Paraguay’s Hour of Change

Source: Americas Program

April 2008 brings presidential elections for Paraguay. For the first time in 60 years the Red Party may find itself thrown out of the presidential palace. Thus will begin the long desired and long delayed transition to democracy in Paraguay.

The 17 years of democracy since the 1989 coup that overthrew dictator Alfredo Stroessner haven’t been very different from the 35 previous years. The dictator who had governed the country since 1954 was supported by the same party that still governs the country by means of clientelism, corruption, and a large dose of repression. But on March 29, 2006, the history of this suffering country appeared to undergo a drastic change: more than 40,000 people poured into the streets of the capital, Asunción, to prevent President Nicanor Duarte Frutos from running for re-election, which is prohibited by the Constitution.

The spokesperson of this enormous mobilization was the bishop of San Pedro, an area where farmers have carried on a long struggle against the landowners. Fernando Lugo quickly became the hope of a society tired of corruption and bad governments. All the polls consider him the favorite and the only one able to replace the Red Party which controls all the sources of power: the state bureaucracy, the armed forces, the mafia, and big business.

A Worn-out Model

The country’s social and economic situation is disastrous. Of its six million inhabitants, 63% are poor (according to the government, poverty is at 48%) and 26% indigent. Around 80%, 4.5 million, do not have access to basic medical attention; 600,000 landless farmers wander about the country since corporations turned Paraguay into one of the largest soybean exporting nations in the world. Every year 100,000 Paraguayans move from the countryside to the city or leave the country completely for Spain or Argentina: remittances are the second largest source of revenue in the country, exceeded only by soybean exports.

The Paraguayan government is one of the most inefficient and corrupt in the world. It has 200,000 public employees of whom 95% belong to the Red Party. In spite of the limited population, every day 10 children die of malnutrition and illness. The Red Party, a State party, is the principal source of social control and clientelism which assured it of 60 years of almost absolute power whether under dictatorship or "democracy." In 2006 soybean producers had exports of $450 million dollars and the cattle oligarchy some $430 million, but they pay miserably low taxes: the first pay 3% and the cattle industry 1.8%. The banks pay even less.1

The sociologist Tomas Palau of the Research Center Base-Is maintains that the exhaustion of the political and economic model goes hand in hand with the institutional disintegration of an oligarchic power. "The people have the perception that the Paraguayan state exists less and less for them, but nevertheless exists and is very strong when it comes to defending the interests of the cattle oligarchy and of the transnational oligarchy linked to soy, sugarcane, cotton, in other words the agricultural export model."2

What from Washington appears to be a failed state is for the people of Paraguay, and above all for the poor, a genuine nightmare. A Paraguayan journalist maintains that having been in power for 60 years caused the Red Party to fray and wear out, bringing the state to a situation of uselessness which manifests itself in "almost complete disorder, where the administrators of power, the Colorados (Red Party members), can no longer be in control nor control themselves in the management of public affairs: its bosses no longer answer to the dictator or the chief but directly to the mafia boss in the region."3

A state infiltrated by corruption, where legislative power is composed of corrupt politicians and the judicial power is incapable of administering justice, leads to the mafia-based interest groups possessing uncontrolled power. There are four power groups, according to Palau: the cattle barons with $6 billion dollars, who rely on protection from paramilitary commandos; the drug dealers, that cultivate marijuana, traffic cocaine, launder money and have the capacity to buy politicians; the multinational companies that export soy, cotton, and sugarcane; and, finally, the "pseudo-businesspeople" linked to both legal and illegal deals with the government and to the contraband trade of electro domestic products and cigarettes. In politics, this institutional and economic crisis manifests itself in that "vote-buying can come to include a third of the voters and in the last electoral contest a vote was valued at 100 or even 200 thousand guaraníes per capita (US$20-40)."4 According to the regional survey Latinobarómetro, in Paraguay only 4% (as opposed to 40% in Bolivia) consider the government’s battle against corruption to be effective. Forty percent (as opposed to 7% in Bolivia) believe that the government of Paraguay instigates corruption.

The Rise of Civil Society

The combination of several factors has created the "exhaustion of the corrupted state at the service of the Colorado Party and the agro-export economic model." Since the 90’s the end of this period opened a "dispute over the political hegemony of the process, shown by successive crises, attempted coups, assassinations, fraudulent elections, and not just a few popular movements."5 Civil society is showing itself to be very active, since it is the only way to make oneself heard and to enforce rights which the State does not respect.

Institutional and social disintegration has resulted in increased protests by farmer groups as well as land occupations. The response by the authorities has been to file charges against more than 2,000 leaders. But it is also reflected in a drop in electoral participation, since in the last municipal elections 65% of the voters did not go to the ballotbox. On several occasions, the people had to take to the streets to prevent violations of the law.

This struggle has its landmarks and its martyrs. March 1999 marked the assassination of Vice President José María Argaña, the most critical moment in this crisis. General Lino Oviedo, a messianic and authoritarian military man that collaborated with the dictator, played an important role in the 1989 coup that put an end to the dictatorship. They say that he forced the surrender of the all-powerful Stroessner when he pulled the pin on a grenade and held him at gunpoint. He expected to benefit from the fall of the dictator and in the bid for power he could have been the brain behind of the assassination of Argaña. In reaction to the crime, the Paraguayans organized a popular uprising known as "Paraguayan March," where dozens of young people were murdered by Oviedo’s snipers. The general had to go into exile, first in Argentina where he had the protection of then-President Carlos Menem, and later in Brazil. Upon returning to his country he was prosecuted, found guilty, and put in jail, but Parliament later debated an amnesty, and Oviedo was freed, which could benefit the Colorado Party in its dispute with Fernando Lugo, since they would compete for similar social support.6

In 2002 the popular sectors again went to the streets to prevent privatization of state companies and the approval of an Antiterrorism Law made without consulting the public. The government had to take a step back when a broad social movement, in particular farmers, blocked main highways and paralyzed the country.

The third outbreak of the social movements took place in March of last year when the president (with the complicity of the Supreme Court) tried to violate the Constitution in order to run for re-election. On that occasion, the organization Resistencia Ciudadana (Citizen Resistance) was formed as a confluence of all the political and social opposition sectors, and it convoked the largest protest of the last few years. The spokesperson for this act was Bishop Fernando Lugo, who emerged as an alternative to the party crisis. According to some surveys, Lugo has up to 70% of popular support.

Bishop of the Poor

In an interview given to the newspaper Brasil de Fato, Lugo recalled that he was born in 1952 in a small rural village of 60 families, San Solano, and is the youngest of six siblings in a family that was harshly persecuted by the Stroessner dictatorship. His father was in jail 20 times. As a child, he sold turnovers and coffee in the streets of Encarnación, the city to which his family immigrated. Three of his siblings were arrested, tortured, and exiled from the country over the course of 23 years.

He studied to be a teacher and taught in a classroom packed full with 100 pupils, until at age 19 he decided to enter the seminary of the Congregación del Verbo Divino (Congregation of the Divine Word).7 "It was the townspeople of Hohenau, where I taught primary school, that motivated me to become ordained. The people were very religious and there was no priest, but even so they got together every Sunday and I participated in the worship, in the reading of the word of God, in the lectures, prayers, and hymns. In Hohenau God came into my life."8

In 1977 he was ordained as a priest and traveled to Ecuador where he became acquainted with liberation theology and the church of the poor. In 1982 he returned to Paraguay and the following year was expelled from the country for his "subversive" sermons and for speaking ill of the government. He lived in Rome and returned in 1987. In 1994 he was ordained bishop of the diocese of San Pedro, the poorest in the country: "In 1994, when I took over the diocese, there were 112 land occupations. Of these, 52 were in San Pedro. When I arrived there were 650 Christian communities, when I left there were a thousand." In the province with the most large estates, the social pastoral ministries began organizing the landless rural poor just as had happened years before in Brazil, a process that gave birth to the landless movement.

Lugo made the leap into politics in a very short time. He recalls the change: "I leave the diocese in 2005 and I am left thinking that the huge efforts that are made through the church did not obtain the desired success, and I realized that the real changes in the economy, in the social arena, come from politics. So, Jan. 3, 2006 I began to meet with a group of 12 friends—a group for study and analysis with artists, intellectuals, farmers, students, in order to imagine the country—that kept growing and on Dec. 17 became the Movimiento Popular [Popular Movement] Tekojoja (equality in the regional Guaraní language) that soon became the fastest growing popular movement."9

Tekojoja collected 100,000 signatures so that Lugo could run as a presidential candidate. On Dec. 22 he renounced his priestly orders; on Jan. 4, 2007 the Vatican declined his renunciation and then suspended him as a priest. This issue is not a small one. The Constitution of Paraguay says that no priest of any sect can aspire to the presidency. Upon having renounced his status as a priest, Lugo considers that he is in a position to be president. But Duarte Frutos denies it, which is creating a serious confrontation between the government and the Catholic Church. It is possible that in the next few months the Supreme Court will annul his candidacy, with an argument that is not legal but theological. In effect, for the church a priest will always be a priest even if he renounces his position. Like the majority of Paraguayans, Lugo does not trust his country’s judicial system. The court is composed of nine members: five Colorados and four opposition members. The problem is that if Lugo’s candidacy is stopped, a large part of the population would consider it a coup, and the popular reaction would be unforeseeable.

Toward a Second Transition?

The political parties are going through an acute crisis of representation as well as legitimacy. The Parliamentary opposition is united in what it calls the Concertación Democrática (Democratic Consensus) composed of the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (Authentic Radical Liberal Party), Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Eticos (National Union of Ethical Citizens), Patria Querida (Beloved Homeland), Encuentro Nacional (National Meeting), and País Solidario (Country of Solidarity). The majority are neoliberal and are what could be called "old school politics" and the PLRA is the only party that has a significant structure throughout the country capable of competing with the Red Party.

On the other hand, there are the social and political movements. Throughout 2006, in order to promote and support Lugo’s candidacy, which has no structure, at least three great segments were created. The Bloque Social y Popular (Social and Popular Block) is composed of the three main union groups, a sector of the farmworker movement, Christian democracy, the Febrerista Party, and the Partido de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Party). The second group is País Posible (Possible Country), led by Lugo’s brother, that has taken the path of resistance from within the Colorado Party and hopes to capture this vote. And, lastly, the Movimiento Popular Tekojoja, which is closest to Lugo and also participates in the Bloque Social y Popular.

The groups on the left, closely linked with the farmers’ movement, created a Coordinadora de Movimientos Independientes (Coordinator of Independent Movements) that managed to run candidates in 10 of the 221 municipalities in the country. It was the first time that a significant part of the farmers’ movement promoted electoral participation, which presupposes a change as opposed to earlier times. This confluence formed the Frente Social y Popular, which since the end of 2006 has been trying to form a broad alliance with Tekojoja and the Bloque Social y Popular in order to offset the Concertación’s weight in Lugo’s plan.10

Lugo had to choose between the traditional and the new, between the Block and the social movements and the Concertación. It was a choice between the social left and organization, between a program for change and the security that the strategy for overthrowing the Red Party gave him. In the end, he will run as a Concertación candidate, with his vice president a member of PLRA. Shortly before making his decision, he explained clearly what was involved: "The united Concertación Nacional would be able to assure electoral control. They are parties with parliamentary representation that can offer two things: guarantee of both a proper electoral process and the ability to govern because they have many legislators. The Bloque Popular group is irreconcilable with the Concertación Nacional."11

According to Orlando Castillo, a member of Serpaj, the Peace and Justice Service, the step Lugo has taken may guarantee him an electoral win but tie his hands when it is time for change: "Lugo is looking for a foundation that can sustain his candidacy, because other than having a good reputation he has no structure, experience, or money for a campaign. But the Concertación is getting into trouble. If it gains control of the government, it runs the risk of not being able to govern. The Red Party as the opposition could be very dangerous since it will have a majority in Parliament and the second largest will be the liberals. The left will have almost no representatives."12

According to this analysis, once in government the liberals will be able to join with the Colorados to bring a political legal action against Lugo and remove him from power. We must remember that the liberals have always lived with the Red Party, even with the dictatorship, and they are a neoliberal party that practices the same corrupt politics that is the standard in Paraguay. The only difference is that they have never been in power and they intend to use Lugo to get to the presidential palace.

The political climate is tense and confused. The hunger for power is great. Since Lugo decided to run as a Concertación candidate with a liberal vice president, various movements aimed toward rupturing this alliance have arisen. Patria Querida left the Concertación because it wants its own presidential candidate. UNACE sought amnesty for Lino Oviedo, the leader of the military coup, in order to run him as their candidate, which now seems likely.

Within the Red Party, there are two very strong movements that are constantly clashing. May 3, the house of representatives passed an Anti-terrorism bill being pushed by Washington. According to the opposition and human rights organizations, it does not clearly establish the limits of what is considered terrorism, violates human rights, and criminalizes public protest.13

On Aug. 9 the Senate rejected the law even though they decided to introduce some modifications to the Penal Code that benefited large landholders and had negative consequences for small farmers’ movements. The Red Party voted against it as a way of warning the government of George W. Bush to support the re-election of Duarte Frutos and to quit encouraging the vice-presidential candidacy of Luis Castiglioni, a personal friend of Donald Rumsfeld.

For the social movements, excited about Lugo because he promotes agrarian reform and the country’s autonomy, the panorama is even more complex. According to Castillo, "The movements continue hoping that Lugo will lean back toward them. On the one hand, he’s the only alternative. On the other, they run a very great risk. Fourteen parties have been formed to support Lugo, but, in reality, they all want a seat in parliament. They run the risk of losing the credibility that they have gained through so many years of resistance."14

End Notes

  1. Aristides Ortiz, ob. cit.
  2. Idem.
  3. Idem.
  4. ALOP, ob. cit. p.7.
  5. Hugo Richter, ob. cit. p.60.
  6. Pablo Stefanoni, ob. cit. p. 8.
  7. Interview in Brasil de Fato.
  8. Idem.
  9. Idem.
  10. ALOP, ob. cit. p. 21.
  11. Entrevista Brasil de Fato.
  12. Entrevista a Orlando Castillo.
  13. Orlando Castillo ob. cit. p. 2.
  14. Entrevista a Orlando Castillo.

Translated for the Americas Program by Patricia Black.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst at Brecha, a weekly journal in Montevideo, Uruguay, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the CIP Americas Policy Program ( Translated by Patricia Black.


For More Information

Ortiz, Arístides, "A las puertas de una segunda transición," [At the gates of a second transition], Brecha, Montevideo, March 9, 2007.

Asociación Latinoamericana de Organismos de Promoción (ALOP), "Informe Democracia y Desarrollo 2006-2007," [Report on Democracy and Development], Asunción, June 2007.

Brasil de Fato, "O Paraguai subsidia as indústrias de São Paulo," [Paraguay subsidizes the industries of São Paulo], interview with Fernando Lugo, May 30, 2007.

Richter, Hugo, "Paraguay: crisis y espectativa de cambio", [Paraguay: crisis and expectations of change], OSAL No. 21, Buenos Aires, September 2006.

Vera, José Antonio, "Hacia una verdadera transición democrática," [Toward a true democratic transition], Brecha, Montevideo, March 9, 2007.

Castillo, Orlando, "Otro revés a la Ley Terroista de Washington," [Another setback to Washington’s Terrorist Law], August 2007,

Stefanoni, Pablo, "¿Fin de época en Paraguay?" [End of an era in Paraguay?], Le Monde Diplomatique, Buenos Aires, July 2007.

Canese, Ricardo, "Itaipú, conflicto o equidad entre Paraguay y Brasil" [Itaipú, conflict or equity between Paraguay and Brazil], Movimiento Popular Tekojoja.

Zibechi, Raúl, interview with Orlando Castillo, August 17, 2007.