In the span of a few hours on Friday, Paraguay’s Senate convened its members, read a list of accusations and put President Fernando Lugo on trial. Dismissing his request for more time to mount his defense, the senators abruptly voted to oust him from office, spurring a fierce debate across Latin America over the fragility of democratic institutions in a region with a long history of dictatorships.
And late Saturday, both Brazil and Argentina, which wield considerable economic influence in Paraguay, said they were withdrawing their ambassadors to Asunción because of the action against Mr. Lugo.
The Senate’s rush to remove Mr. Lugo, who accepted the vote’s outcome and was quickly replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, was even more confounding since the next presidential elections in Paraguay are just nine months away. Various regional leaders, including Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, denounced the ouster as a coup d’état.
Various takes on that assertion quickly surfaced around the region, including descriptions of the ouster as a “parliamentary coup,” a “constitutional coup,” even a “golpeachment,” merging the Portuguese terms for “coup” and “impeachment,” which spread throughout social networks in Brazil.
“In this era of globalization, it appears that even impeachment proceedings, which should be measured and deliberate given what is at stake, have become accelerated,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research institute. “The Congress may have acted in accordance with the Constitution, but this is a setback for democracy nonetheless.”
In some ways, the way in which Mr. Lugo, 61, was ousted says a great deal about Paraguay itself. His election in 2008 ended six decades of one-party rule, the first time in the country’s history that a president from one party peacefully transferred power to another. Allowing him to finish a five-year term, however, proved to be a bridge too far.
Mr. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who won initial popularity as an advocate for Paraguay’s peasants, always faced resistance from the country’s deeply conservative political establishment. Moreover, Paraguay’s Constitution incorporates vigorous checks on executive power, reflecting distrust of strong leaders after the long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.
The president needs cooperation from Congress for key decisions, including naming members of the Supreme Court and directors of the big hydroelectric dams, Itaipú and Yacyretá. For practical purposes, Mr. Lugo was hobbled throughout much of his presidency, emasculated by legislators and eviscerated in the country’s media.
His inability to resolve Paraguay’s disparity in landholdings, among the nation’s most pressing social issues, was exemplified in a clash this month between the police and squatters that left 17 dead. Mr. Lugo’s opponents in Congress used that violence as a pretext to accuse him of malfeasance, leading to an impeachment vote in the Chamber of Deputies and his trial in the Senate.
“The process in which Lugo was removed may not have looked fair, but it was entirely legal,” said Alberto Poletti, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University in Paraguay.
It was the appearance of unfairness, however, that drew attention abroad. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, a legal entity of the Organization on American States, summarized regionwide sentiment, describing the ouster in a statement as a “parody of justice.”
“The institutions have been used exactly for something which they were not designed,” said Adolfo Salgueiro, a professor of international law in Venezuela and an opponent of Mr. Chávez.
In Paraguay, Mr. Lugo eased tension by accepting the Senate vote and quickly moving out of Mburuvicha Roga, as the presidential residence is called. And the way in which he was ousted stood in contrast to the 2009 removal in Honduras of President Manuel Zelaya, who was detained by the armed forces and flown to exile in Costa Rica.
Still, Mr. Franco, Paraguay’s new president, acknowledged in comments to reporters in Asunción that Mr. Lugo’s ouster was a “little fast.” He also recognized that landlocked Paraguay risked political isolation in the region, and perhaps even expulsion from regional blocs like Mercosur and Unasur, and asked leaders to “understand” the ouster.
While condemnations of the move have been vociferous from leftist countries like Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela, much of Paraguay’s engagement with the region will depend on how Brazil proceeds. Brazil, at the urging of President Dilma Rousseff, organized a diplomatic mission of Unasur last week to Asunción, where foreign ministers met with Mr. Lugo and Mr. Franco. Once there, the group issued a statement contending that it viewed the move to oust Mr. Lugo as a threat to “democratic order.”
The stamp of legitimacy for Mr. Lugo’s ouster may prove elusive for Paraguay’s new leaders, a reminder that the consolidation of democracy in parts of Latin America has a long way to go, especially in Paraguay, where a drought and falling demand for commodities are expected to result in a sharp economic contraction this year.
And while Mr. Lugo’s opponents may feel like they are putting the country on more stable footing by ousting him in such an expedited fashion, the country’s social problems, especially its unequal land distribution and poverty, continue to fester.
Then there is the precedent that this ouster creates. “Any change of government that’s not done through an election creates uncertainty,” said Pablo Lavigne, a risk analyst at Datarisk, a consulting firm in Argentina.