Some of my former colleagues at State and nearly all of the Presidents of Latin America are in a twitter over the ouster yesterday of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. While this is not going to be a major issue in our elections (bold prediction that!) it does show something about the prevailing mindset both among those who handle relations with Latin America and among Latin American heads-of-state.
First, Paraguay. I have been to Paraguay twice. It is a wonderful country with some of the nicest people you will ever meet. It is bilingual (Guarani and Spanish) with a colorful history, and a thriving literature, music, and art environment. Asuncion is a delightful city with beautiful colonial era churches and monuments, and first-rate museums. It also has some of the best steaks I have ever eaten, and, in fact, is a major beef exporter. It also, until just a few years ago, was an isolated and remote country that lived under dictatorship for most of its existence. Only relatively recently has it had a functioning democracy. It is also a place where people believe all sorts of wild conspiracy theories. My personal favorite, one pushed by the left, was that the US had built a secret military base there to steal Paraguay's water. I heard even very senior Paraguayan politicians talk about this base, absolutely convinced that it existed somewhere out in the vast Chaco.
Me: "Can you take me to the base? Or show me its location on a map?"
Paraguayan Interlocutor: "Nobody knows where it is. It is a secret."
Me: "How do you know it exists?"
P.I.: "Everybody knows it exists."
Me: "What does the base do?"
P.I.: "It is here to steal our water."
Me: "How do you know the US wants to steal your water?"
P.I: "Why else would the Americans build a secret base?"
Me: "But, uh . . . oh, never mind . . . I'll have that one. Rare, please, with chimichurri."
Ah, the wonderful loop of lefty loopy loopiness. How endearing that they would think that the country that can't keep a secret would be able to build a base in Paraguay so hush-hush that absolutely, positively nobody knows where.
Second, Lugo. I have met him on three occasions, once in Paraguay and twice in Washington. How do I put this diplomatically and delicately? He is certifiably insane. He is the stuff of novels and comedy movies. A Catholic bishop gone mad who promotes a weird blend of populism, sixteenth century anti-Protestant dogma, a dash of Marxism, some anti-US rhetoric, and some other odds and ends. He had become a follower of Venezuela's ailing Hugo Chavez and Ecuador's increasingly unstable Rafael Correa, and at the OAS and the UN, Paraguay took on the anti-US rhetoric of his ALBA masters. As a priest, he had several children, some of whom he officially acknowledged as his. Paraguayans frequently referred to Lugo as "the father of our country."
Lugo used his office to promote land seizures and, frankly, violence against landowners by the poor. For him, the law was a flexible, plastic, pliable material which could be bent, pulled, and twisted into whatever form he saw fit. He encouraged violence, and he got it; dead cops and dead poor people. The Paraguayan congress had enough of the violence and wackiness, impeached and convicted him in rapid fire order, and swore in Vice President Federico Franco. President Franco will hold the office until national elections in 2013. The new chief executive has run into a firestorm of criticism from around the region, especially the Chavez controlled ALBA nations, but others as well. Lots of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the supposed lack of due process, with some alleging the Congressional action is tantamount to a coup a la Honduras.
Third, I am no Paraguayan constitutional expert, but any process that involves open voting by elected officials, and does not involve firing squads or electrodes to the genitals, is a dramatic improvement over what has happened before in Latin America and Paraguay. To have your process criticized as undemocratic by the likes of Castro and Chavez is no shame.
Fourth, this is an opportunity for the US to begin to undermine ALBA influence and shore up a rocky democratic regime. The worst thing we can do is criticize, criticize, criticize, and do what we did in Honduras--i.e., let Venezuela take the lead. The US should act like a democratic superpower and not let ourselves get steamrolled by loud Latin American executives who do not like to see fellow chief executives removed, even by democratic means.
In other words we need to act as though Obama were not our President . . .