By Morgan M. Davis
It has been a tense road to Paraguay’s presidential election this Sunday. But after a year of political squabbles, the conservative Colorado Party seems set to re-take control of Paraguay as they have for more than 60 years. Decades of corruption have left voters resigned to unscrupulous politicians. After a brief period of hope four years ago, the rhetoric of change has disappeared, and the old guard is ready to sneak back in. Former president Fernando Lugo’s bad luck combined with perceived moral and political failures have allowed a man accused of money-laundering to become the favorite for president.
In June of last year, authorities in Curuguaty, Paraguay attempted to evict of poor, landless farmers squatting on a wealthy politician’s property, and 11 farmers and six policemen were killed. The fatal clash, a rare moment of anger over political corruption turning violent, triggered the swift impeachment of then-president Lugo.
Since June, Federico Franco, Lugo’s Liberal Party vice president, has been acting as the country’s lame duck president until the election and August inauguration. Despite Franco’s current position, he is not a presidential candidate in the upcoming election. The Liberal Party candidate is Efrain Alegre, a 50-year-old who was elected senator in 2008 and appointed Minister of Public Works the same year, a position he was removed from in 2011 after disagreements with then president Lugo. Alegre’s running mate, Rafael Filizzola, was removed from his position as Minister of the Interior in 2011 under similar circumstances.
The Colorado Party’s candidate, Horacio Cartes, is relatively new to the party and politics, but as a wealthy businessman, he is a well-known Paraguayan. Last fall, a U.S. government cable was leaked, accusing Cartes of links to drug trafficking and money laundering. Cartes and his bank, Banco Amambay, the wire said, were responsible for “80 percent of money-laundering in Paraguay,” allegations Cartes has denied. Multiple allegations of corruption against Cartes were only added to his recent anti-gay comment that he would “shoot [him]self in the testicles” if his son ever married another man.
While Alegre has tried to use his opponent’s corruption against him during the campaign, Alegre himself hasn’t been flawless. He and his party have been accused of misappropriating millions of dollars of public funds to buy themselves an electoral alliance in order to win the election. But the corruption allegations exploding in anticipation of Sunday are nothing new for Paraguay. The country has a long and torrid history of unsavory politicians that contributes to the apathy many voters will have when they head to the polls on Sunday, or totally forgo voting all together.
The Paraguayan Congress’s quick ouster of its president in June for “poor performance” was labeled a “parliamentary coup” by Lugo and other South American leaders. Lugo’s trial lasted just two days, allowing him two hours to defend himself in front of the Senate. As Lugo’s vice president, Franco, replaced him as the country’s leader, neighboring countries Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay recalled their ambassadors from Paraguay, and suspended the country from Mercosur, a South American trading bloc, until Paraguay’s next scheduled presidential election.
While some Paraguayans were unhappy with the hasty impeachment trial, 56 percent of the country supported the termination of Lugo’s presidency, according to a poll published in July in the Ultima Hora, a national newspaper. “I think [the impeachment] happened fast, but he deserved it,” says Silvia Candia Insaurralde, a 29-year-old homemaker in Ciudad del Este, in her native Spanish. “[Lugo] wasn’t governing the country and wasn’t paying attention.”
Arturo Arguello Solis, a 25-year-old government employee, is unhappy with many politicians and says he believes Paraguay was on the road to becoming become a colony of Venezuela and Brazil under Lugo. “Regarding Lugo, it was inevitable,” he says in Spanish. “For me, at least, Congress did not violate the constitution.”
Despite the focus on his failures, Lugo’s 2008 election as a minority party candidate in coalition with the Liberal Party was once seen as the advent for true democracy in Paraguay, where, according to the World Bank, 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Since its independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay has struggled to maintain political stability. The land locked country is one of the most homogenous in South America, with 95 percent of the population a mestizo mix of Spanish and the native Guarani, and 90 percent Roman Catholic. The indigenous language, also Guarani, is still widely spoken.
Beginning in 1947, a single party, the conservative Colorado Party, controlled the government. From 1954 to 1989, the Colorado Party country functioned as a dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner. While Stroessner was exiled after a regime known for human rights violations and the murders and disappearances of thousands of citizens, the Colorado party continued to lead the country until Lugo’s election. As a former Catholic bishop, Lugo’s left of center stance supporting the long suppressed landless farmers represented real change. Campesinos, the Spanish name for poor farmers like those killed in Curuguaty, had received the brunt of corruption under Colorado party rule. Land was amassed and given to wealthy political supporters and statesmen, creating an ongoing tension between the country’s haves and have nots. The transition of power from Colorado President Nicanor Duarte Frutos to Lugo was the first peaceful surrender of the presidency to another political party in Paraguay’s history.
While Lugo was never able to make drastic changes to the inequities in Paraguayan society, he pushed for land reform and a personal income tax. The “timid” changes he was able to make, “provoked the outrage of the tiny elite that ruled the country, and that was the real reason he was impeached,” says Andrew Nickson, Latin American professor at the University of Birmingham in England. “You’re talking about a very self-confident, very media savvy elite.”
Soon after his election, Lugo began to fail his optimistic voters. A host of women, including a girl under the age of 16 at the time, came forward claiming to have had babies fathered by Lugo while he was still a bishop. He acknowledged two of the children as his own, a blow to his reputation with the Catholic voters. Political failures added up, and by the time the campesinos, vocally supported by Lugo, were killed in June, Lugo was forced to carry the blame for it all. “The slaughter of Curuguaty is just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sicilia Espinola, a 68-year-old social work and human development consultant in the capitol of Asuncion. “Mr. Lugo was a disappointment to the Paraguayan people. He stole our trust in the authorities.”
While Espinola was skeptical of the rapid impeachment procedures, she says she believes the impeachment was necessary. She initially believed Lugo would bring change, but soon saw what she called the “spiral of corruption” take over, something many Paraguayans recognize as an integral factor of their political system.
Numerous outside organizations, like U.S. research group Council on Hemispheric Affairs, have explored and written about the corruption ingrained in Paraguay that consistently goes unpunished. The Stroessner regime left an inherent use of nepotism and favors in exchange for support of the Colorado party. According to Freedom House, a U.S. human rights organization, 1 percent of the population of Paraguay owns 77 percent of farmable land. Even with Lugo’s victory, the Colorado Party has continued to dominate much of the government, controlling the legislature and judicial branch.
“In Paraguay, a real democracy doesn’t exist,” says Nancy Ortega Ramirez, a 30-year-old social worker in Caacupe. “We need to change the form of government to include more of the people.”
But corruption has become a part of the Paraguayan culture, says Edgardo Rothkegel, a 77-year-old retiree. Rothkegel, an American, has lived in Asuncion since 1981 when he began working for the United States Peace Corps as director of training for American volunteers. When Rothkegel moved to Paraguay, Stroessner was still dictator. “The 34 year dictatorship of Stroessner marked the entire population with repression, torture, killings, and deportations, which, I think, contributed to this apparent political apathy that leads the country today,” he says. “The marches of indigenous people and campesinos to Asuncion to ask Congress for improved credit or land are so peaceful that they contrast with that of neighboring countries, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile, where armed conflicts actually occur.”
While the 2013 presidential candidates have marketed themselves as anti-corruption and a new wave of government, Rothkegel doubts that the politicians are fully corruption-free. “It’s difficult to predict how much of that separation is real and if there is more than political strategy,” he says. “[Corruption] is almost part of the daily life of Paraguayans, so the only thing to expect is that [the candidate] is less corrupt. Hopefully that happens.”
For Anna Mel, a 31-year-old teacher in Encarnacion, the Alegre-Filizzola duo is the best alternative to corruption. “We had 60 years of a government of Colorado dictators,” she says. “[Alegre and Filizzola] form a new government that will give hope to the country.” While she recognizes that many people vote along party lines that their families have long adhered to, many young people are beginning to break away from those traditions, she says.
Homemaker Candia Insaurralde, originally from Caacupe, plans to vote for Cartes. “As an entrepreneur with many accomplishments, he will be able to achieve and accomplish many good things for my country,” she says.
“I’m an optimistic person, so I expect that most Paraguayans will vote more critically in 2013,” says Josefina Rios, a 58-year-old psychologist in Asuncion. While Rios hopes that the Liberal Alegre-Fizzola team will win, she recognizes that Cartes has a strong possibility of becoming president, fairly or not. The Colorado, she says, are still the biggest political party in the country. “It is a mathematical issue. No one can win in Paraguay without the support of Colorados, who are still an overwhelming majority of voters,” she says.
The Colorados still strong support comes from its years of strong arming power in the country. Under the dictatorship, Paraguayans feared for their lives should they oppose their leader and his party. Even after the dictatorship, voters still live with an innate fear of opposing the party in power. Corruption has almost become the life force of the government, leaving little faith that anyone who claims to want reform could do any good. The decades of corruption and nepotism have also made it more advantageous for Paraguayans to vote for the party they believe will win. Those with government related jobs tend to come from generations of Colorado supporters. The party is known for rewarding supporters with favors, something that can go far for the poor of the country.
Paraguayans are allowed to vote at 18, at which point voting is compulsory until age 75, although this law is not enforced. In the 2008 presidential election about 46 percent of eligible voters participated, and almost 50 percent voted in the parliamentary election the same year. In 2008 Lugo, won the presidency with 41 percent of the vote, while the Colorado candidate Blanca Ovelar brought in 31 percent.
While neighboring South American countries have turned to electing more liberal leaders, it seems as though Paraguay will return to the conservative Colorado party this Sunday. The election will be a close one, but after Lugo and his attempt at an anti-Colorado presidency failed, Paraguayans have little incentive to put their faith in either candidate with a hope that he’ll buck the system. Despite the distaste, corruption has become an accepted part of the political process. This election will likely see a return to old voting patterns, with Paraguayans following their family’s traditional voting lines. If this is the case, the Colorado party will again seize control.
Morgan M. Davis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]