Soft Coups, a New Tendency in the Region


The parliamentary coup that ended the government of Dilma Rousseff is the most recent in a series of soft coups that began with the overthrow of Honduran president Mel Zelaya in 2009 and continued with that of Fernando Lugo, in Paraguay, in 2014.

The sequence, as it advances, grows more cosmeticized and sophisticated. It began in Honduras with a rudimentary coup, at the beginning almost by the book, but with a parody of legality. It continued in Paraguay with an expedited political trial with no proof against the president, in violation of his right to a legal defense, and culminated in Brazil with a trial as legal as it was illegitimate and lacking in judicial fundamentals.

Additionally, this sequence broke out on the periphery of the region, where the United States remains the hegemonic force, and reached the very heart of South America and a principle regional power, Brazil, passing as an intermediate step through Paraguay, a partner if Mercosur and part of a group of South American countries which formed a relatively autonomous bloc for the last decade and began to apply their own mechanisms to resolves conflicts among them.

At the beginning of the last decade, new regional institutions like Mercosur and especially Unasur have served to avoid the interruption of democratic regimes in Ecuador and Bolivia as well as bilateral conflicts such as Colombia-Venezuela, Colombia-Ecuador or Bolivia-Chile, all disagreements which, during the Cold War, would have had the United States as both principle protagonist and eventual arbiter.

But Washington’s distraction with the wars in the Middle East, as well as the appearance of China as the major commercial partner, together with the coincidence a group of charismatic leaders of a similar political stripe, committed to regional integration, managed to break the hegemony of the Washington Consensus at the South American level. 

While in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, despite links forged by organizations that excluded the US and Canada such as Celac, because of their level of integration with the powers in the north as much at the level of free trade agreements as on migratory and transport issues, the dependence continues to be almost absolute, which limits their participation in other integration projects. This limit was on view in the coup in Honduras.

Zelaya was taken from his bed in his pajamas by a gang sent by the commander of the armed forces, Romeo Vázquez. They took him to a US military base, put him on an airplane and removed him from the country. The next morning the general’s puppet, Roberto Micheletti, president of the Congress, along with the military, declared a state of siege and a series of authoritarian measures of social control. According to US State Department cables released by Wikileaks, the US did not aid the coup and even attempted to dissuade its authors, although Zelaya was not to their liking. In fact, the US joined the rest of the countries in the OAS in their condemnation of the coup the day after it occurred. But just hours later the US, swimming against the Latin American current, began to aid the coup government’s transition toward quick elections, taking advantage of the fact that Zelaya was nearing the end of his mandate. Meanwhile, emboldened by their success in South America, Brazil and Argentina doubled down on the return of Zelaya, with Cristina Kirchner accompanying the legitimate president in a failed attempt to return and Lula granting him asylum in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa once his return to power failed to materialize. With its aid to the coup government’s transition the US set a limit on the South American bloc’s expansion without violating its own State policy of no longer invading after the disembarking of the Marines in Panama in 1989, and of no longer supporting coups, at least openly, since the failed putsch against Chávez in 2002.

Thus we arrive at the second soft coup against a progressive government on the part of a political and financial elite more accustomed to maintaining itself in power than handing it over. This time it involved the president of Paraguay, former bishop Fernando Lugo, another character not to the Washington’s liking because, among other things, Wikileaks dixit, he replaced a US anti-terrorist unit dedicated to training elite Paraguayan troops with military advisers from Argentina and Brazil. Lugo was not a traditional politician nor was he particularly able when the time came to negotiate. Without allies in Congress, abandoned by his partners in the Partido Liberal, betrayed by his vice president, he was left at the mercy of a coup-eager elite, accustomed to uninterrupted decades of governing via the hand of General Alfredo Stroessner and his Partido Colorado. The opportunity came through the social commotion cause by the so-called massacre at Curuguaty, in which 11 peasants and 6 police died on a soybean plantation in the east of the country. Though the violence had been brewing for a some time and perhaps no one had done more to curb the conflict between peasants and landholders than Lugo himself, Congress decided to depose him for his “political responsibility” for the confrontation. The trial lasted less than 48 hours and Lugo had less than two for his defense. In the absence of real proof he was deposed by the votes of 215 out of 225 members of the Paraguayan Congress after which the Supreme Court denied a request to appeal the ruling. His removal from office was condemned by the majority of the countries in Unasur but, unlike after the soft coup in Honduras, a motion of censure in the OAS barely reached 8 votes in favor as against 28 opposed. Unasur empowered a delegation of councilors who, at the end of their mission, released a critical document, the Boliviarian countries of ALBA did not recognize Franco’s de facto government and Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership until the elections, nine months after the coup, that carried Partido Colorado member Horacio Cartes into government.

Then came the coup against Dilma. This time they respected the rituals required by formality, in a parliamentary process that was supervised in situ by the president of the Supreme Court. But once again it’s a matter of the interruption of a democratic regime to impose a de facto government by an elite nostalgic for power, by means of constitutional mechanisms designed to punish criminal actions despite the fact the president was not accused of having committed any crime, taking advantage social ill humor due to a prolonged recession and a persistent corruption scandal that involved many of the principle business and political leaders in the country, but not Dilma.

Following the progression of total condemnation in the case of Honduras and partial condemnation in the case of Paraguay, this time the voices of protest at the regional level are more the exception than the rule, attentive to the shift to the right taking place in South America. Differently than what happened in Honduras but in harmony with what took place in Paraguay, in the Brazilian case Washington maintained a cautious, distant, uninvolved posture, as though accepting the new geopolitical reality of its loss of hegemony. Nonetheless, sensitive to the multiple interests it still has in the region, such as their traditional alliance with the factors of power that stood alongside those who conducted the coup or directly operated to erode democratic forces, speculating on the possibility of recapturing extra-ordinary profits, the administration of Barack Obama did not delay in recognizing the governments that came out of these processes. It’s not the same as invading a country, but it remains a negative intervention.

This is where things stand after the soft coup in Brazil. We await other links in this new chain of antidemocratic interventions, or at least the young regional bloc in South America’s generation of defensive mechanisms that would permit the preservation of those who remain standing and regenerate what is lacking in terms of democratic culture, as much in those countries threatened by this new tendency as in those that have already opted for authoritarian exits from their crises of government.


translation by Brandon Holmquest




About Author

Santiago O'Donnell es el director general de Medio Extremo. Es editor jefe de internacionales en Página 12. Y autor de tres libros: ArgenLeaks, Politileaks y Derechos Humanos® La historia del CELS. Antes de MX, trabajó en Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post y La Nación. Escribile a

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