Paraguay’s Peculiar Politics


"An island surrounded by land" is how novelist Roa Bastos described his native Paraguay, as much in reference to its political and social insularity, as to its landlocked geography. With less than seven million people in an area about the size of California, Paraguay is considered by some to be South America’s so-called "Empty Quarter." The country’s eccentricity leaves many outsiders puzzled or uninterested. P.J. O’Rourke once quipped the country is "nowhere and famous for nothing." Indeed, international attention rarely, if ever, focuses on Paraguay, and it remains among South America’s least understood countries.

Although the presidential elections are more than a year away, the political jockeying already dominates local news coverage, even raising the fleeting interest of international media. And for good reason: for the first time in 60 years, a real possibility exists that the Colorado Party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner could be unseated. The leading opposition candidate is Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic Bishop of the country’s most impoverished province. "The Next [Hugo] Chávez?" is how Britain’s The Economist titled an article about him. The rise of Lugo stems in part from the momentum gained by popular mobilizations in recent years, which have tried to take advantage of a social and political climate increasingly in flux.

The Soy Republic

I entered the country through its shared border with Argentina and Brazil. The tri-border region, as its known, is as close as Paraguay gets to semi-regularly grabbing international headlines, but only because the U.S. government frequently alleges the "lawless" border area is a fundraising site for "terrorists."

Without a doubt, Ciudad del Este—Paraguay’s thriving tri-border city—is a contraband and money-laundering hub. It has that gritty feel of most border cities and walking through its streets one gets the sense that everyone’s got a hustle. Billboards hawking electronics are ubiquitous, and pedestrians can readily buy just about any product in its pirated version.

Outside of the city, the flat landscape of eastern Paraguay opens up to endless tracts of industrial-scale agriculture: soy, corn, some sugar cane and some cotton. But more than anything, it’s transgenic corn, soy and more soy; there are miles and miles of it. Signs of companies with fancy logos and names—almost all beginning with the prefix "agro"—dot the roadsides of the completely denuded landscape. (Cargill was the only name I recognized.)

Development and Democracy, a conservative Asunción think tank, reports soy acreage is five times larger today than it was in 1997, almost all of this in the eastern half of the country. Soy agribusiness now accounts for 50% of the country’s exports and 10% of its GDP.

The soy boom has had predictable results for subsistence and small-scale farmers. Soy producers have squeezed out campesinos with small landholdings, while most never had any land to speak of in the first place. An estimated 80% of the country’s land is in the hands of just 5% of the population.

Marzo Paraguayo

I arrived to Asunción the same day as 10,000 campesino protestors from the surrounding countryside led by the National Campesino Federation (FNC in its Spanish initials), Paraguay’s strongest social movement organization. Under a blazing sun, the marchers corralled into the capital’s main waterfront plaza in front of the nation’s congress, where most of Paraguay’s important political events occur.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, and in the same plaza, Paraguay was brought to its knees. The events of March 1999, known today as the "Marzo Paraguayo," are considered a victory for popular power and a turning point in Paraguay’s famously Byzantine politics.

It all began with the assassination of then-Vice President Luís María Argaña on March 24. Blame for the murder immediately fell on President Raúl Cubas, who was the target of impeachment proceedings led by Argaña. The impeachment stemmed from Cubas all but pardoning his ally General Lino Oviedo for leading a failed 1996 coup.

Lino Oviedo, left, with Brazilian Senator Eduardo Suplicy. (Credit: Agência Brasil)

In the following days, led mostly by young people and students, the public exploded in mobilizations. They were joined in the main plaza by a huge contingent of the FNC, which happened to be in Asunción. The police responded brutally, followed by violent attacks against the protesters by supporters of Cubas and Oviedo who assembled in a corner of the plaza.

Cubas tried sending tanks to put down the protests, but Asunción’s sympathetic mayor, protecting the protesters, deployed garbage trucks to cut off street access to the plaza. The government resorted to sharpshooters, who took the lives of eight innocent civilians. Amid mounting domestic and international pressure, Cubas resigned and fled the country along with Oviedo, and an interim government was appointed—with the Colorados, of course, still in the presidency.

Although the Colorados managed to maintain their hegemony after the Marzo Paraguayo, democratic forces had scored an unprecedented victory. Only ten years after Stroessner was forced from power, a more genuine democratic transition had begun. That transition, however, is just now gaining steam. It’s the campesinos that have organized most forcefully in past decades. When I arrived to Asunción, the march—the 14th in as many years—had already left for the plaza.

By the time the mass of farmers had snaked its way to the plaza, rickety horse-drawn wagons surrounded the periphery of the gathering. In the thick of the crowd, the sweating campesinos cheered, raising sticks and machetes in the air. Odilón Espínola, the charismatic leader of the FNC, yelled into the microphone: "The reality of our country is that a small group owns all the land, has health, education and employment, while the majority lacks everything."

Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte wants to change the constitution to allow a second term. (Credit: Agência Brasil)

Speeches denouncing current President Nicanor Duarte were greeted with screams in Guaraní of "Duarte Ijapú!" (liar). Duarte wants to change the constitution so that he can seek a second consecutive term. With Paraguay’s long history of durable dictatorships, people are understandably wary of the proposal.

But the main reason for the march was to denounce what the FNC calls "electoralism." One campesino explained this to me between sips of ice-cold tereré (yerba maté ice tea) to fight off the heat. "We don’t want to vote," he said. "We want to have real choices. Voting isn’t enough; we want a real choice."

Espínola explained it this way: "We don’t identify with any of the political parties or movements. So far, we campesinos are opting for the protest-vote…. New people are voted into power, but everything stays the same. While we the people are limited to legitimizing those in power with our votes." When coming from the movement’s leaders, the repudiation of the entire political class includes Lugo, who recently criticized the "efficacy" of the FNC’s tactics.

Enter Lugo

Fernando Lugo is seeking to capitalize on Paraguayans’ frustrations with the country’s sordid politics and its hobbling economy. Politically, the 55-year-old priest cut his teeth working with poor campesino communities of his diocese in San Pedro. And his unconventional background and charisma have made him popular among the poor—half the country’s population.

Lugo catapulted himself into the national spotlight a year ago, leading protests against Duarte’s efforts to change the constitution to allow a second term. An estimated 40,000 people rallied in Asunción. He has maintained his popularity ever since.

The former priest is a hard politician to pin down ideologically. He has praised the "social component" of the Chávez government in Venezuela, and his opponents point to his past in liberation theology, calling him the "Red Bishop." But he has also tried to distance himself from radical Latin American leaders, entertains the idea of privatizations and has praised Chile’s orthodox market-oriented economic policies.

Lugo, himself, says that his politics are beyond ideological classifications. But the public, including his supporters, wonder whether he’s trying to appear more palatable to conservative voters, or if his recently toned-down rhetoric indicates he would govern as a centrist. As a Bishop, he was considered a capable negotiator and compromiser.

Even though the elections are still rather distant, he has not clarified his platform and has kept his promises vague. Najeeb Amado from the Paraguayan Communist Party warily says, "We’ll have to see what Lugo does, more than what he says."

It’s unclear, though, if Lugo will even be allowed to run for office. The Paraguayan constitution does not allow "ministers of any religion or cult" to stand for president or vice president. And although he has renounced his priesthood, the Vatican has not accepted his definitive resignation. The Supreme Court, stacked with Colorado judges, will make the final decision, but his supporters have threatened to take the streets if he’s not allowed to run. Lugo, on the other hand, has said he’d fight through international courts to get on the ballot.

His core support derives from opposition sectors that want to wipe out Paraguay’s traditional political parties, especially the Colorados. But Lugo’s first major gamble is entertaining an official alliance with an opposition coalition, called Concertación Nacional. The Concertación is an odd amalgam of political parties cobbled together to defeat the Colorados. But Lugo risks alienating his base if he joins the coalition, because it includes some conservative and traditional parties. He has been meeting regularly with the group but they have yet to cement a deal.

Hugo Richer, who represents a small left-wing party, has low expectations about Lugo’s candidacy. "The overwhelming force in the opposition and the Concertación is the center-right," argues Richer, a member of the Popular Socialist Convergence (PCPS). "[Lugo’s] goal is clear: topple the Colorado party and initiate the alternation of power. But let’s not fool ourselves, thinking this will mean a process of big structural changes for our country." Richer says Lugo is in the "extreme center," and calls his position a strategic one to get more votes.

At a recent rally (again, at the plaza), the crowd seemed electrified by Lugo. It shows his years spent at the pulpit have served him well, and he peppers his speeches with Guaraní to connect with the crowd. Many people where I was standing seemed mesmerized. They barely even took their eyes off the stage when a group of kids started doing back flips into the fountain in the center of the plaza.

Politics in Paraguay

Among those meandering through the crowd were supporters of Gen. Lino Oviedo’s Unace party, holding signs that clamored, "Free Lino!" Although Gen. Oviedo is currently in jail serving a 10-year sentence for his involvement in the Marzo Paraguayo repression and his possible role in the Argaña assassination, Lugo has not ruled out an alliance with Oviedo. A poll released last February put Lugo in first place with 37%, followed by Oviedo with 16%. The populist general remains popular among many Parguayans. In third place is President Duarte, who at least for now is still barred from running. This means that all three leading candidates are currently legally unfit to run for office.

But all that might change, and, unsurprisingly, it’s the Colorados who are behind it. The party is famous for finding Machiavellian ways of dividing the opposition. The Colorados seem to be mulling a risky move through their muscle in the courts.

It would work something like this: the Colorados would seek the support of Unace senators for a vote in favor of modifying the constitution to let Duarte stand for reelection. In return, the Colorado-dominated Supreme Court would reduce or reverse the sentence Oviedo is still serving. If Oviedo is released, Unace could legally present him as its own presidential candidate and thereby take votes away from Lugo to the benefit of the Colorados.

What will happen is impossible to predict. This month, the Supreme Court began an investigation into the Oviedo case citing "new facts," with the attorney general hinting the general’s sentence could be "revised." And Duarte recently remarked he would welcome a three-way contest between himself, Lugo and Oviedo.

Lugo, who has good relations with Unace, has taken these developments in stride, stating he would welcome another candidate to the field to "enrich the political debate." And there is always the possibility, however remote, that Lugo and Oviedo would run together against the Colorados. This last scenario would definitely enrage many of Lugo’s supporters, who blame Oviedo for the bloodshed of Marzo Paraguayo.

The Colorados themselves are beginning to buckle. Despite ruling for six decades, rivalries within the party have always been violent, revolving around individual caudillos, especially after Stroessner. The vice president recently broke with Duarte and announced his candidacy, but most top Colorado officials have so far stayed loyal to President Duarte.

Waiting for Democracy

In 18 years of nominally democratic one-party rule, the population has grown extremely apathetic toward politics, and it’s not hard to see why. In the last municipal elections only 35% of the population participated. But the possibility of a new government might change that. The country is at the brink of a potentially pivotal moment, and most Paraguayans have high expectations that the longest political dynasty in the world still in power will be defeated.

Even the Colorado party itself realizes its vast machinery is not enough to rein in popular aspirations—if not for something better, then at least for something different. The fear, at least among Lugo’s supporters, is that his government would do nothing different. There are seemingly three general currents among his backers: the first is one of unconditional adoration; second, there are those that believe he has good intentions, but that he’ll need a mobilized base of popular support to drive through changes; finally, there are those who believe he means well, but doubt he’ll be able to achieve much.

What’s most promising is that almost every left-wing social and political organization supporting Lugo agrees that whatever happens in 2008 they will keep working and organizing. Indeed, support for Lugo among most of these groups is wholly conditional.

Some, like the FNC, have opted out entirely from supporting a candidate. Espínola says that 18 years of elections have shown that Paraguay’s democracy is a façade. When asked how real democracy could be constructed, the campesino leader replied: "Through the people’s direct political participation in struggle; consciousness raising, organization and mobilization. Change won’t come from above."

Teo Ballvé is a Colombia-based journalist and an editor for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). He co-edited the recently published Dispatches from Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism. He can be reached by email: teo(AT)