Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The art of the "soft coup": Why funny business in small Latin American countries can turn out to matter - a lot

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff spoke today denouncing the impeachment proceedings the pro-oligarchy opposition is pressing against her as an "attempted coup d'etat" while asking her supporters to not fall for provocations and to maintain legality. After all, she is defending the established democratic institutions against an illegitimate use of the impeachment mechanism to nullify the results of democratic elections.

This method of removing an elected government with which the right was unhappy through abuse of existing institutions had a test run in Paraguay in 2012. Natalia Ruiz Diaz reported in Impeachment of Paraguayan President Sparks Institutional Crisis Inter Press Service 07/23/2012:

The Paraguayan Congress removed President Fernando Lugo from office Friday in an impeachment trial that lasted only a few hours.

The move, formally based on the constitution, triggered an institutional crisis for the fragile democracy in this South American country, and has been rejected by the rest of Latin America.

Lugo accepted the summary decision, which cannot be appealed, although he likened it to a coup and said the law had been “twisted.”

Vice President Federico Franco will complete Lugo’s term, which ends in August 2013.

Calls from the rest of the region, from Washington to Buenos Aires, for the proceedings to be carried out with guarantees for due process, fell on deaf ears. Nor was a mission of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) foreign ministers, who arrived Thursday, successful in mediating the crisis.

While thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Congress to protest the impeachment of Lugo, a former Catholic bishop considered a moderate leftist, UNASUR studied the possibility of refusing to recognise the Franco administration, and members of the mission described the impeachment as a coup.

Latin America is thus facing a new institutional crisis, after the June 2009 coup in Honduras, where then President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and flown out of the country in a military coup backed by Congress.

After accepting the decision, Lugo said in a speech that “Today it was not Fernando Lugo who was removed from power; it was Paraguayan history, Paraguayan democracy that have been deeply hurt.” [my emphasis]
The Obama Administration, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, was sympathetic to both the military coup in Honduras and the "soft coup" in Paraguay. Despite the improvement of relations with Cuba, the Obama-Hillary policy toward Latin America has been a conservative one. That hasn't always given the highest priority to conserving democratic institutions.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is one of the main US-based and government-supported organizations that promotes "soft" regime change in various countries. Right Web's article of 03/02/2012 on the National Endowment for Democracy explains:

The private, congressionally funded NED has been a controversial tool in U.S. foreign policy because of its support of efforts to overthrow foreign governments. As the writers Jonah Gindin and Kirsten Weld remarked in the January/February 2007 NACLA Report on the Americas: "Since [1983], the NED and other democracy-promoting governmental and nongovernmental institutions have intervened successfully on behalf of 'democracy' — actually a very particular form of low-intensity democracy chained to pro-market economics — in countries from Nicaragua to the Philippines, Ukraine to Haiti, overturning unfriendly 'authoritarian' governments (many of which the United States had previously supported) and replacing them with handpicked pro-market allies."

NED works principally through four core institutes: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDIIA or NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), and the Center for International Private Enterprise—representing, respectively, the country's two major political parties, organized labor, and the business community.

Funded almost entirely by the U.S. government, NED claims on its website to be "guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values. Governed by an independent, nonpartisan board of directors, the NED makes hundreds of grants each year to support pro-democracy groups in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East."
The NED publishes together with Johns Hopkins University a quarterly Journal of Democracy. The October 2013 (24:4) number carried an article by Leiv Marsteintredet, Mariana Llanos and Detlef Nolte defending the soft coup against Paraguay's elected left-leaning President, Paraguay and the Politics of Impeachment:

The international response, spearheaded by the leaders of the South American left, was swift condemnation. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called the events a “soft coup,” and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela likened them to the coup that had deposed Hondu-ran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Others spoke of a “parliamentary” or “institutional” coup, and decried a growing neo-golpista trend in Latin America. Claiming a breach of the democratic order in Paraguay, the regional trade organization Mercosur (Southern Cone Common Mar-ket) and the political and economic alliance Unasur (Union of South American Nations) both suspended Paraguay until after the April 2013 election. Less negative responses came from the United States, Cen-tral America, Europe, and the Organization of American States (OAS), which did not suspend Paraguay but expressed concern and sent a diplo-matic mission to investigate the incident.
They try to normalize the 2012 impeachment: "The Lugo case is an example of a phenomenon known as the 'interrupted presidency,' or 'presidential breakdown,' which has become the main form of presidential instability in Latin America."

I suppose at one level the "soft coup" approach to illegitimate regime change is an improvement of sorts over the military coup approach so popular among Latin American rightists and their American sponsors during the Cold War. But the unwillingness of the ruling oligarchy's to allow democratic institutions to operate freely - Argentina from 1955 to 1973 is a good example - also undermined stability and constitutional government so that military coups became more attractive to antidemocratic elites as solutions to crush popular dissent against political repression and destructive "free-market" economic policies designed for maximum benefit of international corporations.

Marsteintredet et al seem awfully glib about the overturning of democratic election results in Paraguay, which experienced one of the longest-lasting dictatorships in Latin America, that of the infamous Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989.

The note, "There were strongly negative international reactions to what was, after all, the legal (even if unwise) deposition of a president." (my emphasis)

PR is a bit less tricky a task for nominally "legal" coups, as opposed to defending military ones.

One of the goals of the Obama-Hillary policy is to weaken international institutions like UNASUR which the US does not dominate. Because they can be inconvenient for Washington, American coporations and rent-seeking vulture fund speculators:
Justified or not, the sudden suspension that Mercosur and Unasur slapped on Paraguay [after the soft coup] forced other actors to respond not only to the situation in Paraguay, but also to the South American organizations’ response to the situation. Indeed, Unasur was making a move to displace the OAS as South America’s “go-to” group on matters of security, con-flict mediation, and the defense of democracy. While Unasur responded to the Lugo impeachment within a week, the [US-dominated] OAS took more than two weeks to assess matters and opt against suspending Paraguay. The OAS instead sent an observer mission to help the country prepare for the 2013 elections, foster political dialogue, and keep OAS member states in-formed. The U.S. government backed this decision, and some Central American countries also criticized the decisions taken by Unasur and Mercosur. Although critical of the haste that marked the impeachment process, the OAS noted that things had been done in accord with Paraguay’s constitution. Furthermore, the OAS pointed out, Lugo himself had accepted the outcome, at least at first.
Obama and Hillary supported the soft coup, in other words. Marsteintredet et al describe why independent organizations are dubious from the point of view of soft-coup advocates and apologists:

Nonetheless, Unasur’s and Mercosur’s speedy actions left the OAS standing by the roadside. How a critical episode is defined and inter-preted at the outset is key, for this determines what actions will be taken in regard to the country in question. Unasur showed that when it comes to South American political developments, it can and will act more quickly than either the OAS or the United States. Moreover, the Paraguayan crisis made it plain that presidential summits produce deci-sions faster than does OAS-style diplomacy. The degree of self-interest that was at work in Mercosur and Unasur’s decision making raises some concerns about what the sidelining of the OAS may mean for future ef-forts to defend democracy in the Western Hemisphere. These concerns are substantiated by the contradictory behavior and double standards of governments — Argentina’s and Ecuador’s come to mind—that cry out in defense of democratic rule in South America while not always playing by the rules of liberal democracy at home (when it comes to press freedom, for instance).
US and Latin rightist accusations of inadequate "press freedom" against Cristina's government in Argentina were mainly based on the law she got passed limiting monopoly control of media corporations. Current President Mauricio Macri set it aside just after taking office via emergency decree.

This paragraph from the conclusion reads like a lessons-learned evaluation suggesting ways rightwing parties can make more effective use of the soft coup approach to regime in the future. And also the kind of propaganda spin that can be put on it for American audiences who still may be squeamish about all this democracy stuff:

Lugo’s impeachment and the international reactions that it generated highlight the political motives that can underlie the use of legal instruments. Paraguay’s Congress used the impeachment as a vote of censure for Lugo’s failings in government. Lugo’s fall can be explained by a purely political, albeit parliamentary, logic: A weak president lost the confidence of most of his country’s national legislators. In presidential regimes, such a loss of confidence should not result in an interrupted presidency, but it can lead to deadlock between the legislative and executive powers. Lugo’s impeachment, however, like several other cases of interrupted presidencies, demonstrates that without legislative support presidents can find themselves hard-pressed to survive, much less govern. We believe that this pattern of governmental instability increases the importance of presidential leadership in the construction and maintenance of a governing coalition, preferably based on a negotiated political agenda. Today, a governing coalition is imperative not only to implement the president’s agenda but also, perhaps, to keep the president in office.
In other words, left-leaning politicians and parties elected on a popular program of rejecting neoliberal economic policies and not kowtowing to the whims of the moment in Washington need to be, you know, pragmatic and agree to implement the neoliberal, submission-to-Washington program. Otherwise, gosh, those soft coups are kind of unfortunately. But, you know, by "a purely political, albeit parliamentary, logic" they're just dandy! As long as they serve American interests, of course.

Yes, things that happen in small countries like Honduras and Paraguay can have big implications for larger countries like Argentina and Brazil.

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