ASUNCION, Paraguay – When Fernando Lugo was nearing the end of his lonely run as Paraguay's elected president, the former priest appealed to what many followers of Latin American politics have long assumed to be a higher power: the U.S. government.
Lugo left the presidential palace and met for more than an hour with U.S. Ambassador James H. Thessin while congressmen prepared to vote to impeach him in a hasty Senate trial the next day. And while the leftist leader was lunching with the ambassador, his right-wing opponents also reached out to the embassy.
What both sides asked for during these critical hours, and what they were told in response, remains secret. Thessin told The Associated Press that he wouldn't comment before the report by an Organization of American States' fact-finding mission is released Tuesday.
Publicly, the U.S. State Department remained studiously neutral as Lugo's ouster convulsed his capital and Paraguay's neighbors sought to apply maximum pressure on their poor, landlocked neighbor to abort what they now call an "institutional coup."
Should the U.S. have done more to defend Lugo, despite the fact that he had lost the confidence of all but a handful of lawmakers in a country where the constitution enables any leader to be removed from office for mere "poor performance" with a two-thirds vote of the Congress?
A chorus of voices around the region — mostly leftists — is saying yes, and some squarely blame Washington for Lugo's downfall.
"The coup in Paraguay was being prepared for a long time and is part of a continental policy imposed by the United States against democratic governments, with the complicity of the economic and political powers," declared Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He urged the entire region to defend democracy by calling for the restoration of Lugo's presidency.
Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez, went even further, claiming without presenting any evidence that Lugo's ouster was a "decision of the Pentagon."
Others disagree that Washington could have made a difference.
Conspiracy theories abound in Latin America, but there's probably nothing the U.S. could have done last month to save him, said former U.S. diplomat Arturo Valenzuela. He said Lugo's failure to cultivate political alliances made him vulnerable to impeachment throughout his presidency.
That doesn't mean the U.S. government shouldn't seek to influence another country's internal affairs when it can encourage a positive outcome, Valenzuela added. He described a previous episode when he personally defended Lugo and said it was "one of the most difficult tasks I had" as the Obama administration's top diplomat in Latin America.
"I actually spent hours, two years ago, with the leadership of the Colorado Party, primarily from Congress, trying to persuade them that it was not a good idea for them to impeach the president. And in that particular time, in fact, that did not happen," Valenzuela said Friday at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
This time, though, there was an overwhelming feeling among Paraguay's lawmakers that the time had come to end Lugo's enigmatic rule. The lower house voted 76-1 to put him on trial, and after a hasty impeachment the next day, senators voted 39-4 to remove him from office.
Lugo, whose election in 2008 with a 10-point lead over several rivals ended six decades of Colorado Party rule, was remote and even mysterious as a leader. He hardly ever explained his decisions and rarely spoke with the media. At the end, after nearly all his Paraguayan allies had abandoned him, it was even more difficult to understand his intentions. He reversed course several times, saying he'd accept the impeachment verdict and then challenging it.
While the U.S. stayed aloof, nations in the region did try to save Lugo, and failed.
Foreign ministers from a dozen South American nations in the UNASUR organization flew together to Asuncion to lobby Paraguayan lawmakers, and found themselves advocating much more forcefully than Lugo himself against impeachment.
Venezuela's foreign minister huddled privately with Paraguay's four armed forces chiefs, which has brought allegations from the new government that he urged the generals to use the threat of force to abort the impeachment. Venezuela's government denies that.
Top diplomats from Brazil and Argentina confronted Vice President Federico Franco, allegedly threatening trade sanctions if he didn't call on Congress to stop the trial.
The visiting foreign ministers made a last-ditch attempt to persuade senators themselves, to no avail.
"I think it's out of place for foreign ministers to intervene to such an extent in the internal affairs of Paraguay," said Sen. Miguel Carrizosa of the Beloved Fatherland party, calling it "an abuse of diplomacy."
With Lugo out, the UNASUR and Mercosur groups swiftly suspended Paraguay's membership, and Lugo called on the Washington-based OAS to suspend Paraguay as well, comparing his treatment to that of Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president sent packing in his pajamas in a 2009 coup.
The Honduras experience proved highly problematic for U.S. diplomats, who were accused of failing to do enough to support a democratically elected leader, and Lugo's remaining allies in Paraguay have sought to blame the U.S. again this time.
The Obama administration has continued to take a back-seat role in such political crises. In Libya, Egypt, Syria and now Paraguay, it has deferred to regional organizations and neighboring countries, letting others take the lead in describing and defending what best represents democracy.
Some Lugo supporters are furious at the U.S. for not doing more.
"No one who claims to defend democracy could have a contemplative attitude in the face of what happened in 1933 in Germany, when Adolf Hitler led a parliamentary coup, or when Honduras had another democratic rupture," said Ricardo Canese, secretary general of Lugo's leftist Broad Front coalition. "If the government of Barack Obama doesn't condemn the coup-plotters who brought down Lugo, if it doesn't condemn this dictatorship-like attitude, then it will be very serious for the United States."
The State Department says this was no coup, and has limited its criticism to the Senate for moving so quickly against Lugo.
"We have been closely following events in Paraguay and remain deeply concerned with the speed of the process used for the impeachment," one statement said, adding that "the United States is deeply interested in the success of Paraguayan democracy."
The U.S. position got a key endorsement this week from the New York-based Human Right Foundation, a nonprofit group that was deeply involved in analyzing the Honduran coup for the OAS and was quite critical of the State Department back then.
"What just happened in Paraguay is not, in any way, what took place in Honduras almost three years ago," said Javier El-Hage, the foundation's legal director. He said the new Paraguayan government should be fully recognized.
"President Lugo was removed legally through an impeachment trial, carried out on vague but legitimate and constitutional grounds. Principle, rather than politics, should guide the judgment of the OAS and others in the international community."
Associated Press writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.