Paraguayan soldiers at a ceremony in Asunción on Thursday, the day that Paraguay's president swore in new commanders.
November 6, 2009
Paraguayan President Replaces Military Leadership
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Fernando Lugo, the president of Paraguay, swore in new commanders of the military on Thursday, just a day after he abruptly removed the leaders of the army, navy and air force amid speculation of a possible coup attempt that had stoked memories of the country’s militaristic past.
Mr. Lugo, a left-leaning former Roman Catholic bishop, has denied that military leaders were plotting a coup, telling reporters in Asunción that “there could be small military groups that are connected to or could be used by the political class,” but that “the military does not show any intent of reversing the process of democratic consolidation.”
Still, the coup rumors and the seemingly sudden overhaul of the military leadership — which is still subject to a decision by the Paraguayan Senate — are just the latest challenges for Mr. Lugo, whose victory in the presidential election last year ended more than 60 years of one-party rule by the conservative Colorado Party.
Since taking office, Mr. Lugo’s governing coalition has faced strong opposition to his reformist agenda from the Colorado legislators who control Congress. He has struggled to cleanse his government of members of the Colorado Party, fought with his own vice president and been attacked at every turn.
Opposition lawmakers threatened last week to impeach Mr. Lugo after he made comments on Oct. 24 in an Asunción shantytown that some contended were stoking class warfare. Mr. Lugo accused the privileged of living “in defense of their savings boxes in international banks.”
The president made the speech just nine days after a well-known cattle rancher, Fidel Zavala, was kidnapped by a radical left-wing group calling itself the Army of the Paraguayan People, which had ties to Mr. Lugo during his years as a priest that he has never fully explained.
Another controversy that dogged the president earlier this year — the assertions that he had fathered children with multiple women while still working as a priest — flared up again on Wednesday. One of the women filed a formal claim in court demanding that Mr. Lugo recognize that he is the father of her son. She previously said she respected the president too much to file a formal claim against him. But a lawyer for the woman said this week that her patience had run out, denying that she was being manipulated by the opposition.
Mr. Lugo has recognized that he fathered at least one child while he was a priest. A third woman has demanded that Mr. Lugo go to Ciudad del Este, where she lives, to take a paternity test at a private laboratory to determine whether he is the father of her son. He has refused, and his lawyer has said she would instead need to come to Asunción.
The military shake-up came after the president learned that some high-ranking military officials had met with opposition politicians over the weekend, according to Paraguayan news reports that could not be independently confirmed on Thursday.
The prospect of a coup is hardly far-fetched, analysts said, in a country that has undergone several coup attempts since democracy was restored in 1989, after a 35-year military dictatorship led by Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
In Bolivia, at a recent meeting of ALBA, an alliance led by Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, suggested the possibility that a coup against the Paraguayan government by “ultraright-wing elements” might be in the works, the Paraguayan newspaper Última Hora reported.
Former Paraguayan military commanders were quick to criticize Mr. Lugo’s handling of the armed forces. The changes this week were the third instance in which he replaced high-ranking military officials since taking office 15 months ago.
Gen. Bernardino Soto Estigarribia, the former commander of the armed forces who was pushed into retirement by the new administration last year, said on a Paraguayan radio station that the president’s move was unjustified and dealt a tough blow to the military.
“You can’t change commanders at such a rate,” he said. “The officers deserve respect.”
Andrea Machain contributed reporting from Asunción, Paraguay.