Good News From Paraguay: A Coup d'Etat Falls Flat

The military's failure to seize power in one of the hemisphere's least-progressive countries reflects the commitment to democracy throughout Latin America

Last month, the commander of Paraguay's armed forces, Gen. Lino Csar Oviedo, almost succeeded in ousting the country's elected president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, and seizing power for himself. Although it was over quickly, stopping the coup d'tat was by no means easy or certain. In fact, a lot of things had to come together in the right way to avoid South America's first successful military takeover in more than two decades. And they did.

Two critical trends in hemispheric affairs helped defeat Paraguay's coup. First, throughout the Americas, the basic commitment to democratic rule is widespread. Democratic elections and constitutional procedures are considered to be the only legitimate means to secure and exercise political power. Moreover, it has become accepted, in legal norm and practice, that the nations of the Americas should act collectively to protect democratic governments in the hemisphere. With varying success, collective action to defend and/or restore democracy has been undertaken on three previous occasions, in Haiti, Peru, and Guatemala.

Second, the deepening of economic cooperation in the hemisphere, most prominently so far through the creation of NAFTA and other subregional trade pacts, has fortified the basis for political cooperation. Paraguay's trade partners in the Southern Cone Market (Mercosur) - Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay - reacted rapidly and forcefully to the coup, reminiscent of the US reaction to the peso crisis of its NAFTA partner Mexico. Not only did the three countries make clear their opposition to General Oviedo's action, they backed up their rhetoric with the threat of economic sanctions, including the ejection of Paraguay from the Mercosur trade group, and called on their militaries to make sure the message was plainly understood by the Paraguayan Army.

Strong US support for Wasmosy

The US role, as is usually the case, was also fundamental. When he came under threat, President Wasmosy rapidly turned to the US for advice, protection, and support. The strong support of the US almost certainly emboldened the Argentine and Brazilian governments in their efforts. And it was US initiative at the Organization of American States (OAS) that helped make the events in Paraguay a shared, broadly inter-American concern.

Clearly, the OAS was unable to exert the level of influence and pressure on Paraguay that the US, Brazil, and Argentina could bring to bear. Yet the OAS contributed in important ways. It provided the legal basis for collective action to halt the coup, and the machinery for taking multilateral decisions. And OAS Secretary-General Csar Gaviria Trujillo took on a central role, flying to Paraguay only hours after the coup began. Both the legitimating function of the OAS (which not only allows for, but requires, a multilateral response to any coup attempt) and its diplomatic presence were significant in Paraguay.

What was also crucial - and impressive - in the Paraguay case was how quickly the international community responded. Two important tasks had to be accomplished to prevent the military takeover. Wasmosy had to be encouraged to stand fast and fight the attempted overthrow. He had to be convinced that he could defeat the coup and that he had the responsibility to do so. For his part, Oviedo had to be dissuaded from using force and made to back down. Delays on either front could well have allowed events to run out of control, and possibly could have ended Paraguay's democratic experiment. But all the key external players acted swiftly.

The Paraguayan people resisted

But external pressure, no matter how skillfully and forcibly applied, might not have prevented the military overthrow had the Paraguayan people not also resisted. Although there was no widespread enthusiasm for Wasmosy, most Paraguayans opposed his resignation in the face of Oviedo's threats. Over time, popular protests grew significantly louder and succeeded in blocking a compromise arrangement that would have allowed the general to remain part of the government as minister of defense.

The events in Paraguay should not make us complacent. The prospects of other attempts to seize power unconstitutionally cannot yet be discounted - particularly given Latin America's shortfalls in economic growth, social justice, and effective democratic institutions. But, the Paraguay experience surely must be seen as encouraging for democracy in Latin America. It tends to confirm the continued distaste for a return to military rule in the region, even in one of its most politically backward societies. It also demonstrates that Latin American countries are willing and able to act collectively to protect democratic governments - and that, when they do so, they can contain antidemocratic initiatives.

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