A surprisingly quiet ousting
By Marcos Brindicci
It was another one of those calls asking me, “Could you go to…”, one of the situations that photographers long for.
A new presidential crisis in Paraguay seemed ready to become a violent one because all the elements were there; armed clashes between landless peasant farmers and police had ended with 17 people killed (11 farmers and 6 policemen), the interior minister had resigned, and Congress was voting to impeach President Fernando Lugo. I cancelled my trip to northern Argentina for a rugby test match and booked the first flight to Asuncion, the next morning. As I arrived, I headed straight for Congress, where demonstrations were already underway as the impeachment trial began.
The impeachment trial happened lightning fast, as Congress gave Lugo only a couple of hours to prepare his defense. The Senate voted 39-4 to remove him the day after lawmakers in the Lower House agreed in a sudden, near-unanimous vote to impeach him. I had my tear gas mask with me, and Reuters’ veteran Paraguay photographer Jorge Adorno and stringer Mario Valdez were ready, but nothing really happened. At one point, as I was waiting at the Presidential Palace for Lugo to appear, we got word of clashes developing in front of the Congress, but it was just a small incident that was short-lived.
After taking Lugo’s picture at the Palace and filing it to the wire I went back to Congress to find it calm, in spite of the number of riot policemen and demonstrators.
Nobody thought it would stay that way for long. We had all expected hours or days of clashes. That was the norm in Paraguay’s unstable political past.
But I stayed in Asuncion for a week and we ended up covering just Lugo’s activity and whatever was going on at the presidential palace. We did get exclusive interviews with both Lugo and his successor, Federico Franco, before any other news agency. There were demonstrations against Lugo’s impeachment, but nothing major.
Asuncion is an interesting place, and the way people reacted to the whole situation struck me as somehow bizarre, since I am used to seeing protests, pickets and clashes in Buenos Aires for just about anything. The day after new President Franco was sworn in, he attended a mass held outside Asuncion’s cathedral, at a public park. There were not many police around and we could take pictures very easily from different places.
Rumors circulated that there might be a demonstration against Franco because a few leftist militants were spotted. The demonstration did happen, but not until the polemical president left. There were only about six people holding signs and shouting slogans in the middle of a crowd of Franco’s supporters and churchgoers. Nobody really seemed to care. A policeman wrote down their names with a pen he borrowed from… one of the demonstrators! He did return it afterward.
All this was happening in what is not exactly the most peaceful place on Earth. In the 23 years since the last dictator was deposed, Paraguay has seen it’s share of coups, impeachment trials accompanied by deadly riots, and even the assassination of a vice-president, Luis Maria ArgaΓ±a, in 1999.
In spite of this being the quietest presidential ousting in recent history, there were quite a few interesting or humorous situations.
In our interview, President Franco was asked what he thought about Argentina’s decision to withdraw its ambassador from Paraguay in response to the impeachment trial. He looked surprised and said he hadn’t heard of that decision, and that now, a day after Lugo had been ousted, he would have to call Lugo and ask him for help managing relations with neighboring countries.
An hour before the swearing-in ceremony for Franco’s new Cabinet, I asked someone from the presidential press office why there was no economy minister on the list we were handed. His reply was that they were still in talks with the candidates, but that none of them had arrived yet.
“Whoever shows up first gets the job,” he said.