Now that much of Latin America has shifted to the left, Paraguay remains a key Washington ally. The country’s political landscape continues to be dominated by the Colorado Party, which has been in power for 61 years, the longest continuous rule of any political party in the world. This enormous political machine, much of it built and consolidated during the 35-year military dictatorship (1954–89) of General Alfredo Stroessner, still permeates every inch of Paraguayan society. Yet as the panorama of candidates for the April presidential election makes clear, a new right-wing faction is emerging within the party, pledging to cut the umbilical cord with the past.
The two main contenders for the Colorado Party’s nomination best represent this new Paraguayan right: Blanca Ovelar, a former minister of education, and Luis Castiglioni, who renounced his post as vice president in October in order to run. While both followed in the so-called "anti-corruption" footsteps of outgoing president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, the very fact that they represented the Colorado Party signaled that they will not challenge the status quo—that is, the monolithic clientelist state apparatus that the party embodies. While adhering to conservative Colorado policies, Ovelar attacked corruption, promising “systematic, rigorous, and professional” fiscal control. But she also used new populist rhetoric. “My fight and my government have and will have a clear objective, a well-identified enemy: poverty,” she declared on her blog. (More than half of the Paraguayan population lives under the poverty line.)
Castiglioni, on the other hand, is a close Washington ally and promoter of neoliberal policies. Washington has cultivated close ties with him, especially on trade. On a trip to the United States in 2005, Castiglioni was photographed in chummy meetings with Roger Noriega, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the director of the FBI. He represents new interests that have arisen since the end of the Stroessner era, particularly soy growers and cattle ranchers, as well as the transnational agribusinesses allied with them. But besides insulting Ovelar, Castiglioni’s campaign speeches have been limited to anti-corruption rhetoric, particularly with regard to the disappearance of $50 million from the social project fund of the binational Hydroelectric Itaipú Company, for which he blames the Paraguayan director Víctor Bernal and Duarte.
Castiglioni’s advocacy of corporate control over public services and deregulating the economy clashes with the old right’s vast system of clientelism, in which public jobs are offered in return for political support. (Upon his election in 2003, Duarte, a Colorado stalwart, declared, “Neoliberalism has been a failure because it denies human dignity.”) This system relies entirely on state programs and services; unlike in other Latin American countries where neoliberalism has flourished, many Paraguayan roads, water systems, and electric utilities remain under state control. One of citizens’ few prospects for employment is through the Colorado Party, which employs some 200,000 people, 95% of whom are party members, in various capacities, from construction to teaching to local politics. Though many view the party as corrupt and ineffective, supporting it often means receiving a salary.
On December 16, 2007, these two contenders entered their party’s primary. Blanca Ovelar won the vote with 45% to Castiglione’s 44.%. For his part, Castiglioni says that 30,000 votes cast for him were stolen, and has since threatened to go to court to challenge the nomination. If Ovelar is elected, she would be the country’s first female president, but she’ll continue the legacy of the Colorado party. Lucy Benitez, a leather goods saleswoman in an Asunscion plaza, told AP, “I don't care whether there's a woman or man, but the next president must not be a Colorado.”
The candidates representing the old statist right included Duarte—whose bid to change the constitution to allow a second term failed—and is now narrowed down to General Lino Oviedo, running under his National Union of Ethical Citizens Party. Oviedo was banned from the election for participating in a foiled 1996 military coup, until the Supreme Court pardoned him in October. Capitalizing on his “martyr” status earned during a jail stint for participating in the coup, he promotes “a judicial guarantee of public order.” He also promises a new constitution and to restructure the state government but fails to offer any details on how he would go about this.
Relations with Washington, which has lavished Paraguay with democratization projects (that is, military training) in recent years, figure heavily as a campaign issue. Though the two countries have long been close, tensions arose even during the Stroessner era over the dictator’s not so subtle drug business. A 1986 House of Representatives report declared that there was “evidence of military collaboration and even active participation in the operation of cocaine laboratories,” and in 1988, the U.S.-based Cox Newspapers reported that Stroessner was collecting payoffs from “all narcotics traffickers conducting business in Paraguay.” Stroessner himself came to be called King of the Smugglers.
Today, Washington touts the fact that “more than a dozen U.S. multinational firms,” mostly in the computer, agro-industrial, telecom, and banking industries, have subsidiaries in the country. But it has also identified Paraguay as a “major illicit producer of cannabis” and “locus of money laundering, smuggling, arms and illegal narcotics trafficking, and fundraising for extremist organizations.” These concerns center on one of the country’s most notorious cities, Ciudad del Este. Initially named Port Stroessner after the dictator founded it in 1957, the city exists in the tri-border region where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet. In 1996, Forbes magazine ranked the city as the third most important commercial center, after Miami and Hong Kong—a crucial node in the trade circuits through which legitimate and counterfeit goods alike find their way to port.
Thus the old right has more links to narco-traffickers and the lumpen business class, both of which depend on international trade and black market goods, whereas these illicit flows are a thorn in the side of the new right and the multinational corporations whose products are undersold by counterfeits. Washington continues to work with military and legislative sectors on projects ranging from “medical missions” among the radicalized anti-soy farming community, to military training for pro-soy law enforcement, to anti-piracy and anti-narco-trafficking projects on the sievelike border. Yet it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to enforce legislation against the mafia and narco-traffickers given the connections they have to high-ranking members of the police, military, and judiciary.
In contrast to the other candidates, Fernando Lugo, the bearded former bishop running for president, represents a link to the new left in Latin America. Yet his base comprises a wide coalition of opposition forces whose interests probably don’t coincide past a rejection of Colorado rule. And his candidacy is uncertain, since the Vatican has rejected his requests for laicization, and Paraguayan law forbids clergy from running for office. Nonetheless, Lugo, together with Oviedo, is considered a front-runner.
In any case, if Paraguayan voters think ousting the Colorados is enough to create change, warns Paraguayan sociologist and human rights advocate Marco Castillo, they are in for a surprise. “The Colorados are organized and capable, and could mobilize their wide support and state-based infrastructure to make any advances by the new government impossible,” he says. But he adds that if the Colorado Party does win the elections, a continuation of its clientelist, pro-business policies for the next five years could be “disastrous.”
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). April Howard is a journalist, translator, and adjunct lecturer of Latin American studies at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. Both are editors at UpsideDownWorld.org, a Web site on activism and politics in Latin America.