AS/COA Online - Lugo Seeks to Quell Coup Fears in Paraguay

Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo spent the past week quelling coup fears after he replaced the country’s top military officials. At a November 6 ceremony where he swore in a new military commander, Lugo suggested the changes were intended to reward young, talented staff. But the reshuffling of the military deck marked the fourth since Lugo’s 14 months in power. It also comes as the ex-priest faces another paternity suit—the third since he took office. And with the crisis in Honduras on the minds of Latin American leaders, Paraguay’s latest military shake-up raised eyebrows.

Last week, Lugo sacked the heads of the army and navy while promoting army chief Oscar Velásquez to the post of commander of the armed forces. Velásquez, a close ally of Lugo, replaced Darío Dávalos, who then vocally criticized the president and warned that the changes would demoralize Paraguay’s military. Rumor has it that the decision came after high-level officers met with members of the powerful Colorado opposition party. In an Al Jazeera interview, Lugo said the idea of a coup was “unthinkable.” But, he added, “[T]here are a few people that continue to have a relationship with politicians nostalgic of the past that could venture into something like that, even if I think it impossible.”

Lugo’s April 2008 victory ended the Colorado Party’s six-decade-grip on power. But the party maintains control of Congress and has blocked Lugo’s reforms. The New York Times reports that in late October, legislators threatened to impeach the president for stirring up class differences during remarks in a slum wherein he accused the country’s rich of hoarding money in foreign banks. According to the Paraguayan Constitution, lawmakers can oust the president with a two-thirds vote. The firing of military staff last week only gave the opposition more fodder, with some members of Congress saying Lugo had abused his position and comparing him to Venezuela’s fiery leader Hugo Chávez. Under Lugo’s leadership, Paraguay joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of the Americas, founded by Chávez. Yet Lugo, who holds office until 2013, says he has no interest in following the reeleccionista path pursued recently by other Latin American leaders. “I do not want nor desire reelection,” said Lugo during a recent press conference, though he backs constitutional reform.

Lugo has also lost support among those eager for him to make good on his campaign promises to close the inequality gap. Hurt by the global financial crisis, the number of Paraguayans living in poverty this year could hit 40 percent. The economy contracted by 4.2 percent in the first half of 2009, though the International Monetary Fund forecasts Paraguayan GDP growth of 4 percent next year. The president also faces three paternity suits brought against him by women who say they had relations with him while he was still a Catholic bishop. Lugo only recognized the child in one of the cases.