June 18, 2013
Brazil’s cards in the Paraguayan poker
Brazil moves with leaden feet when it comes to the Paraguayan issue. Three factors weigh heavily, on its reactions since June 21, when in Asunción, the Paraguayan Lower House ignited the impeachment culminating with Fernando Lugo’s removal and Federico Franco’s swearing in as president.
History — and its scars — provide the most tangled factor for the Brazilians. The Triple Alliance War (1864-1870) — in which the armies of the Brazilian Empire, together with Argentina’s and Uruguay’s, fought Paraguay and decimated almost 60 percent of its adult population, still bleeds, and will probably continue to do so forever.
However, the most recent precedent is 2009, when Brazil sought to lead the support for Manuel Zelaya, the former president of Honduras who was removed by a coup led by the Supreme Court, Congress and the Armed Forces, and housed the deposed leader for almost a year in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, along with his train of followers, his Stetson hat and guitar. Criticism against Itamaraty and Marco Aurelio García, the sherpa for Latin American and Iranian affairs during Lula’s presidency, can still be heard in Brasilia, where nobody can forget the international mess caused by meddling in the Central American nation’s domestic affairs. It was Brazil who orchestrated the “return” of Zelaya to Honduran soil, in order to later deny him political asylum. Neither one thing nor the other.
History also counts for another factor: Brazil’s chronic disease of “empire-itis”. The regional leader and global power does not wish to show itself stricken by Washington’s imperialist virus. That is why our neighbouring giant, in order to avoid merely reflecting its northern brother, wishes to move forward on ballet slippers instead of taking elephant steps. That is the reason why the Brazilian message in the Paraguayan issue has focused — until now — on condemning the “feeble democratic formalities” that ended in Lugo’s removal from power by suspending the country from the Mercosur regional block but without directly nor secretly interfering in Paraguay’s internal politics.
In private, according to certain Brazilian media, Dilma Rousseff referred to the Paraguayan “coup”. When facing the microphone, she described it as a “summary trial.” “We have to let the Paraguayan crisis calm itself down,” said Marco Aurelio García, who was one of Lula’s favourite aides-du-camp and is on a tight leash now, albeit he still is a special advisor to the Presidency. (On such a tight leash that Dilma has not been calling him to her Paraguayan Crisis Task Force, with Defence Minister Celso Amorim, Agriculture Minister Mendes Ribeiro and Foreign Relations Minister Antonio Patriota, and in which the leading player is Gilberto Carvalho, secretary-general to the Presidency and Dilma’s main connection with Lula — he is referred to as “Dilma‘s Rasputin” in Government House.)
The third factor is economical. As partners in the binational Itaipu dam, Brazil and Paraguay are forced to move as Siamese twins: 20 percent of the electricity consumed by Brazil comes from Paraguay. Cuts to this supply would paralyze the Sao Paulo industry and would leave a large part of the country in the dark, due to its interconnected system. At the same time, in 2011 half of Paraguay’s income through exports came from the energy sold to its neighbouring giant.
Both countries are also tied through their trade balance: with US$2.25 billion in Brazil’s favour in 2011, Paraguay exported US$715 million (soybeans, corn, wheat, meat and electricity). Also, Brazilian products valued at US$2.96 billion entered Paraguay: diesel, fuels and agro-chemical fertilizers —all basic requirements for the “soy-bean-dependant” Paraguayan economy, which is the fourth largest global producer of that commodity.
Another factor as decisive as these is the Braziguayans. 450,000 Brazilians (Paraguay has a total population of 6.2 million) live in Paraguay and most of them work in the agricultural industry. Some of those Braziguayans have suffered from “carpero” occupations — the name given to Paraguayan squatters. “Carperos” are the local version of the Brazilian “Sin Tierra” (Landless) group, and Lugo’s electoral allies.
It was the occupation of a farm in the western area of Curuguaty by “carperos” which led to the crackdown and slaughter ordered under the Lugo presidency, which in turn led to the Congressional procedures that removed him from power. Today, these Braziguayans are asking for a slow pace in Brazil’s next international steps, as they are convinced that the administration of Lugo’s successor, Federico Franco, will give them greater guarantees on private property.
Whether it is calm or the “non-intervention principle”, as it is being referred to in Brasilia, what is certain is that on the morning of Monday June 25, Dilma Rousseff emphatically opposed Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s wishes, who had invited Fernando Lugo to a teleconference with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Uruguayan President José Mujica. Her argument was that “calling Lugo (instead of Federico Franco) to participate in the negotiation of a Free Trade Treaty between China and Mercosur is the same as involving ourselves in Paraguay’s internal issues.”
To save face for Cristina, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman suddenly regained his memory and remembered, although late, that it would be difficult to negotiate such a treaty between China and Mercosur with Paraguay in the middle — because Asunción has no relations with Beijing, but it does with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.
However, keeping Paraguay out of Mercosur (unanimously suspended by its partners) also has its advantages. On the one hand, it keeps the door wide open for allowing Venezuela to enter the political-trade group. The only bastion against the Bolivarian nation joining the club was the Paraguayan Congress.
In this sense, informal consultations between Montevideo, Brasilia, Buenos Aires and Caracas have been held at a frenetic speed in the last hours, with two telephones permanently in action. The one belonging to Argentine sherpa Rafael Folonier — Néstor Kirchner’s right-hand man when the latter was secretary-general of Unasur and currently linked to all of the governments involved in the negotiations — and Brazilian-based Antonio Patriota’s phone. The Brazilian Foreign Minister, who allegedly was about to be replaced last week when his farewell to Itamaraty was an open secret, is again climbing the approval ladder (or fishing for compliments from Dilma Rousseff). A laborious climb: the spell between the president and her foreign minister was broken long ago.