61, when it was revealed that he had lymphatic cancer. He was treated in a top hospital in Brazil and declared to be in remission, though he still needs treatments to keep the cancer at bay.

Meanwhile, hampered by a strong opposition and a meager budget, Lugo struggled to push his agenda through a stubborn Congress. The fight against the EPP fizzled after a few high-profile arrests, and most of the forces were redeployed even with the three main leaders still at large.

Perhaps most importantly, Lugo failed to come through on grand campaign vows to fix Paraguay’s woefully unequal distribution of land.

“We always had a critical line toward the government for not succeeding in agrarian reform and other public policies,” said Luis Aguayo, the leftist leader of Paraguay’s largest peasants organization with counts some 60,000 members.

Aguayo called Lugo’s ouster a coup but pointedly did not mobilize his members to back the president last week. His was precisely the kind of group that could have helped fill the streets outside Congress.

Instead, Paraguay’s fractured left has managed only a few thousand protesters who demonstrated Thursday and Friday and an emotional “open microphone” protest outside a public TV station after Lugo’s fate was decided.

“Lugo leans heavily on social and popular sectors, but he’s no (Bolivian President) Evo Morales who can mobilize great masses of indigenous peasants,” said political analyst and columnist Alfredo Boccia Paz. “His support was always weak. If the left had put 50,000, 60,000 people in the plaza, the senators might have thought twice.”

To be sure, Lugo’s resume includes some successes, such as a popular program paying stipends to poor families whose children stay in school. Lugo also negotiated a deal under which Brazil would triple its payments to Paraguay for energy from a border-river dam, from $120 million a year to $360 million.

But that wasn’t enough this month to counter public outrage when a firefight broke out as police responded to a peasant invasion of forest reserve land that belonged to a Colorado Party politician. Lugo’s opponents accused him of seeming unconcerned about the deaths of six police and 11 landless farmers. After Lugo’s interior minister and police chief resigned, he proposed to name close allies to the posts.

The Liberals, always uneasy about Lugo’s leftist politics, had had enough. The Colorado-proposed impeachment sailed through and within hours, Lugo was out. The speed with which Lugo was impeached, in fact, has sparked much of the regional criticism.

Ultimately, the campaign to oust Lugo was ideological and his impeachment, while adhering to the letter of the constitution, was out of step with democratic principles, Weeks said.

“He was just viewed as too radical by the establishment parties, and so over time I think they were just looking for an excuse to get rid of him,” Weeks said. “Then with the violence on the 15th, I think they finally got the type of incident they felt would be significant enough to launch the impeachment hearings.”

Now. the unlikely marriage seems headed for a short honeymoon. Lugo’s Vice President Federico Franco, a Liberal who swore in as president Friday, is constitutionally barred from running after he finishes out Lugo’s term, and politicians are sharpening their knives for the 2013 campaign.

“The alliance between Liberals and Colorados ended as soon as the trial was over,” Boccia Paz said. “Now the Colorados will turn their attention to weakening Franco; he becomes their main enemy.”


Associated Press writers Belen Bogado and Pedro Servin in Asuncion contributed to this report.


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