|Fernando Lugo, a bearded, left-leaning bishop is expected to win Paraguay's historic presidential election on April 20th, upsetting a 60-year rule by the right wing Colorado Party. While escaping the heat of the Paraguayan sun by sitting in the shade of an orange tree, farmer union leader Tomas Zayas explains, "If Lugo is elected, it will open a door for more changes in the future, but that's all. We'll take what we can get."
Candidates Blanca Ovelar, Fernando Lugo & Lino Oviedo
As much of the rest of Latin America shifts to the left, Paraguay remains a key ally of Washington, a human rights nightmare and example of the amorphous and survivalist qualities of the Latin American right. In the April 20th presidential elections, Blanca Ovelar and Lino Oviedo, two representatives of Paraguay's old right will come head to head with Fernando Lugo, a new face, and possibly a new beginning for the Paraguayan left.
Former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar, is carrying the torch of the 60-year rule of the Colorado, or Red Party, and General Lino Oviedo- nicknamed the "Bonsai horseman" for his short stature - is an ex-Colorado Party member himself, and until recently was serving prison time for an attempted coup. Alternately called "the Bishop of the Poor" by his supporters, and "the Red Bishop" by his right-wing opponents, Lugo is leading in the polls, and may do the same in the elections - if he can out maneuver the gargantuan resources and corrupt politics of his opponents.
Lugo: The Bishop of the Poor
Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez was born in 1951. As a young man, he taught in a rural school district which, according to reporter Andrew Nickson at Open Democracy, "was so remote that he was able to escape the usual rule that teachers had to be members of the Colorado Party." In 1977, Lugo was ordained as a Catholic priest, and worked as a missionary in indigenous communities in Ecuador until 1982. He then spent 10 years studying at the Vatican, at which time he was appointed head of the Divine Word order in Paraguay. In 1994 he became the Bishop of the Paraguayan department of San Pedro. Though Lugo was frequently away from Paraguay, he did not avoid the repercussions of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship and its conservative influence. In fact, three of Lugo's brothers were exiled and the conservative Catholic hierarchy pressured him to resign as bishop due to his support for landless families' settlements on large estates owned by absent elites.
Lugo Waxes Patriotic at a Rally
However, Lugo's resignation as bishop also allowed him to realize his ambitions as a presidential contender. On December 25, 2006, Lugo announced he would run for president in the 2008 contest. As a candidate, he is riding the waves of discontent of a population that's tired of Paraguayan business as usual. After leading a march and rally in early 2006 protesting the civil rights abuses committed by president Duarte Frutos, his popularity rose.
At first, Lugo's candidacy was impeded by the fact that the Vatican did not accept his resignation, which allowed Colorado party members to claim that his candidacy would be unconstitutional, as clergy members can't hold political office in Paraguay. However, a legal team soon established that this was not the case, and he has become "a disturbingly credible threat to the Colorados."
On September 17, 2007 Lugo created a seven party opposition coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), and on October 31, 2007, he registered himself as a presidential candidate of the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) to participate in the primaries of the opposition group which is a part of the APC. Senator Juan Ramirez Montalbetti, a Lugo supporter, has said that the election day of April 20, 2008 will be approached as "a day of war" to protect votes in the face the maneuvers in which "officialist" Colorados are experts.
The Paraguayan Right
The current political landscape of the Paraguayan right is shaped significantly by the 35-year dictatorial rule of General Alfredo Stroessner, a mustachioed man described by Graham Greene as looking like "the amiable well-fed host of a Bavarian bierstube," who maintained power through a mixture of brutal repression, corruption and cronyism. After 61 years, the Colorado Party, which Stroessner was a part of, has had the longest continuous run in power of any political party in the world.
Stroessner's reign dominated the second half of the last century in Paraguay, and casts a dark shadow into this one. Originally elected in 1954 to fill a vacancy, Stroessner was "re-elected" seven times through a state-of-siege law in the constitution and with the aid of the military and the Colorado Party. The Colorado Party had already ruled Paraguay from 1947 until 1962, as a one-Party state in which all other political parties were illegal. It also served in tandem as one of the "twin pillars" supporting the Stroessner regime (the other pillar being the military). Stroessner collaborated with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the military junta in Argentina to orchestrate a regional crackdown on political opponents through a mixture of kidnapping, torture and murder. In 1989, the transition to democracy pushed the hard-line Stronistas out of power. Though a new constitution created in 1992 established a democracy and new legal protections of rights, the Colorado Party has continued its rule over Paraguay.
The Colorado Party's vast system of clientelism - offering public jobs to people to gain political support - is entirely reliant on state programs and public services. It is effective because of the country's high unemployment rate: one of citizens' few prospects for employment is through the Colorado Party, whether in such positions as a road construction worker, teacher or mayor. Though many citizens view the Party as corrupt and ineffective, supporting it often means receiving a salary. The Colorado Party employs some 200,000 people, 95% of whom are members of the Party.
[[This photo was posted on the national newspaper ABC Color's website by Anibal Caballero. He inserted a comic caption in which Ovelar asks Nicanor Duarte "Dude, Nica, lend me your presidential pen, I can't wait to practice my signature with it, you know, for later on." Duarte replies "I guess I dropped it, dude, hmmm . . . I can't find it. Too bad."]]
Yet another Colorado Party Candidate, Nicanor Duarte Frutos was elected president in 2003. The current leader of the Colorado Party is president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who joined the Colorado Party when he was just 14. Duarte, a fiery, gravel-voiced public speaker who styled himself a populist, grassroots politician, campaigned in 2003 on promises to fight crime and corruption and to create public works jobs. However, during his presidency, rising crime and high-profile kidnappings have drawn criticism.
In the middle of the current "pink tide" of Latin American populist governments, Frutos allied himself with the United States during the majority of his presidency. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, with its nightmares of a communist haven replaced by fears of terrorist funding, has lavished Paraguay with democratization projects (read military training), which have helped keep "the Brazilian military at bay while effectively intimidating the armed peasant groups into submission." Renewed cooperation has been felicitous for the security self-interests of both parties, and promises to continue. He signed an energy agreement with Chavez, and supports the Bank of the South, the project for economic integration among South American nations as pushed by Chavez. Duarte has made populist gestures publicly, notably condemning "lawless capitalism" in a UNESCO assembly.
Recently, Duarte has cooled his relations with Washington and warmed up to Caracas - if for no other reason that, in Latin America, it's popular to do so.
The Red Queen and the Bonsai Horseman
In the current electoral field for the presidential election, Lugo's opposition is represented by the massive state and social apparatus of the Colorado Party, as well as newer, right-wing opposition parties.
Ironically, the shift in economy from public works and government spending to the booming agricultural export business has eroded some support for the Colorado Party. The newly strengthened left and the emergent new right are evidence that, according to political analyst Milda Rivola, "Economic times have changed. . . The idea of the state as the country's biggest employer no longer works," she said. That is exactly where the interests that form the new right come into play.
"Bonsai horseman" General Lino Oviedo, a former presidential hopeful is another representative of the old right. Ironically, Oviedo originally rose to political fame in Paraguay as an upholder of democratic values by participating in the uprising that overthrew Stroessner. Yet after Oviedo disobeyed a presidential order to step down as commander of the army in April of 1996, he began to resemble the militaristic caudillo of the past.
Oviedo in his days as a general
Oviedo, who left the Colorado Party in 2005, was until recently, exiled for his participation in a foiled coup in 1996. Still popular however, Oviedo continues to be a presidential contender, and was pardoned for his coup attempt on October 30, 2007. This brought his National Union of Ethical Citizens Party (UNACE) back in to the fray with all the symbolism of a martyred military hero it can muster.
Supported most loyally by extremely rich and extremely poor constituents, Oviedo has campaigned stridently against gays and, according to Uruguayan political analyst Raul Zibechi, "threatens to defeat his opponents with 'vote-shots,' with the same impetus he used in 1989 to defeat dictator Alfredo Stroessner with 'gunshots.'"
Oviedo is currently running as a lone-wolf, in contrast to the momentum of alliances that supported Lugo as a candidate. Oviedo recently said, "I just propose a government program consensus regardless of alliance
coalition or whatever." Very much the victim of this earlier comment, he promotes "a judicial guarantee of public order," and says that whoever wants to rule alone will be boycotted. When asked what country model Paraguay must follow, Oviedo said with confident ambivalence, "Neither Right nor Left nor center, but progress. . . Neither neoliberal nor populist, communist, nor authoritarian, but a legal and democratic government, where neither the rich benefit off the deterioration of the poor, nor the poor benefit off the deterioration of the rich." He also promises a new constitution, and to restructure the state government.
New candidates have also entered the arena. In lieu of Duarte's inability to run, Blanca Ovelar, a former minister of education, is playing a new populist "Social Democrat" face of the Colorado Party. Ovelar, who speaks in a smooth professorial tone, proposes to use educational reform to pull the country out of poverty. At a campaign rally for Colorado Party presidential candidate Blanca Ovelar, journalist Charles Lane met Colorado supporters wearing the signature red shirts. One supporter said, "Our parents were Coloradoans, I was born Colorado, and I will die Colorado." Ovelar's loyalty to Duarte and the party have negatively affected her popularity. When asked if they were paid directly by the party, the Coloradoans said no, but admitted to having other benefits. "I was twice elected mayor and my wife has a job with the government," one responded. Elsewhere another supporter told the journalist that the fastest route to the hospital is through the Colorado Party.
Oviedo is greeted by supporters as he is released from prison in 2007
In Paraguay, women make up 49.6 percent of the population, yet only 10 percent of congressional seats are held by women. Women were given the right to vote in 1961, but the first woman to hold the position of minister was appointed in 1989, and only 10 percent of the cabinet is presently made up of women, one of the smallest percentages in Latin America. While Ovelar postures herself as "the first woman president of Paraguay, breaking with the 'machista' tradition," her appeal doesn't seem to resonate with Paraguayan women.
Angélica Cano, of Parlamento Mujer, a political advocacy forum for women, told IPS News that the Colorado Party is simply using Ovelar's gender as political capital: "When a political project has run out of male representatives that can sustain it, it calls in a woman to legitimize a model that is already obsolete." According to Maggy Balbuena, of the rural womens' organization CONAMURI, Ovelar "actually represents . . . 60 years of domination by the Colorado Party, 60 years of poverty and injustice. I think it would be very hard for her to reverse that long history," Balbuena told IPS News, "and I don't think she can change it all just because she's a woman."
Ovelar with Duarte: Taking Instructions?
Former Vice President Luis Castiglioni, on the other hand, renounced his post to run as a closer ally to Washington and the agricultural industry, and to push more neoliberal plans. Castiglioni, who lost the Colorado Party primary, as well as Ovelar, represent the new right wing of the Colorado Party. According to Paraguayan sociologist Tomas Palau, in spite of the differences between the parties of the new right, "their goal is to continue operating with impunity and making huge profits." A continuation of right-wing rule in any form is likely to be disastrous for the country's human rights, environment and over half of Paraguayans who live under the poverty line.
Meanwhile, the left's main option in the midst of this heavily right-wing election season is Fernando Lugo. Lugo represents a wide coalition of opposition forces whose interests probably don't coincide past the rejection of Colorado rule. Neither experienced nor completely radical, Palau says Lugo is "more befuddled than a yuppie in the middle of the jungle."
The New Right and Current Popular Struggles in Paraguay
As the years passed since the Stroessner era, new interests affecting electoral politics have pushed their way into the Paraguayan landscape. According to Palau, powerful interests in Paraguay can be summarized into four groups: 1) The oligarchy (soy growers and cattle ranchers who depend on paramilitaries to allow them to expand), 2) The narco-traffickers who pay off politicians, 3) The lumpen business class that relies on international trade and black market goods, and 4) the transnational corporations that produce soy, cotton and sugar. The parties are simple transmitters of those interests. In turn, these sectors create non-governmental interest groups that can pressure conservative sectors likely to do them favors. While non-governmental groups don't necessarily present candidates, they are vocal proponents of the parties they support.
On the other hand, in the past twenty years, campesino organizations including the Mesa Co-ordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC) and the Federación Nacional Campesina (FNC) have increased demands for reform of the corrupt party favors of the Stroessner regimes' "land reform." As Paraguayan farmers have found themselves increasingly confronted by Brazilian farmers buying up land for industrial agriculture and speculation, the movement has become more radical.
The fastest growing sector of the sources of power, and the one that has been and will likely continue to be at the forefront of national and international political and business interests and social conflict in the coming years is the agrofuel industry. This "gold rush" - so-called by the chief executive of Cargill - is sweeping over the once diverse jungles and small farms of eastern Paraguay like a vast and toxic genetically modified tsunami.
Paraguay is the world's fourth largest exporter of soybeans, and soy production has increased exponentially in recent years, reaching a record 6.5m tons in 2006-2007, due to rising demand worldwide for meat and cattle feed, as well as the booming agrofuels (also known as biodiesel) industry. As multinational agro-producers gain more and more stake in the production of soy, corn, wheat, sunflower and rapeseed in Paraguay, they too look to both the old and the new right to protect their land, production and trade interests.
Farmers protest soy industry fumigations
Managing this gargantuan agro-industry in Latin America are transnational seed and agro-chemical companies including Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge. International financial institutions and development banks have promoted and bankrolled the agro-export of monoculture crops. The profits have united political and corporate entities from Brazil, the US and Paraguay, and increased the importance of Paraguay's cooperation with international business.
In Paraguay especially, the expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities who occupy the vast land holdings of the wealthy. Most rural Paraguayans cultivate diverse subsistence crops on small plots of ten to twenty hectares, but do not have titles to their land or receive assistance from the state. The Colorado Party administration has represented the soy growers in this conflict by using the police and judicial system to punish campesino leaders. To this effect, protests have been criminalized, and campesino leaders have been linked to delinquency, kidnappings and a supposed guerilla movement linked to the Colombian FARC. A report compiled by the Paraguayan-based human rights organization SERPAJ concluded "that with public forces in its hands, the alliance of the Public Prosecutor, and the Supreme Court as a guarantee of impunity, has created a campaign of massive repression of the campesino sector, in order to facilitate and guarantee the expansion of genetically modified soy in the country."
Since the 1980s, national military and paramilitary groups connected to large agribusinesses and landowners have evicted almost 100,000 small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities in favor of soy fields. More than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated; only one of the cases was investigated, resulting in the conviction of the assassin. In the same period, more than 2,000 others have faced trumped-up charges for their objections to the industry.
The vast majority of Paraguayan farmers, however, have been poisoned off their land either intentionally or as a side effect of the more than 24 million liters of hazardous pesticides dumped by soy cultivation in Paraguay every year. When farmers saw their animals die, crops withering, families sickening and wells contaminated, most packed up and moved to the city.
The devastation caused by agro-industries created some of the most grave human rights violations since Stroessner's reign. Press reports say that when crops are fumigated "school classes are often cancelled on days of crop spraying on the field twenty meters away because the children faint from the smell." Since 2002, the deaths of five small children in rural areas have been documented.
A report produced by the Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations stated that "the expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities." A social investigation carried out last year found that, in the four departments where soy production is the highest, 78% of families in rural communities near soy fields showed a health problem caused by the frequent crop spraying in the soy fields, 63% of which was due to contaminated water.
As opposition to the soy industry builds among farmers and human rights groups, presidential candidates are posturing themselves either against soy expansion or in favor of it. Lugo's promise of land reform addresses this issue. Playing up the populist rhetoric of Colorado Party, presidential candidate Blanca Ovelar has said that as president she will change agro-legislation and fight against the development of a "soy fatherland." At the same time, the majority of Lugo's base is made up of farmers who have been hurt by the industrial soy companies.
As the election nears, the Duarte administration has made particularly vicious attacks on the political rights of social organizations. In February and March of 2008, three candidates of the Patriotic Socialist Alliance Party were arrested for visiting land occupied by campesinos, a political leader of the Tekojoja Popular Movement was assassinated under unclear circumstances, and the media published articles about supposed guerrilla connections to two campesino organizations with candidates in the upcoming elections. According to a recent article in LaSojaMata.org written by social analysts based in Paraguay, "As the election nears, greater acts of violence and criminalization are generated against critical sectors and the opposition."
On Wednesday, April 9, a drive by shooting seriously injured radio commentator Alfredo Avalos, and killed his partner, Silvana Rodríguez. Avalos is a leader in the leftist movement Tekojoja, which is part of the coalition supporting Lugo. The attack took place in the town Curuguaty in the Canindeyúby state which is 250km northeast of the capital, Asunción. Journalist Dawn Paley  wrote that the Paraguayan news outlet Jaku'éke  explained "death threats to the Alliance Campaign are being followed through." Lugo told Reuters  that this violence was "in keeping with the fear campaign led by those who are afraid of losing power." Paley reported that Carrillo Iramain, an organizer in Canindeyúby, said "there are constant telephone messages, indirect messages and direct threats happening in these final days [before the elections]. This is an area where fear rules." According to Reuters, this is the second politically motivated murder of a Tekojoja organizer in two months.
Lugo's Proposals Rattle Colorado Rule
Lugo has recently promised to implement land reform, fight corruption and the conservative forces of the Colorado Party. The presidential contender has also pledged to renegotiate the treaty of Itaipu, the biggest plant for hydroelectric power in the world, producing 20% of Brazil's electricity. This renegotiation plan would secure more of the massive financial and electric bounty of this project for Paraguay rather than primarily benefiting Brazil. If Brazil refuses to negotiate for better terms for Paraguay, Lugo has promised to take the case to the International Court of Justice. Analyst Raul Zibechi points out that though Lugo may win the presidency, his political bloc may gain only a minority in Congress with the Colorado Party having the majority.
Lugo has also campaigned on a platform that allies itself with the poor majority of the country. He was quoted in Open Democracy as saying, "There are too many differences between the small group of 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery." Indeed, his alliances with the Catholic Church may be a key to broad support as the institution is viewed as clean of the rampant corruption in the country.
He also aligns himself closer to leftist presidents like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales than his opponents, and is more anti-imperialist at least in his rhetoric. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs quoted Lugo as saying, "Paraguay is feeling the new winds growing across the region." Similarly, author Richard Gott points out that a victory for Lugo in Paraguay, "will signal that the new mood in Latin America is not just the creation of a competent economist in Ecuador, a charismatic colonel in Venezuela, or a couple of union leaders in Brazil and Bolivia, but the result of a heartfelt and deep-rooted desire for change."
On March 24, Lugo told Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color that as president he would be against a free trade agreement with the US: "I would rather try to keep deepening regional integration through adhesion and work with the South Common Market (MERCOSUR)." He also advocated for agrarian reform, saying, "Every Paraguayan citizen has the right to be settled on his own land."
Lugo: A Step in the Right Direction
While Fernando Lugo is the only candidate that represents change from the Colorado regime, for many Paraguayans he is at most a step in the right direction, and does not represent a new face in the pantheon of leftist leaders being elected across the continent. As a centrist, Lugo finds himself in the perhaps uncomfortable position of being a radical alternative to the 60 year Colorado rule. Lugo is evidence that to be considered a "leftist" in Paraguay only requires having political views that are "less right."
Though many see Lugo as someone who has experience with rural social conflicts and connections with the campesino movement, it would be a mistake to see him (as many on the right do) as "the red bishop," a radical heir to the liberation theology movement. In fact, when Oviedo's popularity was on the rise last September, Lugo even said he could work with Oviedo as a vice president, or vice versa.
Lugo has been careful to distance himself from leaders who have used natural resources to fund new government programs. "Paraguay," he says " . . . cannot be like Venezuela because it has no oil. Nor can it be like Bolivia because it has no natural gas and it can't be like Chile because it has no copper." Pragmatic as his assessment may be, Lugo doesn't seem to think nor desire that Paraguay's government can be like that of these countries either. Lugo has taken pains to maintain a friendly distance from Caracas, and has not used anti-Washington rhetoric to stir up his supporters. Though Lugo praised the social aspect of Chavez's government, he criticized the "strong dose of statism, totally at the service of one person . . . which is dangerous for a real democracy."
Lugo at a Rally
In terms of economic changes, Lugo seems unlikely to cause too many ripples. In fact, in a distinctly Paraguayan fashion, caving in to Washington's pressure to privatize resources and public services could be in Lugo's, and the new right's, agenda. The clientilism of the Colorado Party relies almost entirely on the state, and is therefore in opposition to neoliberal policies favoring corporate control of services. Unlike other countries in the region where neoliberalism has flourished, many Paraguayan roads, water and electricity systems remain under state control. Right-wing proponents of neoliberalism advocate corporate control of public services and further deregulation of the economy. This large, cumbersome political apparatus could be the Colorado Party's downfall, as splits within threaten to kill the old, statist right.
However, Lugo has also seen no conflict in Chilean president Michelle Bachelet's Socialist government signing a free-trade agreement with the United States. During a visit to Washington on June 18, 2007 Lugo gave a speech at George Washington University titled "Political Alternatives to the World's Longest Ruling Party." The Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported that "What Lugo seems to be saying is that he wants access to the U.S. market, as well as to be a beneficiary of Chávez's now well known generosity."
On the other hand, if Lugo does win, there is no guarantee that he would be able to make any changes. If he wins the April 20 election, he will not take office until August; plenty of time for the defeated Colorados to strategize on how to use their likely congressional majority to their benefit. This would allow plenty of time, too, for Lugo's aggregate political alliance of socialists, farmer and indigenous groups, liberals and ex-Colorados to crumble into in-fighting.
Count Down to the Election
An April 9th election poll published in the Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color, and conducted by First Análisis y Estudios, showed that Lugo is in the lead with 33.6% support of those polled. Oviedo came in second with 27.4%, Blance Ovelar in third with 24.6%. Current president Nicanor Duarte won the 2003 election with 37.1% of the votes.
As Lugo leads in the polls right now, the Colorado Party is deeply worried. If the opposition wins, Duarte has said he believes the Coloradoans will be "chased down as the Jews were in the time of Hitler," which is ironic in light of the Colorado Party's alliance with the axis during World War II. As political analyst Marcelo Lacchi puts it, "For the first time in 20 years, the Colorados are facing the possibility of losing and they're worried." The party is abysmally divided between Oviedo, Ovelar and even Lugo with the election rapidly approaching. Yet, Lacchi reminds us, similar divisions were in place in the 1998 elections, and the results were the re-unification of the party and a Colorado win. "There is still a large part of Colorado voters who haven't been captivated and mobilised," he said.
The Colorado Party has never lost a presidential election, and once the usual tools of employment, bribes and threats are in place, things could look very different. However, writes Zibechi, if the Colorado Party apparatus can't be set in motion, it's possible that this election could be different. He points out that "the crisis within the Party, the enormous unpopularity of Duarte, and the appearance on the scene of a center-left candidate who can break the eternal two-party split between the Red and the Liberal Parties" as three reasons to expect the unexpected in this historic election.
April Howard is a journalist, translator, and adjunct lecturer of Latin American studies at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007) and the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Both are editors at UpsideDownWorld.org, a Web site on activism and politics in Latin America.
For more information, see "New Versus Old Right in Paraguay's Elections"by the same authors in the January/February issue of NACLA Report on the Americas and "Paraguay's Peculiar Politics" by Teo Ballvé, editor of Nacla News.
. "Lugo se postula por la Democracia Cristiana" ABC Color.
. Gimlette, John. At The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. Knopf (01-06-2004)
. Interview with Tomas Palau
. Misión internacional de observación al Paraguay, Informe 2006, p. 6; SERPAJ Paraguay.
. Interview with Tomas Palau
. Based on phone interview with Marcos Castillo