Shadow Government

Paraguay's constitutional crisis

A constitutional crisis in Paraguay is developing rapidly. Last Friday, yet another struggling Latin American democracy experienced a traumatic change of government. The prospects are better than you might guess, but the fate of the country might lie in the hands of people like Chavez and Ortega, who excel at throwing stones from their glass houses.

Ex-priest-turned-president Fernando Lugo was one year away from completing his term, having been elected in 2008 as a Chavez-lite leftist in a historic democratic election. He was elected because he inspired the voting poor who outnumbered both the traditional ruling party, the Colorados, and the perennial opposition, the Liberals. His base got him elected and kept him relatively safe for a while. But eventually Lugo proved weak and ineffective in the eyes of that base, and he gave his political enemies what they needed to move against him constitutionally. It didn't help that he had four paternity suits filed against him (he's acknowledged two of the children), including one related to his time as bishop that involved a 16-year-old girl. Weak, bumbling, and lecherous is apparently enough to remove one from power.

Marking the beginning of his tenure with a lot of verbal and symbolic support for Chavez's socialist remake of Latin America, Lugo embarked on a project of agrarian reform to right the wrongs of the last 60 years. He planned to take land from large landowners, most of it tied to the ruling party he ousted. For generations, the long dominant Colorado Party had appropriated the vast majority of the arable land for its cronies.

But the land seizures did not go fast enough or smoothly enough for the poor, who found that sometimes Lugo's government was evicting them for squatting if their demand for land reform got in the way of Paraguay's soybean-based growth trajectory. (Lugo knew how to capitalize on a global boom by getting in bed with the corporate "enemies of the poor.") The most recent case that helped bring him down involved his eviction of squatters from the land of a powerful Colorado politician that left six police officers and 11 farmers dead. Lugo has been blamed by the peasants for turning against them and by the elites for bumbling.

Other charges include allowing leftist parties to hold political meetings in an army base; allowing thousands of squatters to invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; his inability or refusal to capture members of a guerrilla group; and subverting Congress by not submitting an international agreement to them for approval.

Lugo's ouster was effected by the legislature, not the military, and that is at least one bright spot in this situation. A combination of his erstwhile allies and the Colorado Party removed the president in a five-hour trial in the Senate in which he had little time to mount a defense. It is important to note that he used to have a lot of allies in the legislature, but all but a few had turned against him of their own volition. The removal appears to have been technically legal in that the constitution affords an impeachment and removal process, but is light on the details. Since impeachment is really a political action, the reason for it can be, well, pure politics. And it teaches the lesson that political movements built around a personality are inherently unstable.

Depending on your political point of view, there is perhaps another bright spot: The public doesn't seem to believe they have been robbed of their vote. Protests have been rather small and no violence has occurred. It reminds one of when Fujimori did his auto-golpe and the public just went to work and about their daily business the next day.

Regional reaction has been more intense, with many Latin American leaders recalling their ambassadors, denouncing the act as a coup, and Chavez announcing that he will cut off oil supplies. Some governments in the region have had a more muted response, and some Western countries have accepted the new government of Lugo's vice president Frederico Franco. A showdown of sorts was to occur this week with the meeting of the Union of South American nations, where Lugo intended to be present and the new Paraguayan government has been told to stay away. However, Lugo has again changed his mind and says he will not attend. The regional leaders nevertheless intend to discuss a general response to the crisis.

It is worth noting that many of the region's governments who are criticizing the legislature's actions are the first to tell the United States to stay out of the internal affairs of other countries. Apparently sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander, but most observers knew that already. When dealing with leftist governments, criticism of Sandinista-run Nicaragua is bad, criticism of and perhaps even intervention against the new Paraguayan government is good. This might explain why the U.S. response has been rather muted. The best approach of U.S. foreign policy in this case is probably to be as sure as we can about the legality of the legislature's move, even if we don't like it, and wait to see what the people of Paraguay want rather than what Ortega, Chavez, and Fernandez want. Let's not repeat the Honduran situation.

Returning to the Paraguayan public's reaction so far, it bears repeating that their reaction has been quite pacific. One explanation is simply that they, especially the poor, voted Lugo in expecting him to solve problems, yet he didn't. He not only failed to solve those problems, he appears to be of questionable character and competence. They heard these very criticisms for much of the Lugo presidency from his running mate, a surgeon whom Lugo agreed to run with. The public observed Lugo fail, then watched a formal if speedy impeachment, trial and removal of the president, and his replacement by his vice president. They are remaining calm. Maybe they are satisfied with this outcome, hoping the next leader can solve the problems. It might not be as orderly a democracy as many of us would like, including Paraguayans (who knows?), it might be unstable and fraught with future problems, but it does appear at this point that it satisfies the public. And this is a far better state of affairs than the way governments in the region used to change hands, when we saw nothing but uniforms and bullets flying instead of votes in the legislature cast by men and women in business suits. Let's hope the region's leaders as well as the U.S. government does not punish them for this.


Shadow Government

Making sense of six Chinas

In concluding his elegant book On China, Henry Kissinger describes an ongoing debate within Chinese leadership circles. Some of its ruling class believes China should maintain its "peaceful development" strategy in accordance with a rules-based international order, while others demand that China now adopt a more aggressive posture that directly challenges American primacy. I've just returned from a month in China and experienced some of this debate firsthand. Visits to several cities, and meetings and conversations with Chinese officials, scholars, foreign business leaders, American officials and, yes, taxi drivers produce an amalgam of impressions.

The best way to make sense of the current state of affairs in China is to think of not one but several "Chinas" -- each is real, but none by itself is the full reality. The following are six of the "Chinas" that exist today; the question is which of these will command the future.

Rising Power: Chinese leaders are obsessed with their nation's rise, and see it reclaiming its historic position as a dominant world power. Many Chinese strategists also believe the U.S. is in decline. But their opinion splits on what this means. Those who see the U.S. primarily as an adversary (see below) welcome America's declension, while those who see the U.S. more as a partner in China's rise worry about the consequences of a diminished U.S. Several Chinese thinkers expressed their frustration with what they see as erratic American policy under the Obama administration, which has veered from the "G-2" embrace of 2009 to the now perceived hostility of the "pivot." Some Chinese interlocutors also pointed out the same fact that troubles many Americans: A White House pursuing massive defense cuts cannot adequately resource a bolstered posture in Asia.

Security Threat: The debate within the U.S. over whether or not China poses a threat often misses the Chinese perspective: many (though certainly not all) Chinese strategists see America as their principle adversary. The People's Liberation Army is operationalizing this attitude in its development of weapons platforms designed to counter the U.S. As I pointed out in a discussion with some Chinese scholars and officials, the standard American talking point demanding more "transparency" from China about its military modernization and expansion may be diplomatically requisite, but it elides the real issue. The U.S. does not merely want "transparency" from China; we want China to stop developing weapons directly targeted against American force projection capabilities -- if it doesn't intend to become our adversary.

Economic Dynamo: While China's growth is slowing and some of its numbers may be contrived, its economic strength is real and its long-term trajectory still looks promising. Virtually all Chinese speak with tremendous pride about their nation's economic boom, which they have experienced firsthand in materially-improved lives. Many Chinese believe that their nation weathered the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, which in their minds vindicates their model and equips them to meet future challenges such as the transition from export reliance to domestic consumption. Massive infrastructure projects such as the many new airports and high speed rail may excessively dazzle some Western visitors, but this should not diminish the genuine accomplishment they represent. Nor have corruption, bureaucracy and stacked decks dissuaded many international investors from still hungering to grow their stakes in the China market.

Fragile Kleptocracy: My own Tom Friedman-esque moment of analysis-via-taxi-drivers came one evening when all of the Beijing taxi drivers in the central part of the city had turned off their meters and were charging rates five times the metered rate for a ride back to our hotel. After some customary evasions, one of them admitted that this was their version of a work slowdown. Strikes are illegal, but the frustrations of Beijing taxi drivers, whose rates haven't been increased in ten years amidst surging expenses despite many pleas to the government, boiled over into illicit protest. Such resentments are multiplied across the country, crossing industries and rural and urban lines, resulting in tens of thousands of protests annually. Then there is the Bo Xilai case, which continues to reverberate, especially as Bo's fate is negotiated amidst maneuverings for the upcoming Party Congress and leadership transition. The Bo case is only exceptional in that it became public. Otherwise it is all too familiar in China, where corruption is pervasive, governance is brittle and a senior Party post commonly also includes control of a favored industry or company.

Reforming Autocracy: Yes, China remains a repressive autocracy, but nevertheless ongoing reforms and liberalizations are taking place, many enabled by communications technology that the government cannot entirely suppress. A major news story during my visit was the heinous forced abortion on a Chinese woman seven months' pregnant in Shaanxi province. Social networks in China erupted with popular outrage, as heartbreaking photos of the mother next to her dead baby circulated widely, and an embarrassed Chinese government responded by suspending the local officials responsible. This is a woefully deficient punishment, and the manifestly unjust one-child policy remains in force, despite China's looming demographic nightmare. But even a few years ago this crime would have never been disclosed at all, let alone prompted public protest and an official response.

Insecure Bully: Some revealing yet head-scratching moments came when Chinese interlocutors expressed their consternation at the U.S. Embassy Beijing's Twitter feed reporting on air quality in Beijing, while in the next breath they defended China's provocations such as its anti-satellite missile test, bellicose territorial claims on the South China Sea and support for North Korea. These are not the actions of a confident, responsible stakeholder, but of an insecure bully, obsessing over its international image while engaging in obnoxious behavior that does much more damage to its image than any American report on human rights or environmental quality. This insecurity also prevents China from coming to terms with its own history. While the Cultural Revolution is widely lamented, the Tiananmen Square massacre (whose 23rd anniversary passed with censorship even of the Shanghai Stock Exchange) cannot be mentioned, and Mao remains valorized. China's insecurities also help explain its foreign policies to shield the Syrian regime and Iranian nuclear program, and prop up the Kim dictatorship in North Korea -- all of these are short-sighted decisions, but short-term thinking is a hallmark of an insecure government obsessed with maintaining its hold on power.

Some of the "Chinas" above are positive, others are negative. Yet in understanding China all of these variations must be taken into account.The U.S. has a major stake in encouraging political reform and economic growth while discouraging the internal repression and truculent behavior towards its neighbors. Mistakes in China policy come from privileging one scenario over all the others -- for example the "China Fantasists" who believe the growing economy will inevitably lead to a democratic, peaceful China, or the offensive realists who focus on the Chinese military threat while ignoring the economic benefits the U.S. receives in the relationship, let alone China's internal fragilities.

This is also why China policy is such a challenge. Taken together, the multiple realities of China today defy any simple historical analogies about the management of rising powers, and demand an unprecedented wholeness of vision from the United States.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images