Paraguay upheaval: Is this a coup?

Paraguayan President Lugo faces impeachment proceedings today, launched by congressional rivals after a land eviction led to 17 deaths last week. A guest blogger explores the implications.

Jorge Saenz/AP
People protest lawmakers' approval to begin proceedings to impeach Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo outside Parliament in the Plaza de Armas in Asuncion, Paraguay, June 21.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The events in Paraguay this week are complicated and fast moving. I reserve my right to change my opinion as events occur and more facts are revealed. I think this is a tough debate without clear answers.
In my opinion, President Lugo has not done anything that is an impeachable offense. You don't have to agree with Lugo's politics to believe that his removal would be a sad moment for Paraguayan democracy. Lugo is the first president following seven decades of Colorado Party rule. Long term democracy building will be weakened because he is not able to finish his term.
I'm hesitant to use the word "coup" when talking about the events this week because Lugo's opponents are following the constitutional impeachment process to the letter. I reserve the term coup or "golpe de estado" for events in which democratic institutions break and an unconstitutional change of government takes place. That's not what happened here. Lugo's opponents are following the letter of the law perfectly.

Yet, this certainly is a violation of the meaning of a presidential democracy. Presidents aren't supposed to be charged on a whim because the political opponents in the legislature decide they have a moment of opportunity. Impeachment is supposed to be a process used for only the most serious of crimes. It's supposed to be throughly debated and understood, not rammed through in 48 hours before the citizens who elected the president and the media and civil society who are part of the process have time process and debate the events.
Of course, we're not just fighting over semantics here. Whether or not we label this event a "coup" has policy implications. The real questions are how the other governments in the hemisphere treat the Paraguayan government, not whether they use a specific term of "golpe de estado." Will Bolivia or Argentina close their borders? Will Brazil implement sanctions? Will the US cut aid? Will the OAS or UNASUR use their democracy clauses? If Paraguay is kicked out from those organizations, what does Paraguay have to do to regain its democratic status? What sorts of precedents do these actions set for the future? I would encourage people in this semantics debate to talk about policy implications.
While I wouldn't use the term "coup," the politicization and manipulation of the impeachment process by the Paraguayan Congress is a serious degradation of democratic institutions that should concern the entire hemisphere. It's correct for the OAS and UNASUR to be talking about these events. We should be discussing measures to strengthen and protect Paraguayan democracy.
Usually when we talk about degradation of democratic institutions in this hemisphere, the culprits are presidents. In the past two decades, democratically elected presidents in this hemisphere have manipulated laws, constitutions and the basic principles of democracy to steamroll their legislatures, take on unlawful decree powers, shut down media outlets, throw political opponents in jail on trumped up corruption charges, stack their court systems, wiretap their political opponents and extend their mandates, among other things.
The fact that we're watching the Paraguayan legislature abuse democratic institutions instead of Hugo Chavez or Carlos Menem should not make it any less concerning, even if it is not properly labeled a "golpe de estado."
 Modern Latin America rarely sees an obvious coup of the past, where a military junta led by some general in a uniform and sunglasses takes charge and orders his political opponents killed. Instead, we get these muddy incremental degradations of democracy in which an elected president (or in this case, a legislature) manipulates the institutions in his or her favor to consolidate power and force the other branches of government into submission. We need to do a better job promoting and protecting democracy in these middle ground cases, not just waiting for the grand golpe to completely break democracy before acting.
 Not everything that is undemocratic is a coup. Saying an event is not a coup does not make it fully democratic. There is a middle ground between "democracy" and "coup" that we're forced to deal with in this hemisphere on a daily basis. Insisting everything is labeled in the binary choice of fully democratic or fully undemocratic limits the hemisphere's ability to talk about the reality of the democracies in which we live.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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