Is Paraguay Set to be the Next Latin American Country to Lean to the Left?

COHA Series on Forthcoming Latin American Elections:
Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo Méndez wants to be the next president while current President Nicanor Duarte contributes to the institution of democracy by not running for re-election


Paraguay Presidential Election April 2008
After deciding not to seek a constitutional amendment to allow for his consecutive re-election, the upcoming April 2008 presidential vote in Paraguay will close out President Nicanor Duarte’s relatively tranquil first, and only, five year term. This election could very well be the first in decades to pose a serious threat to the seemingly eternal rule of the long-tainted and long ruling Colorado Party, which has controlled Paraguay since 1947, including the decades-long venal and brutal dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. The likely candidate to successfully contest this bilious legacy is former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez, who aspires to appear on the presidential ticket representing the opposition, El Partido Concertación Nacional.

Lugo visited Washington June 18 and met with officials at the State Department; even though he is not yet an official candidate. Additionally, he delivered a lecture at George Washington University titled “Political Alternatives to the World’s Longest Ruling Party.” Maintaining good terms with the U.S., gaining widespread public support in Paraguay, and solidifying international friendships seem to be the basis of his good-natured campaign agenda.


Background of a Bishop
Lugo was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977 and became Bishop of San Pedro, Paraguay in 1994. Although he resigned in 2005 to pursue his political ambitions, Lugo still has congressional impediments to confront as Paraguay’s constitution bans members of the clergy from seeking political office. The Vatican has not yet formally accepted his resignation and members of the ruling Colorado Party are using every means to establish that Lugo’s candidacy would be unconstitutional. However, Lugo has a first rank team of constitutional law experts who have confirmed that his candidacy would pose no legal challenges. On the contrary, the obstacles he must overcome to secure the candidacy are entirely political in nature. If Lugo only had managed a small percentage of popular support, his run for president would not be an issue. But a recent poll conducted by the Paraguayan newspaper Ultima Hora, showed that 40.8 percent of respondents would support Lugo as the candidate of the opposition Concertación Nacional, making him a disturbingly credible threat to the Colorados.

The Tides Are Turning

Although President Duarte, who appears to be an inherently decent man, has tried to rule from a more centrist standpoint than his predecessors in the extremely conservative Colorado party, his refusal to fully take on Paraguay’s conventional elites, in light of the recent leftward shift in Latin America, has allowed the country’s left to strike out against him. Almost 50 percent of Paraguay’s population lives on less than $2 a day and 38 percent of the citizenry are either unemployed or under-employed. Decades of rule by the Colorados have enriched the wealthy at the expense of the indigenous population and ordinary Paraguayans. This disenfranchised majority in Paraguay views Lugo as “The Bishop of the Poor,” and as their only chance to build change from the bottom up with an honest administration that could lead Paraguay into the future.

In 2006, over 50,000 demonstrators took over the capital, Asunción, to protest against Colorado rule. Unionized workers, as well as leftist and indigenous organizations, began to unite behind Lugo, who is from one of Paraguay’s poorest areas and who has often spoken out forcefully against poverty and inequality. The “Bishop of the Poor” has praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for his work to help Venezuela’s poverty-grasped population. Still, Lugo has made an effort to distance himself from other populist leaders in Latin America by focusing more explicitly on social inequality in Paraguay. Lugo challenged the country’s traditional elite, questioning why “there are so many differences between the 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery.”

Social Justice
In regards to the influence that neighboring governments such as left-leaning Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia would potentially have on his presidency, Lugo commented, “Paraguay is feeling the new winds growing across the region … But it cannot be like Venezuela because it has no oil. Nor can it be like Bolivia because it has no natural gas and it can’t be like Chile because it has no copper.” Even though Paraguay does not have the resources of these countries, their loosely shared socialist/populist vision could help form some of Lugo’s policies, adding another link to the chain of Latin American countries with autonomous policies independent of the region’s traditional pro-U.S. stance.

It has been 17 years since Paraguay’s supposed transition to democracy began and the citizens for the most part have yet to receive the benefits of a representative, responsive government. Campesinos have been killed for defending their land rights and protesting Colorado Party rule, and at least one dissenting journalist has “disappeared.” Lugo believes that iconoclastic opinions are necessary to strengthen democracy and although he supports some of Chávez’s social policies, he has distanced himself from the Venezuelan leader and his decision not to renew the contract of an opposition TV station, RCTV. Lugo said, “I don’t condemn [Chávez] or support him … but I wouldn’t do it … it would be a step backwards for Paraguay.” However, Lugo is a supporter of Chávez’s land reform policy and would incorporate some form of prospect for redistributive justice into his presidential agenda along with agricultural reform, reassertion of national sovereignty in the country’s energy and policy and opposition to the presence of U.S. troops in Paraguay, in contrast to the orientation of the present government.

Implications for the U.S.

As the Bush administration continues to broaden its “War on Terror,” Paraguay is looked upon as a desirable location for the U.S. to project a military presence. Paraguay is extremely important to the U.S. military because of its triple border with Argentina and Brazil, known as a haven for drug and contraband trafficking as well as for a large Middle Eastern Community. Additionally, Paraguay’s close proximity to Bolivia could allow outside forces to closely monitor Bolivian President Evo Morales, a sometimes strong critic of Washington’s tactics in Latin America. Paraguay’s normally friendly relationship with the U.S could be jeopardized by the election of a populist president. Nevertheless, based on Lugo’s warm welcome in Washington a number of days ago, it is apparent that the State Department is making an initial effort to appease the presidential hopeful. Anticipatory lobbying by Washington may be further motivated by the Bush administration’s concern that Lugo’s election could compromise Duarte’s intention to enter into a free trade agreement with the U.S. and progress toward a military cooperation agreement.

For now, Lugo is playing it safe with both the U.S. and Venezuela, with a correct, even friendly policy towards the two adversaries. After all, painting opposition candidates as pawns of Chávez may have cost the left elections in Peru and even, possibly, Mexico. Paraguay does not presently have a well defined foreign policy but if Lugo became president in 2008, he would be especially keen to define the country’s bilateral relationship with the U.S. and Venezuela as well as Brazil. He says Paraguay must be respected by and placed “… on an equal footing with the U.S.” Lugo also hopes that the long standing tradition of amiable relations between Paraguay and the U.S. will lead to a brighter future for both nations. Lugo already has made an effort to show that he wants to be engaged with the U.S., while at the same time, he praises Chávez and maintains close contact with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. What Lugo seems to be saying is that he wants access to the U.S. market, as well as to be a beneficiary of Chávez’s now well known generosity.

Lugo’s Prospective Policies
Lugo’s goal for a relationship with Washington is at least partially motivated by market accessibility. Under most of Duarte’s leadership, Paraguay had been looked upon as a natural ally of the U.S. as his ideology is not consistent with that of the new generation of left-leaning leaders which currently comprise most of MERCOSUR, the southern common market. Paraguay has been a long-time member of the bloc but does not feel that it is noticeably benefiting from the present arrangement. This became a motivating factor in Paraguay’s allowing of U.S. troops to be granted immunity by Asunción even though Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay were opposed to this arrangement.

In spite of the government’s repeated recriminations and outcries, Paraguay’s membership in MERCOSUR has not provided the country with the new investment necessary for its economic development. Out of economic hardship, Duarte has turned to Washington for a closer fiscal relationship, which has had military implications as well. The present relationship with Washington could change if Lugo were elected president. Sometimes referred to as a “radical priest,” he is likely to steer Paraguay towards the left, making him a leader more akin to Chávez (at least in the tone of his social justice message) than Duarte. A left-leaning government does not necessarily mean an anti-American government and the U.S. needs to abandon its Cold War, Reagan-era stance that seems to assume this view. Furthermore, in a recent interview Lugo called his relationship with the U.S. Embassy “very cordial and open” and said it would remain so if he became president. While it is still too early to make definitive judgments regarding near-future developments, from a pragmatic point of view it would be beneficial for Lugo to remain on good terms with all of Paraguay’s trading partners as well as its geographically immediate neighbors. Nevertheless, based on his support for Presidents Chávez, Correa, and Morales, the present strong U.S. military ties with Paraguay are likely to weaken if Lugo were to become president. With Lugo’s first priority being “the better distribution of wealth for the benefit of the poor majority,” the Chavez model of democracy may prove to be Lugo’s best navigational device, although the influence of orthodox Brazil may prove too omnipresent to resist.

Presidential Ticket for Lugo
Among the delegates of the nine political parties which comprise the Concertación Nacional, there is consensus that Lugo should head up the organization’s presidential ticket. “I didn’t think this was going to happen…It was a question of 30 years of priest life, 11 years of being a bishop and getting into the swamp of Paraguay politics…But I think I’ll be the candidate of this coalition,” Lugo declared.

Lugo has an affinity to certain campesino and socialist movements and wants to create a more transparent government. He acknowledges that the country’s long-held practice of corruption is not easy to change and that in five years he will be unlikely to introduce many drastic policy alterations; but, he hopes to start moving Paraguay in the right direction. “Saying corruption is going to disappear is like saying sin is going to disappear and I don’t think that’s going to happen.” However, there is potential for administrative accountability and he believes that his first priority is to ensure a transparent administration. Lugo feels that, “If the head is rotten, the whole body must be rotten” and he continues to assure Paraguayans that, if given a chance, he will be an ethical and responsible leader.

Does He Have a Chance?
Currently, the political dynamics of Paraguay are shifting. In light of the recent demonstration in Asunción against the Colorado Party, the overall frustration of ordinary citizens and the reception of Lugo’s leadership as an outside figure who has the capacity to bring together diverse groups, the upcoming election could bring about a radical change in Paraguay’s history. If Lugo’s candidacy becomes official, he stands a good chance of winning the election. Lugo has the trust of a growing number of Paraguayans because unlike many of the other political candidates, he has no background of corruption and comes from a respected institution–the Catholic Church. Although the U.S. view of the Catholic Church has been tarnished amid recent scandals, 96 percent of Paraguayans still hold the Church in high esteem. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his candidacy will be a response to a grassroots petition for new, responsible leadership.

Further improving Lugo’s chances, the two other top candidates bring nothing new to the table. The current Vice President, Luis Castiglioni, is considered corrupt, and any support the current minister of education, Blanca Ovelar, would be able to generate among female voters would be counter-balanced by her alignment as a faithful militant of President Duarte, making her blend into the crowd of other candidates. The Colorado party has been in power for over 60 years, telling something of its durability, but its leadership has done practically nothing to show that it possesses a high-minded vision for the country or the capability to bring it about. Similarly, it has been unable to handle the endemic corruption and other growing problems that include narcotics trafficking and poverty.

Lugo at least offers some hope, due to the strength of his character, for the start of genuine change in Paraguay. His humble background is shared with the majority of citizens and his clean reputation and past affiliation with the liberal wing of the Catholic Church make him an ideal leader for the majority of ordinary Paraguayans. If Lugo confirms his candidacy in January and embraces the will of the people, as many expect he will do, Paraguay may very well be the next Latin American country to engage in the tug of war between a moderate leftist ideology and conservative status quo forces traditionally aligned with the U.S. The prospect of a center-left Paraguay with a moderate leadership, while not necessarily Washington’s preference, could show the Bush administration that Latin American countries do not need to be either “With us or against us,” but that they may exercise autonomy by catering to their own national interests, while landing somewhere to the left of the ideological middle.

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