In last semester's Foreign Policy class, I asked students to analyze a series of hypothetical geopolitical scenarios on which they had to brief government representatives at Itamaraty, Brazil's foreign ministry. The list included, among others, political instability in post-Chavez Venezula, a civil war in Haiti, a revolution in Saudi Arabia, a conflict between China and Taiwan, a Taliban-led takeover in Islamabad, and rising tension between Colombia and Venezuela. In most cases, students faced the dilemma of Brazil's tradition of non-intervention and its growing responsibilities as an emerging power. How could Brazil become more assertive without being seen as yet another imperialist power? How should Brazil balance economic interests and its desire to defend democracy and human rights, particularly in its neighborhood?
The last days created a challenge very much along similar lines. Within a mere 36 hours, Paraguay's Senate moved to impeach Fernando Lugo, whose election in 2008 ended decades of one-party rule, the first time in the country’s history that a president from one party peacefully transferred power to another. While the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate can, in principle, impeach the President, this is supposed to occur only in specific circumstances, such as when the head of government commits a crime. The move can thus not be compared to a mere 'vote of no confidence', which often occurs in parlamentary systems in Europe. In addition, many argued that giving President Lugo no more than two hours to prepare his defence made a mockery of the democratic order - as a consequence, many spoke of a "parliamentary coup", or a "golpeachment" (alluding to the Spanish word for coup, golpe).
Supporters of the move (such as the Catholic Church) argue that while the impeachment proceedings may have been unusually fast, they are entirely legal and in accordance with Paraguay's constitution. In addition, public outrage has been very limited, and life seemed quite normal in Asunción the day Federico Franco was sworn in.
Yet no matter how one interprets recent political events in Asunción, the only person who could possibly provide the new government the much-needed legitimacy is Dilma Rousseff. And rather than accepting Federico Franco as President, Brazil decided - together with its neighbors - to suspend Paraguay from both Mercosur and UNASUR until fresh elections are held.
Brazil's motivations are clear - it seeks to show that such moves are unacceptable in a region where Brazil is increasingly willing to assume responsibillity to provide political stability and defend democratic order. Rather than unilaterally taking decisions - something it could easily do given its dominant size - Brazil preferred to use regional bodies as a means to exert pressure on Paraguay. The swiftness of the decision to exclude Paraguay from Mercosur - a first in the organization's history - shows that Brazil is a far more active and assertive leader than its critics often suggest. This is very much in line with past events: In 1997, Brazil avoided a political crisis in Paraguay when a military coup loomed. In 2002, Brazil rejected the new government in Venezuela that had ousted Hugo Chavez in a coup. And in 2009, Brazil refused to recognize Honduras' new government after democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup.
It remains unclear how Paraguay's suspension from Mercosur and UNASUR will impact the country's political situation. While Venezuela decided to cut oil exports, Brazil is extremely unlikely to impose economic sanctions, given that 20% of Brazil's energy comes from Itaipú, a dam in Paraguay. In addition, Brazilian agricultural firms have a strong presence in the country, so cutting economic ties is much more difficult for Brazil than for other actors in the region. Yesterday, Brazilian farmers in Paraguay jointly called on the Brazilian government to recognize Paraguay's new government, which they believe will be less likely to implement land reforms that would help the poor and undermine Brazil's economic interests.
What is possibly more surprising is how late President Rousseff found out about the trouble in Paraguay. While it was no secret that Paraguay's opposition had been planning a "parliamentary coup" against President Lugo, the Brazilian government seemed to be taken by surprise - one Brazilian columnist wondered whether "our diplomats are as good as we have thought." Yet perhaps 36 hours was simply too little for any outside actor to have a meaningful impact. In any case, debating whether Brazil could have pressured Paraguay's political elites to refrain from impeaching President Lugo is futile at this point, and over the past two days Brazil's strategy has been swift and coherent.
As the United States is unlikely to influence the situation - Paraguay is too far and unimportant - it will largely be up to Brazil to decide how to proceed. Given that President Lugo is unlikely to return to the Presidency for now (he has already accepted his ouster), Paraguay may brace for political isolation for some time to come. Brazil now faces the difficult question of whether it is willing to accept temporary economic losses (and endanger important energy supply lines) in order to defend democracy in the region.