Paraguay: Elections, Yellow Fever, and a Meddling Ambassador

Fernando Lugo

The election climate in Paraguay grows tense with the possible defeat of the Red Party that has been in power for more than half a century. The U.S. ambassador’s interference in the electoral campaign and a yellow fever epidemic are keeping tensions high.

Source: Americas Program

The election climate in Paraguay grows tense with the possible defeat of the Red Party that has been in power for more than half a century. The U.S. ambassador’s interference in the electoral campaign and a yellow fever epidemic are keeping tensions high.

"Meow," was the response of the United States ambassador to Paraguay, James Cason, when reporters asked his opinion of remarks by the leading ruling party senator, Juan Carlos Galaverna. "Meow," he repeated and added in perfect Guarani, "Mba’embo la ha’étava—and what can I say? To silly words, deaf ears," he concluded.1

Relations between the ambassador and the government grew tense after the Dec. 16 Red Party primary elections to select a candidate for the presidential contest that will be held on April 20. Blanca Ovelar, supported by President Nicanor Duarte, faced Vice President Luis Castiglioni, a personal friend of Donald Rumsfeld and Washington’s preferred candidate. The whole clientelist apparatus of the ruling party went for Ovelar, who won by a tiny margin amid accusations of fraud.

The verbal escalation between the ruling party and Ambassador Cason sums up Paraguayan political style. The intervention by the embassy in favor of Castiglioni was overt and crass, with political support and large sums of money channeled through organisms for cooperation. On Feb. 6, Galaverna said Cason was a "fourth-class minor ambassador" and called him an "s.o.b." and "poor cat" because the ambassador is promoting a corruption investigation against the senator. Galaverna counterattacked: "They will not find in my prior actions that I jumped in to kill people in Latin America or meddled in foreign countries to topple governments."

If this is the tone of the dispute between the most prominent senator in the congress and the United States ambassador, you can imagine how politicians behave in their internal relationships. The most benign accusation is that of corruption, which actually affects almost the entire political class in the country.

Former Bishop in the Lead

According to all the polls, Fernando Lugo of the Patriotic Alliance for Change [Alianza Patrótica para el Cambio] is in the lead, with a margin of five and 13 points respectively ahead of Lino Oviedo of the National Union of Ethical Citizens [UNACE: Unión Nacional de Ciudadanos Éticos] and Ovelar of the Red Party. But at the same time, an overwhelming majority of Paraguayans believe that the Red candidate will be the one entering office. In effect, despite Lugo’s greater chances, everyone knows that once the well-greased Red apparatus gets going, with its broad dispersing of favors—jobs, bribes, cash—everything can change.

In fact, the Red Party has never lost an election. Its base of support is the armed forces, the police, and the profuse state bureaucracy, which are mobilized to capture votes based on family and territorial affinities. But this time, things could be different for three reasons: 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.

Only 50 days before the elections, the Red institution is deeply divided. Wounds provoked by the intense internal dispute threaten to become a crisis. Some Red sectors passed over to the opposition headed by Lugo, and others supported Oviedo. But the Red apparatus has not yet been set into motion, and it is possible that it cannot get going.

On the other hand, Ovelar is unable to gain vote promises and is losing position. Some polls place her third after Oviedo. Her adherence to President Duarte, who is accused of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, seems to be one of the principal causes for her poor showing. It is not yet known what attitude Castiglioni will adopt, defeated in the primaries and now Duarte’s enemy. He is considered the main representative of the powerful lobby for soy, Paraguay’s major export product, and the position he adopts can shift the balance.

The former strongman of Paraguay, Oviedo, was granted early release from his incarceration for diverse crimes—among them, the assassination of Vice President Luis María Argaña in 1999—in a move attributed to Duarte as a way to split votes for the opposition. Oviedo’s bases of support are at the extremes. The very rich as well as the poorest of the poor in the countryside are the most faithful followers of this coarse and elemental candidate who campaigns against homosexuals and threatens to defeat his opponents with "vote-shots," with the same impetus he used in 1989 to defeat dictator Alfredo Stroessner with "gunshots."

Among the opposition, problems are hardly scarce. Lugo presents himself in alliance with the Liberal Party (PLRA), with which he shares the vice-presidential spot, and is supported by a broad conglomerate of 15 slates that run from Christian Democrat to the fragmented left, with a huge number of candidates. Only the group closest to Lugo, the Tekojoja Popular Movement, is likely to win seats in the congress, besides, of course, the liberals. Here is one of the biggest problems: although he might win the presidency, he would have a minority in congress, which will be majority Red.

One of the platforms of Lugo’s campaign is renegotiation of the treaty regarding Itaipu, the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, which provides 20% of Brazil’s electric energy. The treaty, along with the Yacyretá treaty with Argentina,2 was signed by the Stroessner dictatorship in 1973 and, according to Lugo’s team, represents the plundering of Paraguayan hydroelectric sovereignty.

On the one hand, the treaties require offering the "right to purchase" to Brazil and Argentina, countries that overbilled the construction of both dams to the benefit of their states and companies and to the detriment of Paraguay. But also, the prices for which they buy energy are much lower than what is paid in the market. The market price of Paraguayan energy sold to Brazil and Argentina is some $3.6 billion annually (more than 60% of Paraguay’s GDP), but the country receives a mere $250 million per year.3 Until now, it has been impossible to renegotiate the treaties, although it seems evident that for a poor country like Paraguay, this could be the only way to go forward.

Yellow Fever Outbreak

Long lines up to 18 blocks long could be seen during the third week in February along Asunción’s streets. The desperate inhabitants swarmed hospitals to get vaccinated against yellow fever that had, in just a few days, caused between five and eight deaths, depending on the sources. In some places panic spread, and roadblocks were set up in response to the lack of vaccine.

In 2006, the dengue epidemic caused 11 deaths and exposed inefficiency and corruption in the health system. The annual report by the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) states that in Paraguay, "good health, rather than a right, is a commodity," but also, "a commodity of poor quality."4 Only 9% of the population has private insurance; 12.5% pay into a social program; and the rest must use a public system laced "with ineptitude and partisanship imposed by its leaders." Thousands of Paraguayans cross the border to get free, proper medical attention, something that is unthinkable in their country.

The unforeseen epidemic began at the height of the electoral campaign, so the ruling party cannot deny its responsibility for a deficient health system or its inability to control the outbreak. The government had to resort to international help, since it lacked sufficient stocks of vaccines. The donor nations were many, from Brazil to Bolivia. Faced with government inefficiency, the people themselves, through their mingas—collective work projects, have taken charge of cleaning up the thousands of abandoned lots that had become mosquito breeding grounds.

Everything indicates that beyond the results on April 20, Paraguay will remain firmly aligned with countries in the region, particularly with Brazil. One of Washington’s previous allies has taken a radical turn in the past two years to such an extent that President Duarte said a few weeks ago that he feels closer to Hugo Chávez than to George W. Bush. The ruling party’s Ovelar is willing to continue the current president’s foreign policy or even align herself more closely with the new Latin American left. If some change appeared on the horizon, which might emerge if Lugo wins, it would not be in the direction desired by Washington. Perhaps that explains Cason’s belligerence.

End Notes

  1. Ultimas noticias, Feb. 22, 2008. Guarani is spoken by 94% of the population of Paraguay.
  2. Itaipú is a binational dam with Brazil, as is Yaciretá with Argentina.
  3. Ricardo Canese, "La recuperación de la soberanía hidroeléctrica del Paraguay" [Recovery of Paraguay’s Hydroelectric Sovereignty], Asunción, 2007.
  4. Servicio de Paz y Justicia, "Derechos Humanos en Paraguay 2007" [Human Rights in Paraguay 2007], Asunción, Dec. 2007, p. 371.

Translated for the Americas Program by Maria Roof.

Raúl Zibechi is Brecha de Montevideo journal’s international analyst, social movements lecturer, and researcher at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and consultant to several social groupings. He is a monthly contributor to the Americas Policy Program (