Politics in Paraguay: Twenty Years of Transition

Paraguayan society is marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) amid uncertainty surrounding the loss of power of the Colorado Party, which ruled the country for 61 years.

In the early hours of Feb. 3, 1989, General Stroessner surrendered to a military uprising led by General Andrés Rodríguez, his son’s father-in law, who became president of the Republic until 1993.

Rodríguez and seven other military commanders, all using the code-name "Carlos", directed the coup on the night of Feb. 2, moving troops towards the capital city. After his surrender, Stroessner was put on a plane to Brazil, where he died in 2006.

The leaders of the uprising announced a five-point programme: to dignify the armed forces, unite the Colorado Party in government, begin a transition to democracy, uphold human rights and respect the Catholic Church.

The declaration by the rebels made it abundantly clear that the partnership in power between the armed forces and the National Republican Association (ANR), better known as the Colorado Party, would continue. The Stroessner regime was overthrown from within, and this set the course of the transition process.

For many years the ANR had been united around the figure of Stroessner, but from 1984 onward, that unity began to fragment.

The points that referred to a transition to democracy and to respect for human rights aligned Paraguay more closely with other South American countries, which by the late 1980s had returned to democracy.

One of Rodríguez’s first decisions was to call general elections on May 1, 1989, the first free elections to be held after over three decades of dictatorship. Most political parties, even those on the left, were granted legal recognition.

Civil liberties came into force after Feb. 3. Those media that had been closed down during the regime resumed their work and social organisations were freed from police pressures.

"Today we celebrate the fall of the dictatorship, but not of the regime as such. It has taken two further decades to remove (from power) the party that upheld the dictatorship," the sociologist and former senator for the Partido País Solidario (PPS) (Party for a Country of Solidarity) José Nicolás Morínigo told IPS.

The lasting impression in public opinion today is that the Stroessner regime was dictatorial and lacked any respect whatsoever for social and human rights, he said.

In the view of political scientist Line Bareiro, the country is reluctant to accept that the present imperfect and unjust democracy is the best that society has been capable of creating.

During the transition to democracy, the dictatorial legislation and apparatus were dismantled to make way for new rules and structures that were decided upon by the interplay of political forces in the national scene, says Bareiro in a situational analysis she wrote for the non-governmental Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinating group (CODEHUPY).

"The main problem of the Paraguayan transition was that in spite of its freedoms, the institution of elections for a number of years, and the emergence of new political actors, the party that had supported the dictatorship all along won the elections over and over again," she said.

After General Rodríguez’s term of office, civilian presidents returned to the seat of government. Colorado Party candidates without exception, Presidents Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993-1998), Raúl Cubas (1998-1999), Luis González Macchi (1999-2003) and Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008) governed in turn.

For many people, the victory in the elections held Apr. 20, 2008 of current President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop supported by the multi-hued opposition coalition Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio (APC) (Patriotic Alliance for Change), was the culmination of the transition process and opened the way for the consolidation of the democratic system.

"The big difference was being able to choose a political alternative. In these elections, for the first time, we have seen a handover from one government to another, after fair elections," Morínigo said.

In his view, this has created an opportunity to make progress toward social and economic change.

According to human rights activist Martín Almada, a victim of the Stroessner dictatorship who was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize), the system of corruption and impunity remains intact.

"Those who denied us the right to life and liberty are going about their business as government officials, even in a democracy," Almada told IPS.

Almada is head of a foundation for survivors of the regime’s crimes, which will mark the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship by asking President Lugo to fulfil his promise to fight corruption.

Although he regards it as "lightweight", Almada highlighted the publication of the report of the independent Truth and Justice Commission in August 2008 as an important step forward. The report documents investigations into human rights abuses committed in Paraguay between 1954 and 2003.

The Truth and Justice Commission, created by law in 2003, recorded 128,076 direct and indirect victims of the dictatorship, of whom 19,682 were arbitrarily detained, 18,722 were subjected to different forms of torture, 59 were executed and 337 disappeared.

Another key political event during the transition years was the 1991 municipal elections, held under new electoral legislation, in which local authorities were directly elected for the first time.

Also in 1991, elections were held for delegates to a Constituent Assembly to re-write the country’s constitution, and on Jun. 20, 1992 the first constitution with democratic legitimacy was approved.

Now Paraguay is experiencing social protests. In particular, campesinos (small farmers) are demanding a comprehensive land reform and regulation of the use of toxic agrochemicals, liberally employed on large soya plantations.

Improving the country’s position in the regional context is a government priority, including renegotiation of the treaty signed with Brazil during the Stroessner era on the administration of the Itaipú binational hydroelectric power station, on the Paraná River, which Lugo regards as one-sided.

In Morínigo’s view, one legacy of the dictatorship is the persistent belief that politics are a means for solving personal, rather than national, problems.

"Each political sector continues to fight for its own interests, to the detriment of the national project that is trumpeted everywhere. However, it is essential to fight for national sovereignty," he concluded.

All things considered, two decades after the end of the Stroessner dictatorship it appears that the democratic process is being consolidated under the Lugo administration.