WikiLeaks: Washington and Paraguay's 'Quasi-Coup'

For isolated and impoverished countries, it can sometimes prove difficult to pursue an independent foreign policy which challenges Washington's traditional sphere of influence. Take, for example, tiny Paraguay which has recently been convulsed in political instability. Four years ago, Fernando Lugo was elected president after pledging to take on political and economic elites on behalf of Paraguay's poor. A former Bishop, Lugo promised to tackle pressing social problems like land reform. On the international front too, Lugo was controversial: though he continued to maintain friendly ties to the U.S., he also made overtures toward the populist regime of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Not surprisingly, such policies did not go over well either in Paraguay or Washington. As I explained in another recent column, Lugo was recently impeached under very questionable circumstances, and indeed some have labeled the Bishop President's removal a kind of "quasi-coup." Following a skewed vote in the opposition-controlled Congress, Lugo was impeached for allegedly encouraging land seizures and Vice President Federico Franco assumed the presidency. Needless to say, however, the actual circumstances surrounding the land occupations are subject to debate. According to authorities, peasant squatters opened fire on police as the security forces moved in to eject them. The peasants, however, claim that the police had in fact conducted a massacre.

There's no evidence that the U.S. had a direct hand in Lugo's removal, yet judging from secret correspondence recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Washington will be somewhat relieved to have rid itself of Paraguay's pesky Bishop President. Indeed, from the Bush administration to the Obama White House, the American political establishment viewed Lugo's reformist presidency with a fair degree of suspicion. Though hardly what one would call a radical, Lugo nevertheless refused to ostracize Chávez and as a result the U.S. State Department spent a fair amount of time monitoring Paraguay's new leader.

"Where is He Going?"

Such paranoia is pervasive throughout the WikiLeaks cables. In one communication, for example, the Embassy noted that "some are worried that Lugo and his key advisers are too far to the left for conservative Paraguay." Others, however, openly wondered, "Where is he [Lugo] going?" The new President was "a hard man to read," and while Lugo expressed admiration for conservative Chile he also praised Evo Morales and Fidel Castro. "Is Lugo trying to use (and perhaps stir up) peasant unrest to bring radical socialist-type change to the country or merely trying to address endemic and long-standing problems of inequality, poverty, and corruption?" diplomats wondered.

U.S. officials were quick to remark upon Lugo's media initiatives which stood to upset the established order, noting how Venezuela oversaw a panel titled "Telesur: a Latin American proposal" at a local communications forum. The channel had already been available in Paraguay for two years via satellite transmission, and needless to say the conservative media establishment was none too pleased. Speaking confidentially to the Americans, some believed that the forum was "the first shot fired by Lugo in the war to implement Chávez's Bolivarian revolution in Paraguay."

Lugo then stepped into another political minefield by accepting Venezuelan and Bolivian assistance to implement a Cuban literacy program. The move elicited a "sharp public reaction" from the rightist Paraguayan press, which asserted that the President was trying to introduce Bolivarian socialism into local schools. In a sign of just how vulnerable and isolated Lugo had become, the Paraguayan sought out the Americans personally and assured the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires that the program "would not push Cuban or any other ideology, but emphasize Paraguayan military heroes and history."

"Drowning Man Grasping a Lifeline"

By April, 2009, less than a year into his administration, the former Bishop's position had become untenable. Desperate for help, Lugo met personally with the U.S. Ambassador to discuss his own cabinet's messaging problem. Somewhat brazenly, the Americans seemed to believe that they could somehow "co-opt" the Lugo administration by taking over the government's own communication operations no less.

Writing to her superiors, the Ambassador recommended that "we provide [messaging and communication] assistance, starting with a diagnostic/scoping mission through USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) [which in turn provides]... the kind of quick-hit, relatively inexpensive help that could make a difference in the public perceptions of this government." In a cryptic aside, the Ambassador added, "Post recommends we provide it, and in a timely manner, before someone else does."

Later, in a rather breathtaking display of government outsourcing, Lugo sent his own Communications Minister to meet with the USAID Director. The Ambassador wrote that the Paraguayan "responded to our offer of assistance as a drowning man would to an offer of a lifeline." The U.S. Embassy had secured the support of Lugo officials, but the Americans were still nervous about some members of the cabinet. In particular, Clinton was leery of Foreign Minister Héctor Lacognata and wanted to know whether the official had helped organize any activities on behalf of Venezuela.

The Secretary of State need not have worried. During a meeting with the Americans, Lacognata declared that he had personally advised Lugo not to support the return of ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya. Lacognata said that in dealing with Honduras, countries should heed caution and not pay any attention to "vanguard nations" such as Venezuela and Ecuador which were pressing for Zelaya's speedy return. Such utterances went over well with the Americans, who remarked that Lacognata "continues to impress us with his methodical, decisive approach to getting things done."

Conflict over Mercosur

Despite all these many pressures and difficulties, the impudent Lugo continued to demonstrate independence, for example by supporting Venezuela's bid to join South American trade bloc Mercosur. As I explain in my second book, Chávez had long coveted membership in the grouping and hoped to inject his own progressive politics in what was otherwise a simple economic bloc. Not surprisingly, Lugo's support for Chávez led to opposition from the rightist Colorado Party in Congress and leading newspaper ABC Color, not to mention his own Vice President who remarked that he would not vote for Venezuela "even for all the gold in the world."

Faced with such odds, Lugo was obliged to shelve his support for Venezuela's bid so as to avoid "imminent rejection." However, the Americans believed that Chávez was still intent on pursuing the Mercosur matter and "Venezuela is rumored to be increasing its lobbying efforts to sway -- or buy -- votes one-by-one." Pouring cold water on the Mercosur bid, however, Foreign Minister Lacognata remarked in a sarcastic aside to U.S. diplomats that Venezuelan admission "won't happen here even if Chávez dresses up like Santa Claus."

Political Fallout of the WikiLeaks Scandal If tensions were not acute enough already, the WikiLeaks scandal itself soon heightened the political crisis in Paraguay yet further. In a huge breakthrough in 2010, Julian Assange published reams of State Department correspondence in what came to be known as the "Cable Gate" scandal. In the Asunción media, certain cables received widespread play, particularly those dealing with U.S. spying on Paraguay and Lugo's alleged links to Chávez. If the Paraguayan President had any doubts about U.S. intentions toward his country, leaked cables probably served to reinforce his own sense of paranoia.

If anything, however, the cables must have served as an acute embarrassment to the Lugo administration which was revealed as totally inept and exceedingly subservient to the U.S. Placed in a very uncomfortable position, Lugo declared that his government would seriously analyze the leaks with particular regard to American interference in Paraguay's internal affairs. Lugo added that Foreign Minister Lacognata --- whose own reputation was tarnished from the WikiLeaks scandal --- would hold private talks with the Americans about the diplomatic fallout.

Did Lugo Get the Note?

With the gloves now off, one would have thought that Lugo would deepen ties to Chávez and South America's left bloc, but if anything the President's reaction to Cablegate was remarkably muted. Indeed, Lugo even declared that the cables would not undermine or harm U.S.-Paraguayan relations. Since the WikiLeaks cache ends in late 2010, it's difficult to assess the more recent diplomatic fallout between Washington and Asunción. On the face of it, however, Lugo seems to have thought -- perhaps naively -- that he could somehow muddle through and preserve ties to U.S. while still cultivating links with Chávez.

Courting more controversy, Lugo traveled to Caracas in July, 2011 on a surprise visit. Lugo hailed the consolidation of the so-called Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations, also known as Celac, a bloc which stood as an alternative to the Organization of American States but excluding the United States. And tenaciously, Lugo refused to give up on Venezuela's bid to join Mercosur, declaring that he would support a modification of the trade bloc's rules which would allow him to bypass the Paraguayan Congress altogether, thereby fast tracking Chávez's request.

Lingering Questions

Fast forward a year to Lugo's ouster and the question on many people's minds is whether the U.S. may have played a hidden role in the President's removal from power. Recently, a host of individuals and organizations throughout Latin America called attention to the tumultuous politics in Paraguay by signing a letter of protest. "Paraguay and its people are victims of their enormous natural wealth, and the fact that they are situated in an area of strategic importance for the accumulation of capital through continental megaprojects," the letter reads. The U.S. and the Pentagon's Southern Command, the letter signers charge, carried out the Paraguayan coup by allying to local elites and transnational corporations.

The allegations are certainly inflammatory, but how much evidence can be marshaled to support such claims? Without sounding too conspiratorial, there's certainly evidence that the U.S. was unhappy about Lugo's distancing from the Pentagon and the Southern Command [for more on this, see my earlier al-Jazeera column here]. Over at the State Department meanwhile, both Rice and Clinton sounded the alarm bell on Lugo or alternatively hoped to "co-opt" the Paraguayan in the hopes that he would not fall under Chávez's dreaded influence. Some WikiLeaks cables, meanwhile, indicate that U.S. diplomats knew the Paraguayan right was conspiring against Lugo, though it's unclear if they had any particular foreknowledge of the most recent crisis. Postscript

Despite these many gaps, some reports suggest that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface during Lugo's ouster. In an unbelievably suspicious development, Weekly News Update on the Americas reports that even as Congress was moving to impeach Lugo, a group of U.S. generals met with legislators to discuss the possibility of building a military base in the Paraguayan Chaco region. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has failed to back Lugo's reinstatement, preferring instead to issue a couple of tepid and non-committal responses to the political crisis.

No sooner had Paraguayan legislators convened with the Americans than they leveled serious charges against Venezuela. According to the new Franco government, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister met with high level Paraguayan military officials shortly prior to Lugo's impeachment and encouraged the army to defend Lugo during the political crisis. In retaliation for the alleged interference, Paraguay expelled the Venezuelan Ambassador, prompting Chávez to cut off oil shipments in an escalating tit-for-tat. Chávez's left-leaning Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, meanwhile, has condemned Lugo's ouster and member nations recently expelled USAID for supposed interference in their own internal political affairs.

Coups 2.0?

Chávez himself has likened the events in Paraguay to the forcible removal of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. It's an interesting comparison since Zelaya, like Lugo, lost his position under similarly mysterious circumstances in 2009. Though Honduran conservatives were certainly aligned with the interests of the U.S. right and defense establishment, it's difficult to prove any close or orchestrated collaboration between the two during the Zelaya coup, and we may never know whether Obama himself may have given the green light.

Perhaps, like Honduras, we shall have a difficult time getting at the ultimate truth in Paraguay. In light of the Obama administration's relentless crackdown on whistle-blowing, it seems unlikely that we will ever gain any insight into what the Pentagon or other intelligence gathering operations [including the FBI, which has played a role in the Southern Cone] have been doing in Paraguay. For a president who once promised great transparency, it certainly comes as a grave disappointment.