Paraguay: Mixed Results for Lugo’s First 100 Days

 (IPS) – Amid social demands, political conflicts and uncertainty over Paraguay’s economic future, President Fernando Lugo has completed the first 100 days of his term, during which positive achievements have been made in the fields of health and fighting corruption.

Since the former bishop took office on Aug. 15, the issue of land reform has risen to the forefront, with campesino (small farmer) and social organisations holding major demonstrations and marches, occupying land and staging roadblocks around the country, to demand agrarian reform.

Large landholdings in the hands of Brazilian landowners in the eastern part of the country, devoted to intensive soybean cultivation, were the focus of a conflict that shifted into the realm of diplomacy when the landholders asked the Brazilian government to mediate.

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Lugo created the Council for Agrarian Reform, made up of representatives of government institutions and campesino organisations.

In the view of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement (MCP), the Lugo administration has opened up a "real, serious" democratic process, which is important for the work and development of social organisations.

"We knew that not all the expected changes could be accomplished in these first 100 days. The main thing is to guarantee the continuity of the process that has begun, because there are many vested interests involved," Pablo Ojeda, the MCP’s secretary general, told IPS.

He said the Council for Agrarian Reform is an important step towards meeting the demands of campesinos, although results will depend on the political will of its constituent sectors.

On another front, the new government has been overwhelmed by a rapid increase in crime. According to police records, between August and October this year there were 339 burglaries and armed robberies in homes, an increase of 138 percent on the same period in 2007.

In the political sphere, differences between the parties and movements that belong to the governing Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) have come to the surface.

There have been constant discrepancies between Lugo and Vice President Federico Franco of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, the main political party within the APC.

The ministerial appointments of Liberal opponents of Franco, differing positions on the defence of private property, and Lugo’s decision to appoint Interior Minister Rafael Filizzola as liaison between the executive branch and parliament, which according to the constitution is a function of the vice president, have fuelled the friction.

Lugo’s relations with parliament, meanwhile, have been hurt by a lack of coordination in presenting government draft laws to the legislators.

Lugo lacks a majority in both chambers, where the Colorado Party, now in opposition after 61 years of uninterrupted power, controls a larger number of seats.

Although the ruling coalition relied initially on the support of the National Union of Ethical Citizens (UNACE) party, this relationship deteriorated because of the announcement of an alleged conspiracy against the government led by the head of UNACE, former General Lino César Oviedo, and by former Colorado President Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008).

"Lugo has had to confront a justice system, made up of the judicial branch and the Public Ministry (Attorney General and Ombudsman’s Offices), and a parliament that are frankly hostile to his administration," political analyst Tomás Palau told IPS.

On the economic front, one of the measures that has had the greatest impact was forcing large rural producers to pay the income tax on farming activities. Tax collection was maintained at a high level, but attempts to eradicate tax evasion have failed to yield the expected results.

Associations of large agricultural producers and business chambers say that the measures adopted by the Lugo administration are still insufficient to cope with the international economic crisis.

One campaign promise fulfilled in Lula’s first 100 days as president was that public hospitals should provide treatment free of charge.

"We drew up a contingency plan and set target indicators, then we worked on these to achieve the results that we are now seeing," Minister of Public Health and Social Welfare Esperanza Martínez told IPS.

"Our goal is to make budget spending a participative and transparent process. So far, we have achieved that for 38 percent of this sector’s budget, and our goal is to increase that to 80 percent," she added.

Free treatment has resulted in a 22 percent increase in hospital outpatient visits, and a 10 percent rise in admissions.

The government has also shown signs of fighting corruption, in the cases of the National Administration of Navigation and Ports (ANNP) and the binational bodies that run the hydroelectric stations at Itaipú and Yacyretá.

According to Palau, Lugo has confronted the problem of corruption timidly, because of the limitations of the current composition of the judicial system.

"These conditions make it difficult to implement development plans, because the administrative fabric is deeply corroded by corruption and ineptness," he said.

But Lugo himself said Tuesday in a speech in the seat of government that "We have taken the first steps towards dismantling a scandalous structure that was pillaging the public treasury."

In addition, Lugo has made progress towards renegotiating the treaty governing the Itaipú hydroelectric station, shared with Brazil. A team of technical experts has been set up to hold discussions on energy demand in both countries. Renegotiation of the treaty was a major election campaign promise.

"There have been important advances, something that hadn’t occurred since the treaty was signed in 1973," said Palau.

Although Lugo’s popularity remains high, his administration will be expected to respond effectively in future to the problems of the campesinos, the rise in crime rates, and the need to generate employment.

A worrying aspect, said Palau, is the lack of a support team for making decisions that would be able to tackle the legacy of 61 years of Colorado rule.

In his speech, Lugo underlined that 100 days are not sufficient to overhaul deeply-rooted structures, and merely serve to mark a change in course by the new government.

He also said the government had focused on reviewing public employees, on the basis of "honesty and ability."

"In many ministries, we found things in ruin and bankruptcy, with structures completely dismantled. We also know that never in the history of this country have there been 100 days of greater scrutiny and oversight," said the president.