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Coup in Paraguay: Will U.S. Join Latin America in Condemning Ouster of President Fernando Lugo?

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Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has been ousted in what he has described as a parliamentary coup. On Friday, the Paraguayan Senate voted 39-to-4 to impeach Lugo, saying he had failed in his duty to maintain social order following a recent land dispute which resulted in the deaths of six police officers and 11 peasant farmers. A former priest, Lugo was once called the “Bishop of the Poor” and was known for defending peasant rights. Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Uruguay have all condemned Lugo’s ouster, but the question remains whether the Obama administration will recognize the new government. We’re joined by Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University and author of “Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.” His most recent book, “Fordlandia,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 23, 2008Exclusive: Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo on US Relations in Latin America, the Iraq War, Liberation Theology and Being the “Bishop of the Poor”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in South America, where the Paraguayan president, Fernando Lugo, has been ousted in what he’s described as a parliamentary coup. On Friday, the Paraguayan Senate voted 39-to-four to impeach Lugo, saying he’d failed in his duty to maintain social order. The vote came following a recent land dispute which resulted in the deaths of six police officers and 11 peasant farmers.

Lugo was elected president in 2008, ending more than 60 years of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party. A former priest, Lugo was once called the “Bishop of the Poor,” was known for defending peasant rights. On Sunday, Lugo announced plans to set up an alternative government.

FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] This is a government that is not legitimate. It is a false administration. The people do not accept this. This is a government that has ruptured the republic’s institutions. You cannot corroborate with a government that is not legitimized by the citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo would have completed his five-year term in just a little more than a year. He was replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, a vocal critic of Lugo for much of his presidency.

FEDERICO FRANCO: [translated] The situation is not easy. I recognize that there are inconveniences with the international community. I ratify and reaffirm that there was no coup here. There is no institutional breakdown. This was carried out in accordance with the constitution and the laws. It is a legal situation that the constitution and the laws of my country permits us to do in order to carry out changes when the situation calls for it. What was carried out was a political trial in accordance with the constitution and the laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Uruguay have condemned the coup and recalled their ambassadors. This is Alí Rodríguez, secretary general of the regional alliance UNASUR.

ALÍ RODRÍGUEZ: [translated] The foreign ministers consider that the action taking place, as addressed in Articles One, Five and Six of the Additional Protocol of the Constitutional Treaty of UNASUR, which deals with the commitment to democracy, constitute a threat of rupture of the democratic order, since due process was not respected.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to find out more about the implications of Lugo’s ouster, we’re joined by Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University, author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. His most recent book, Fordlandia, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Professor Grandin, talk about the ouster of Fernando Lugo, the man once known as the Bishop of the Poor.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, as you mentioned, it was—he called it a parliamentary coup. And other Latin American leaders have called it a travesty. I think Rafael Correa in Ecuador called it legalistic nonsense. It really was a kind of duck soup coup, you know, in which there was a complete farce in terms of due process. He was given 24 hours to compile his case and two hours to present it. And he had the dignity of not participating in it. He didn’t show up. But they ousted him using very legalistic means, in some ways very similar to what happened in Honduras three years ago, in 2009, in which the right gathered together and used very technical legalistic procedures in order to oust a president that they felt was a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what precipitated this action.

GREG GRANDIN: Land. I mean, to understand Paraguay, you have to understand land. Paraguay is a country of peasants without land, who have no land. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s the poorest in South America. But it’s the fourth largest soy exporter. It’s the eighth largest beef exporter. Huge tracts of land, much of it ill-gotten, expropriated illegally from peasant communities over the last 20, 30, 40 years, have made wealth inequality in the form of land extreme in Paraguay. Forty percent of the population lives in poverty. Lugo came to power—he was the first president not—first government—presiding over a government not linked to the old Stroessner dictatorship that ruled Paraguay from much of the Cold War and the years after. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Stroessner was and what he did.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, Alfredo Stroessner ruled Paraguay between—from 1954 to 1989, and after he was—left office, basically the Colorado Party implemented a form of Stroessnerismo without Stroessner, you know, basically presiding over a corrupt state, an oligarchic state, in which they controlled the media, in which they controlled property, in which they controlled the administrative and repressive apparatus of the government.

And Lugo was the first president, in 2008, elected to break with that. And one of his campaign promises was land reform. But he came to power at the head of a very fragile coalition, and he was boxed in nearly immediately. His vice president, Federico Franco, broke with him early. And he wasn’t able to deliver on the promise of land reform. In the last couple of years, you’ve seen a peasant movement grow that Lugo couldn’t quite meet its demands, but then also encouraged, in some ways—there was a kind of contradiction. And you saw that with this land conflict that happened in the northeast.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened with this long conflict.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, this—it was in this—a finca called Curuguaty.

AMY GOODMAN: A plantation.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, plantation, a hacienda in the northeast, near Brazil. It’s a lawless region. It really is the Wild West in soy, cattle, but also drugs and gun running. It’s really kind of outside of government control. Haciendahacendados, finca plantation owners control vast tracts of land, and they preside over their own armies. Much of that land was illegally gotten through the dictatorship of Stroessner, and there’s been a movement to reclaim it. There’s a strong peasant movement. And in one of these fincas, on of these plantations, 2,000 untitled acres, a bunch—about 60 campesinos, 60 peasants occupied it. And there was a clash last week in which 11 peasants were left dead, six or so police officers, security forces. Sixty peasants were left—were wounded. More have been arrested since then. And I think that the right, the landed class, used it as a pretext to go after Lugo.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly following Lugo’s inauguration as Paraguay’s new president in September 2008, we spoke to Fernado Lugo here in New York. We asked him if he was worried that there may be attempts to overthrow him.

PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] I think that at this time, it’s not going to occur to anyone in any country of Latin America to carry out a coup d’état, particularly with military participation. The experience of UNASUR, which is a new experience, an experience of solidarity among countries that are in the southern part of the hemisphere who are able to react expeditiously in response to such offense in the region, will be fundamental.

I think that in Paraguay, the political class in Paraguay was accustomed to engaging in conspiracy on a nonstop basis. And those who held power for over 60 years have a hard time today understanding that they’re no longer in power, after they’ve lost this privilege. And so, I think there will be some efforts. But to recover the institutional framework and at the same time strengthen democracy in the country is the major objective of our government today.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fernando Lugo. Juan González and I interviewed him right after his inauguration when he came to New York. You can see the whole interview at Now, two years later, in 2010, we got a chance to speak to Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone about his film, South of the Border, in which he talks to seven presidents about the revolutionary changes across the continent. This is Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo.

PRESIDENT FERNANDO LUGO: [translated] It hasn’t been easy to create change in this country. Here, there’s a group which has historically been privileged in the government with the country’s resources. We want to be consistent with the theory of liberation theology. If there are going to be the privileged, then it has to be those who in the past have been forgotten: the indigenous, the landless, the uneducated, the sick. Those are the ones who need to be the first priority. We are committed to honesty, transparency, and to give back dignity to our institutions, and with much more social justice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who was deposed in what he called a parliamentary coup over the weekend. Your response to what President Lugo is saying, Greg Grandin?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, it was interesting. The first interview, I take, was before the Honduran coup in 2009, when Lugo said that a coup would be unthinkable. And so, Honduras—it shows you how Honduras kind of changes the rules of the game, emboldened the right, presented new tactic, new ways of limiting this kind of—

AMY GOODMAN: And just to say, in that case, when Zelaya was forced out, the United States immediately recognized the new coup government.

GREG GRANDIN: Not quite immediately. It waffled for a long time and took—it didn’t come out that strong and was pushed by Brazil. The Obama administration really became captive to the right in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Or I should say President Obama, initially, actually, said that it was not legitimate.


AMY GOODMAN: But then they—

GREG GRANDIN: But then, eventually, legitimated it over a long, torturous process. In the case of Paraguay, the administration’s response has been—to call it tepid would be an overstatement. It really has been silent, for the most part. Latin American countries, South American countries, including conservative countries like Chile and Colombia, have come out very strongly against it. So, again, you see this great divergence between the U.S. and between South America and Latin America.

It’ll be interesting to see. I mean, the two things to look out for is, one is if military aid to the Paraguayan military will—army will continue—the U.S. is a supplier of much material and financial support to security forces in Paraguay—and, two, if it will take advantage of the crisis to go forward with a long-sought military base in the region, which the Pentagon, SOUTHCOM, has wanted for a while. I think those are the two things to look out for.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin, I want to thank you for being with us, teaches Latin American history at New York University, author of Empire’s Workshop as well as Fordlandia. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

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