by Natalia Viana
Original article published at apublica.org
Translation from Portuguese for CUSLAR by Diana Tamashiro
May 4, 2016
For Paraguayan José Tomás Sánchez, the message is that more radical, progressive governments in Latin America maintained their presidencies, while moderate ones were interrupted
Former Paraguayan minister José Tomás Sánchez has been following the outcome of Dilma Roussef’s impeachment trial closely. “It’s very important for anyone who is interested in Latin American politics,” he said. The youngest minister in Fernando Lugo’s progressive government – which was interrupted by a lightening quick impeachment in 2012 – José Tomás led the Secretary of Public Service as the minister responsible for professionalizing and organizing the Paraguayan bureaucracy and ending with clientelism, the legacy of 60 years of rule by a single party, the Colorado, defeated by Lugo’s election.
In this interview, Sánchez recalls the processes that overthrew the Paraguayan government and that of Manuel Zelaya, in Honduras, both backed by the Congresses and Supreme Courts of their countries. “We must look at these events and understand what they mean: toss aside formal rules and the popular vote and take advantage of institutionally justified shortcuts so that unelected political forces can reach government,” he says.
How did you receive the news of Lugo’s impeachment in 2012?
Lugo’s political trial took place in a context of political commotion due to the massacre of peasants and police officers in Marina Kue, in Curuguaty, the week before. In that tragedy, 11 peasants and six police officers died, causing an atmosphere of chaos: on one hand, certain sectors, like the elite ad the middle class, were scared of what was the worst police fatality since the democratic transition, and on the other hand, the popular sectors were extremely affected by the worst peasant fatality since the dictatorship. In other words, there was a sensation of great uncertainty. The media treacherously distorted reality by telling a story of peasant guerrillas armed with rifles that squatted private property and assassinated unarmed police officers in cold-blood. There was no proof of this, as later research reports showed, such as the one by the organization CODEHUPY, the Public Agency, and others. But the evidence wasn’t important at that time.
That is because Lugo had enough popularity to support a new progressive campaign with the chance of winning the next election. This was under the pressure of a two-party system that dominated the Paraguayan political arena since the 19th century. The Colorado Party and the Liberal Party obviously were not comfortable with the emergence of a new political actor, nor were the favored elites happy about it. In this context of social commotion and political tension, the Curuguaty case provided the conditions for the twentieth impeachment attempt against Lugo to take place – after 19 of them had failed – and for the president’s removal in less than 24 hours.
Do you consider the trial against Lugo a coup?
If the removal procedure of a political force in the government in order for other forces to rise to government power does not follow formal rules, what counts then are informal rules. In this game, what counts is the use of force as a resource. This use of force can be direct or in an imminent scenario. Imagine what must have gone through Lugo’s head or what is going through Dilma’s at this moment – the moment of evaluating whether they should go through with trials they believe to be illegal. “What will the military do? How far will these opponents go? Will there be violence?” These are not simple questions.
For some sectors, these cases of impeachment are not coups because they do not resemble past military coups, since they are not followed by authoritarian regimes. Or because the impeachment procedures “are foreseen in the constitution.” In the Paraguayan case, let us recall that even though the procedure for impeachment was in the Constitution, it did not follow due process. No proof of the accusations was presented because the congress members wrote that the facts were “public knowledge.” To me, that constitutes a parliamentary coup.
It is worth recalling that in the case of the Manuel Zelaya’s removal in Honduras in 2009 by the hands of the military who pulled out of his house in pajamas. His successor, Micheletti, always justified that saying that it was legal, with unanimous support in the Honduran Supreme Court, the Congress and in other institutions.
Then, how do we know when political forces, state institutions or the military are or are not perpetrating coups? It is necessary to look at the events and understand what they mean: toss aside formal rules and the popular vote and take advantage of institutionally justified shortcuts so that unelected political forces can assume government.
How do you see the Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trial in Brazil?
Obviously, what happened in Brazil will influence the other countries in the region. The impeachment marks the end of the political era of “Lula-ism,” which sought convergence, the inclusion and growth of all social and economic sectors within a national development plan. I believe that phase ends here. Let us recall: he is situated within two political processes of the Left seen as “moderate” and “responsible” by international organizations, political scientists, and economists. This is in contrast with the more radical experiences and confrontations in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. But it is interesting that not even the idea of “we all grow,” which the PT embraced and which favored the elite, contains these same elites in a moment of crisis. What is also interesting is the message this conveys to Latin America: in countries where progressive sectors advance more radically, they have been able to maintain their presidencies, contrary to cases like Honduras, Paraguay, and now, Brazil.
Now we have to see what the institutional effects of impeachment will be, since what happened during the PT’s government is something that does not occur easily even in so-called developed countries: the powerful serving jail time for corruption. Imagine if in developed countries, which broke the global economy in 2008 and are behind the money laundering in the case of the Panama Papers in other international laundering, these same standards were upheld? The advances in Brazil in terms of the fight against corruption have been extraordinary. It is not clear what will happen when new political forces assume power with another agenda, representing other interests.
It is important to highlight that impeachment has strong popular support, with protests on the streets. Now it is necessary to see how much of the mobilization responds to a selective indignation towards the PT and how much is a broader negation of the political classes. The former will stop mobilizing if there is change in the government, the latter will not; and here we enter more complicated territory.
What does Dilma’s impeachment mean for the rest of Latin America?
With the impeachment in Brazil, it seems to me like the systems of government in Latin American will return to being an important topic. Since the beginning of the region’s democratization in the 1980s, about 20 presidents have had their terms interrupted for various reasons. Initially, there was fear of a return to authoritarian regimes, which did not happen. Today the focus is on conflict resolution and power transitions within the presidential systems. Impeachment will be problematized as a tool for presidential removal, especially because it is difficult to guarantee that it follows due process when the trial is heavily political and when who decides it are the congress members.
Hopefully this will strengthen the discussion about campaign finance, which is obviously associated with corruption and linked to governments and economic interests that come before governments’ political commitments to its citizens. After three decades of democratic development, it is more urgent than ever to place these issues at the center of the debate and the political reconstruction in the continent.
In retrospect, what did Lugo’s impeachment mean for Paraguay?
In political terms, the elite two-party system removed the growing protagonism of progressive actors from the forefront. In Paraguay, electoral institutions are extremely unfavorable to political forces with few economic resources. The electoral institution is dominated by traditional parties, does not have a professional career, and is a clientelism party. In institutional terms, the fall of Lugo’s government meant cutting short a process of government administration that was novel in the fact that its social and popular actors sat at negotiation tables about public polices and some of those demands were incorporated. For the economic elite, this means, to a certain degree, a loss of their absolute control over the state. An example would be the difficulty they faced in introducing genetically modified seeds, which after Lugo’s removal, had the way open quite easily.
In democratic terms, it was a huge setback in the practical appreciation of democracy. This damage is not minor in a conservative country with a very long tradition of authoritarianism, coups d’états, civil wars, etc. The overthrow of the first president in our history who transitioned into power peacefully from one party to the other, to me, had a great disciplinary meaning for the society: it strengthened the idea that the vote is worth less than these arbitrary powers that always rule the political history of the nation.