For isolated and impoverished countries, it can sometimes prove difficult to pursue an independent foreign policy which challenges Washington's traditional sphere of influence. Take, for example, tiny Paraguay which has recently been convulsed in political instability. Four years ago, Fernando Lugo was elected president after pledging to take on political and economic elites on behalf of Paraguay's poor. A former Bishop, Lugo promised to tackle pressing social problems like land reform. On the international front too, Lugo was controversial: though he continued to maintain friendly ties to the U.S., he also made overtures toward the populist regime of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Not surprisingly, such policies did not go over well either in Paraguay or Washington. As I explained in another recent column, Lugo was recently impeached under very questionable circumstances, and indeed some have labeled the Bishop President's removal a kind of "quasi-coup." Following a skewed vote in the opposition-controlled Congress, Lugo was impeached for allegedly encouraging land seizures and Vice President Federico Franco assumed the presidency. Needless to say, however, the actual circumstances surrounding the land occupations are subject to debate. According to authorities, peasant squatters opened fire on police as the security forces moved in to eject them. The peasants, however, claim that the police had in fact conducted a massacre.
There's no evidence that the U.S. had a direct hand in Lugo's removal, yet judging from secret correspondence recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, Washington will be somewhat relieved to have rid itself of Paraguay's pesky Bishop President. Indeed, from the Bush administration to the Obama White House, the American political establishment viewed Lugo's reformist presidency with a fair degree of suspicion. Though hardly what one would call a radical, Lugo nevertheless refused to ostracize Chávez and as a result the U.S. State Department spent a fair amount of time monitoring Paraguay's new leader.
Condy's Paranoid Mindset
Shortly prior to the 2008 election which brought Lugo to power, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for more information about Paraguay. In particular, Rice wanted to know how Lugo planned to manage relations with the U.S., Venezuela and Cuba. The Secretary of State's inquiries were not altogether surprising in light of the fact that Lugo had already warned the U.S. to keep its distance from South America's leftist tide. "I don't think the United States has any choice but to accept these changes," he remarked at one point.
Though Lugo was no Chávez protégé, the Paraguayan praised the Venezuelan "experiment" for its positive social accomplishments, as well as "the better distribution of wealth for the benefit of the poor majority." Furthermore, Lugo supported Chávez's land reform program and called the Venezuelan leader's 21st-century socialism "interesting," and "very stimulating."
Hardly amused by such talk, Rice requested Lugo's biometric data, including fingerprints, facial images, iris scans and even DNA. Concerned about the regional implications of the election, Rice wanted to know whether Cuba and Venezuela were offering financial support to any of the political candidates. Preoccupied with wider South American political integration along leftist lines, Rice also sought information about Venezuela's desire to join the Mercosur trade bloc, and asked whether Asunción intended to ratify Chávez's pending request.
Now on a tear, Rice also pressed her subordinates for information about Cuban and Venezuelan student exchange programs and philanthropic activities in Paraguay. Not stopping there, the Secretary of State also wanted to know Paraguay's position on Chávez's so called "Bank of the South" initiative, and the status of Venezuelan military assistance. Moreover, Rice requested information on communication practices of Venezuelan and Cuban officials in Paraguay, including telephone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses and even phone call history.
Concerned about a Lugo Victory
Though Paraguay is a small and landlocked nation with little geopolitical influence, Washington nevertheless engaged in a paranoid effort to monitor Hugo Chávez in the Southern Cone. Indeed, even before Lugo came to power, the U.S. Embassy in Asunción warned that Venezuela had established links with several Paraguayan social, political and religious organizations.
Later, in the midst of Lugo's bid for the presidency, U.S. officials sought out local municipal authorities who claimed that Venezuela had provided leadership training to peasant leaders. The U.S. Embassy was concerned about such links, remarking that Venezuelan Embassy officials had met with Bishop Lugo personally. Meanwhile, the Bush administration suspected that Venezuela had offered material support to leftist groups along the Paraguayan-Bolivian border which had in turn raised tensions.
In addition, the Americans were irked about "Misión Milagro," a Venezuelan health program which provided eye surgery operations to the poor. Sounds benign enough, but the Americans were worried as hundreds of poor Paraguayans had already flown to Cuba and Venezuela in what appeared to be an effort at "winning converts at the mass levels." "Many, perhaps a majority, of the program's participants," U.S. diplomats explained, "... are students who do not need eye surgeries but rather travel to Venezuela for long-term training to expand the 'Bolivarian Revolution.'"
If anything, Washington's suspicions toward Lugo only increased after the latter assumed the presidency in August, 2008. In something out of a spy novel, U.S. Ambassador James Cason warned Washington about Lugo's leftist ties. So-called "sensitive reporting" indicated that Lugo's inner circle had links to Chávez and supported the latter's "plans for Latin America." Furthermore, one of the parties in Lugo's coalition had supposedly received Venezuelan financial support and the new President himself had "loose ties" with a Marxist Leninist party which had developed an armed wing.
The U.S. Embassy in Asunción was also alarmed about the prospect that Lugo and Chávez would enhance energy collaboration. Since Paraguay was totally dependent on foreign oil, Lugo counted on petroleum giant Venezuela to provide 30 percent of his country's oil supply. Unfortunately for Paraguay, however, the oil imports caused Paraguay to fall into debt to Chávez. Perhaps, Chávez believed that he could enhance his own position in the Southern Cone by extracting concessions from an economically poor Paraguay. That, at least, was the fear at the U.S. Embassy, which remarked in a cable that Paraguayan state oil company Petropar had rejected Chávez's calls for a joint venture with Venezuelan petroleum firm PdVSA. Lugo's conservative Vice President Federico Franco exclaimed for good measure that Chávez should not adopt an "imperialist attitude" toward Paraguay and Petropar's debt to Venezuela.
A Veritable "Tug of War"
Undeterred by the rightist opposition, Lugo ploughed ahead and signed a communications agreement with Chávez to expand South American/Cuban news channel Telesur, the bane of the U.S. right-wing establishment. Adding fuel to the fire, the Paraguayan leader signed on to an educational initiative designed to promote the "values of Venezuelan Simón Bolívar," and expanded the Misión Milagro health plan. Setting off the alarm bell yet further amongst the Paraguayan landed elite, Lugo invited Chávez to his country to discuss rural collaboration. Chávez, who had already initiated his own land reform program in Venezuela, declared that he was willing to help Paraguay develop an "agro-industrial center" and provide agricultural and technical assistance.
Needless to say, the conservative Congress and media establishment were hardly pleased about Lugo's cozying up to Chávez. As far as they were concerned, Paraguay was doing just fine under U.S. assistance which included USAID health initiatives and a glorified "democracy program" designed to fight corruption and "give civil society a voice." Having accepted aid from not just Venezuela but also the U.S., Lugo now found himself in a veritable "tug of war" between the two antagonists and faced "continued criticism related to President Chávez's attempts to meddle in domestic politics." In addition, Lugo's increasingly more independent foreign policy was setting him on a collision course with conservative Vice President Federico Franco, who had promised earlier that Paraguay would not develop close ties with Venezuela.
Hillary Takes Charge
On the face of it, one might think that the Obama White House would have a less paranoid view of political developments in the Southern Cone. Yet, WikiLeaks cables belie any such notion, and, if anything, reinforce a sense of continuity between Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton at the State Department. In 2009, in fact, Clinton thanked her subordinates for providing valuable information about Lugo, commending officials for illuminating the new Paraguayan President's daily routine and even his diet.
At times, it almost seemed as if the greenhorn Secretary of State regarded herself as more of a spook than a diplomat. "We value reports that highlight leaders'... strengths and weaknesses," Clinton remarked eagerly. In a follow-up cable, Clinton was even more suspicious. What has Lugo said privately to U.S. diplomats about his attendance to the left-leaning ALBA, or Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, Clinton asked? "Has Lugo expressed an interest in joining ALBA, and if so, what is his timeline for participating?" the Secretary of State pressed.
To be sure, there's no evidence that the U.S. had a direct hand in Lugo's impeachment, but from Condy to Hillary it seems clear that Washington harbored deep suspicions toward Paraguay's bothersome Bishop President. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has opted to issue fairly non-committal responses about the political crisis now afflicting the South American nation, leaving it to other nations to stand up for Lugo's reinstatement.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff