Graffiti in Asunción (Natalia Viana)
In the usually tranquil streets of Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, there is a growing sense of unease. The death of retired general and presidential candidate Lino Oviedo in February, in a suspicious helicopter crash, has heightened the tension marking an already fraught transition following the impeachment of the left-leaning President Fernando Lugo last June. On city walls, graffiti demands an answer to the question "Que pasó en Curuguaty?"—the rallying cry at a protest of 5,000 people last December, which refers to the rural border region where a clash between police forces and landless peasants culminated in the death of seventeen people (eleven civilians and six policemen) last year. The tragedy, which took place just one week before Lugo's impeachment, was seized upon by his opponents, who pushed for his ouster on the grounds that the president had fomented "the fight between rich and poor" by holding talks with peasant leaders. As Paraguay prepares to elect a new president on April 21, a growing number of citizens believe that answering the question of what happened in Curuguaty is the key to the truth behind Lugo's impeachment.
A former Catholic priest and the bishop of Paraguay's poorest diocese, in the rural department of San Pedro, between 1994 and 2005, Lugo was never popular with the country's economic elite. He won the presidency in 2008 by forming a coalition with Paraguay's Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), the second-largest in the country, and choosing Federico Franco, one of the party's main figures, to run as his vice president. But the coalition soon proved fragile; leaders within the PLRA opposed a number of his policies—for example, forging a relationship with neighboring countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Lugo governed alongside a Congress heavily opposed to him, and he was repeatedly faced with the threat of impeachment—even from the liberals.
WikiLeaks cables reveal that the US embassy was aware of rumored conspiracies against Lugo since he first rose to power. "Many believe that political actors…are waiting for Lugo to make a big mistake that could serve as grounds for impeachment sometime in the next four years," then-Ambassador Liliana Ayalde wrote in a classified cable on August 9, 2009.
The same cable acknowledged that, despite US fears, Lugo was not turning out to be "a radical leftist of the Bolivarian persuasion"—he did not, for example, deliver on the land reforms pushed by Paraguay's social movements. Nonetheless, in the poorest country of South America, where 2 percent of the population controls more than 75 percent of the fertile land, his politics were seen as too radical for the conservative establishment. Lugo's closeness to left-leaning South American leaders and his support for Unasur—a geopolitical alliance with a focus on military collaboration as a counterbalance to American influence—was a thorn in the side of pro-US legislators in Paraguay and was used to argue for his impeachment.
Lugo also displeased big landowners in Paraguay's increasingly GMO-driven economy. The country is the world's fourth-biggest soy exporter, and his attempts to regulate the use of pesticides and GMOs would be quickly reversed by his replacement, Vice President Franco.
Although Lugo had many political enemies, it is increasingly clear that his ouster was facilitated by entities in Paraguay who not only wanted him gone from the moment he was elected, but who enjoyed financial support from the United States. The US Agency for International Development renewed its investments in the country after Lugo took power, with much of the funds going to the same forces that would uphold his impeachment. Internal correspondence between the State Department and USAID suggests that rather than showing concern over the circumstances leading up to Lugo's overthrow—including the massacre in Curuguaty—US officials instead showed eagerness to work with those who replaced him. On the very day Lugo was overthrown, June 22, 2012, Michael Eschleman, director of the Democracy and Threshold Programs at USAID, wrote an e-mail citing the need to figure out "how we can best approach new leadership to ensure not only stability in programming, but ability to march forward."