In 2008, Paraguay could replace the Colorado red of its past with a different shade of red: a revolutionary or Bolívarian red.
Former Catholic priest, Fernando Lugo Méndez, is almost certain to be the presidential candidate of a rising leftist opposition to the perpetual rule of Paraguay’s Colorado Party in the 2008 elections.
A May opinion poll in the Asunción newspaper Última Hora indicated that 40.8% of Paraguayans intended to vote for Lugo, against just 9% for the probable ruling party candidate supported by the current president, Nicanor Duarte.
Should Lugo be elected, Paraguay will become the latest Latin American nation to spurn the United States and reject the divisive neoliberal policies that have only further enriched an exclusive elite at the expense of the indigenous and workers.
That Paraguay, controlled since 1946 by the Colorado (or ‘Red’) Party — including the 34 year extreme right wing military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner — should even contemplate joining Venezuela and Bolivia and most of Latin America in electing a progressive leftist as president, demonstrates just how far politics have changed on this continent.
Not since an attempted revolution against the fascist dictator Morínigo in March 1947, has Paraguay experienced such a concerted and united challenge for political control from the left. Since the rightist Colorado party’s victory in the civil war of that year, political repression, authoritarianism and single party rule had denied space to workers, their unions, and indigenous Guaraní, leftist and communist activists to organize or oppose the government.
Even after Stroessner was deposed in a military coup in February 1989, the Colorado Party has continued to rule Paraguay through patronage and corruption — utilizing their advantage of decades of elitist control of the country to manipulate successive presidential elections — with disastrous results.
The General who overthrew Stroessner, Andrés Ródriquez Pedotti, who had amassed a large fortune during the dictatorship, was accused of profiting from heroin trafficking and ultimately denied a US visa even though he was president. His successor, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, appointed Stroessner’s supporters to government positions and on leaving office was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment.
The next Colorado administration saw the Marzo Paraguayo events in March 1999, when then president, Raúl Cubas, tried to pardon General Lino Oviedo who had been imprisoned for attempting a military coup in 1996. Cubas’ own vice-president, Luís María Argaña, instituted impeachment proceedings against Cubas, but was assassinated in the capital, Asunción, sparking riots and demonstrations which Cubas attempted to suppress by putting tanks on the streets.
After eight protesters were killed by the military, representatives in Congress voted to dismiss Cubas from the presidency, but before the Senate could ratify the impeachment, Cubas resigned and fled to Brazil. Despite the resignation of the president and the assassination of the vice-president, the Colorado Party continued to hold onto power through the accession of Luís Ángel González, the president of the legislature — which the party controlled — to the presidency of the republic.
However, González did nothing to improve the Colorado Party’s miserable record — even using a stolen armored BMW as his official car while illegally transferring millions of dollars from the Central Bank to accounts in the US. As soon as he lost his legal immunity upon leaving office, he was charged with fraud and embezzlement, convicted, and sentenced last year to 8 years in prison.
The latest Colorado president, Nicanor Duarte, elected in 2003 with 38% of the vote, has so far taken a less excessive approach to governing, and has attempted to pursue a centrist political line in the face of Latin America’s shift to the left, but the institutionalized privileges and patronage of the longest continual ruling party in the world continue to pressure the president to appease the right.
This reluctance, or inability, to change policies favorable to Paraguay’s elite, while all Latin America continues to elect and reelect progressive presidents who reject US priorities, has encouraged the country’s left to take the offensive and start to disprove Paraguayan sociologist Bernardino Caño’s assertion that the country has a ‘cultural fear of change’.
In 2006, a 50,000 strong demonstration took over Asunción to protest Colorado Party rule, and unionized workers, and leftist and indigenous organizations began to unite behind a Catholic bishop from one of Paraguay’s poorest areas, Lugo Méndez, who was speaking out forcefully against poverty and inequality.
Praising Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolívarian revolution for favoring the poor, Lugo, the ‘Bishop of the Poor’, as he is now popularly known, continually challenged Paraguay’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.’
Last December, Lugo renounced his ministry to participate in politics, not just to defeat the Colorado Party, but to ‘be more ambitious… to change the country.’ A forceful orator both in Spanish and Guaraní, the indigenous language that most Paraguayans speak, he declared that ‘united in our diversity… we will not allow our dreams to be frustrated.’
The response from Paraguay’s Catholic hierarchy was swift. ‘Monsignor Lugo is in a state of contempt, exposing himself to the punishment of excommunication,’ said the president of Paraguay’s Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Ignacio Gogorza, ‘Lugo does not have the permission of the Vatican to go into politics, so he is leaving Catholicism for poor choices… he cannot leave the cloth simply by resigning. His life devoted to religion is for one’s entire life.’
On February 1, the Vatican denied Lugo’s request to be laicized. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re wrote that Lugo must ‘remain in the clerical state,’ claiming that a bishop as a presidential candidate would be ‘a cause of confusion and division amongst the faithful and an offense to the laity.’
This indirect support for the Colorado Party from the Vatican has been further fueled by Lugo’s adherence to liberation theology — the ‘preferential option for the poor’ tendency within Catholicism that emphasizes a commitment to those less privileged — and which the official Church considers radical or revolutionary.
Although the Vatican’s rejection of Lugo’s resignation does not have legal force under Paraguay’s secular constitution, the closeness of the conservative Church hierarchy with the Colorado Party, and the Party’s control of the Supreme Court, Congress and Electoral Tribunal, could mean that Lugo’s presidential candidacy may be ruled invalid.
Lugo is undeterred, however, and returned to the streets in March with a 20,000 strong demonstration against the Supreme Court, whose justices are all members of the Colorado Party, calling on them to resign because of corruption and their partisan support for President Duarte.
Justice in Paraguay is ‘fast and cheap for the wealthy or those who have friends in power,’ Lugo told the demonstrators, ‘but new times are coming… a change can come in the short term… but we have to be aware to guarantee that the forces of chaos do not sabotage the awakening.’
The former priest continues to attract the almost unconditional support of many of the estimated 50% of Paraguayans who still live in poverty, and who have seen no gains from the failed neoliberal policies that the ruling party imported from the United States, but there are signs that support from the organized left in Paraguay is more qualified.
Communist Party activists have cautioned that workers ‘have to see what Lugo does, more than what he says,’ while the Popular Socialist Convergence Party points out that Lugo has considered an alliance with the traditional, and conservative, opposition coalition, Concertación Nacional, although no agreement has so far been formalized.
However, it is undeniable that most Paraguayans have expectations that the politics that Lugo says have ‘favored narrow, partisan interests over those of the nation’ will be defeated in 2008. United with organized workers and indigenous activists, the massive popular support behind Lugo’s challenge to the elite and their Colorado Party could finally end the control this privileged minority has had over Paraguay for the last 60 years.
Ex obispo en carrera a la presidencia, Gustavo Torres, Noticias Aliadas, Lima, 3 de Mayo de 2007
Paraguay’s ruling party faces threat of a populist bishop, Larry Rohter, New York Times, United States, 27 February 2007
La falta de justicia, Fernando Lugo Méndez, ABC Digital, Asunción, 12 de Abril de 2007
Obispo de los pobres candidato de Tekojoja, Ernesto Herrera, Tekojoja, Asunción, 23 de Diciembre de 2006
Duarte: Queremos cambiar la historia, interview, BBC Mundo, Asunción, 15 de Agosto de 2003
US military in Paraguay threatens region, Project Uncensored report, United States, 18 September 2006
Stroessner, Paraguay’s enduring dictator, dies, D J Schemo, New York Times, United States, 16 August 2006
Paraguay’s peculiar politics, Teo Ballvé, North American Congress on Latin America report in Upside Down World, United States, 12 April 2007
El ex obispo Lugo acepta unirse a la coalición opositora en Paraguay, EFE report in El País, Madrid, 2 de Marzo de 2007
El cura candidate, AFP report in Semana, Bogotá, 19 de Febrero de 2007