Old Prejudices Die Hard

At the triple frontier of Iguazú Falls, where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet, thousands of people cross the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) every day with little hassle, which suggests that Paraguay’s relationship with its neighbours is indeed one of amistad. The construction of the bridge between Brazil and Paraguay in 1956 was followed by increasing cooperation between Paraguay and its neighbours, with the creation of Mercosur (a South American trade bloc) in 1991 and the signing of what then Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva called the “historic agreement” of 2009, which successfully resolved a dispute over the jointly operated Itaipu hydro-electric dam.

Image courtesy of Fernando Lugo Mendez, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Fernando Lugo Mendez, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Yet what the international press calls the ‘lightning’ impeachment of Paraguayan president, Fernando Lugo Méndez, last June had a resounding impact in the domestic, continental, and international spheres, somewhat souring the amistad as the members of Mercosur suspended Paraguay until it returns to the “full rule of democracy”. While there has been talk of readmitting Paraguay after the presidential elections this coming April 21st, the much deeper political causes and consequences of the coup mean that it will need much more than another election to renew the amistad.

The first major event in the complex relationship between Paraguay and its southern neighbours was the Triple Alliance (or Paraguayan) War of 1864. A local version of this war claims that after Paraguay responded to a cry for help from its ally Uruguay, the latter abandoned it to form an alliance with Argentina and Brazil and the three went on to steal much of Paraguay’s territory and begin a six-year ‘genocide’. An alternative version asserts that Paraguay, led by the Napoleon-inspired Francisco Solano López, declared war on Brazil and Argentina in an attempt to gain access to the sea. Regardless of which view is correct, there are two undeniable facts: before the war Paraguay was probably the most advanced country in South America, being economically self-sufficient and having by far the largest army of between 70,000 and 100,000 men; in the war Paraguay lost most of its male population (60% of the total) and has lagged behind the others economically ever since. One hundred and fifty years later Paraguayans and their neighbours alike cite the war as key in understanding the relationship with its neighbours.

Just as important to remember is that, as with many other South American countries, Paraguay was ruled by a US-backed military dictator, in this case suffering under the thirty-five year presidency of Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda. Of significance today is the fact that while Stroessner was ousted in 1989 his party, the Colorados, remained in power and with them continued the censorship and economic inequality which has led many to feel that the dictatorship never really ended with Stroessner’s downfall.

A Change for the Better

For many the election of Lugo in 2008 signified the end of the dictatorship, as a combination of fragmentation within the Colorado party, a desire for change from the people, and a new unity among the left, led by former bishop Lugo, finally ousted the Colorados from the political helm. Widely believed to be Paraguay’s fairest election, the new government followed left-wing policies with Lugo’s plans to improve housing, healthcare, and welfare for the poor, more freedom of information, and the termination of the monopoly on the internet by the state-owned company Copaco.

While Lugo’s more liberal policies earned him the approval of Paraguay’s neighbours, they made him many enemies amongst the terratenientes, the landed elites who make up much of the Colorado and Liberal parties. Although only 2% of the population, terratenientes own 80% of Paraguayan land and have commensurate control over Paraguayan politics; once they had plotted Lugo’s impeachment it took only five hours for the court to find him guilty of, among other ridiculous charges, “violence and insecurity in Paraguay” and “inciting conflict between classes”. A look at these trumped-up charges in the context of various failed attempts to oust Lugo and the very suspicious circumstances surrounding the Curuguaty massacre – the factor which triggered his impeachment – show only too clearly that the political elite never intended to let Lugo finish his term.

New Faces, Same Story

In terms of both domestic and international politics the impeachment has resulted in a huge step backwards. Although the former allies of Lugo, the Liberals, have governed Paraguay since the impeachment, they do not share his ideals, taking more control over the media, cracking down on pirate radio stations, and allegedly embezzling $15million of Paraguayan taxes to fill their own party coffers. While it is unlikely that the Liberals will win the election (according to most surveys their candidate Efrain Alegre Sasiain trails Horacio Cartes Jara by more than 10% in the polls) a victory for Cartes promises little improvement: Cartes is yet another of the Colorado elite, a cigarette magnate who the State Department in Washington has claimed is responsible for 80% of the money-laundering in Paraguay.

So while the outlook on the domestic front is bleak, prospects of renewing the amistad look little better. While the members of Mercosur were right to condemn the impeachment, they did so for the wrong reasons; contrary to their cries of a ‘coup’, the impeachment was constitutional, but the suspension of Paraguay from Mercosur conveniently allowed Venezuela’s incorporation in the club, which Paraguay’s Congress had rejected. While Mercosur will supposedly reconsider Paraguay’s membership once there is a legal government, the strained political relationship and continued rejection of Venezuela may well cause them to exclude it permanently. As Mercosur sees it, a victory for Cartes is a victory for the terratenientes, the pillars of the dictatorship and allies of the United States; only two weeks ago Brecha, a Uruguayan left-wing paper, accused the US of still having a hold over Paraguay through its donations of more that “$100m (over five years) to businesses, NGOs, and governmental bodies” and quoted former US ambassador to Paraguay Liliana Ayalde’s affirmation that “our influence here is much more than is apparent”. As for potential allies outside of South America, although the world’s press generally accepted the impeachment as constitutional and condemned Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur, it is unlikely that countries will risk damaging relations with promising allies such as Brazil by supporting what is likely to be a corrupt presidency under Cartes.

So while it was the ‘lightning coup’ which caught the attention of the media last June, the election of Lugo in 2008 was probably what deserved it; his election marked a change in direction and inspired hope for a democracy, while his impeachment simply signalled a return to the rule of terratenientes. The relationship between Paraguay and its neighbours, which had gradually improved throughout the twentieth century, soured and Paraguay once again became the pariah of South America. The latent ill feelings that remained from the Triple Alliance War resurfaced all too quickly and memories of US-supported dictatorships associated with the Colorado party hardly encourage a renewal of the amistad. While the desire for change which brought about Lugo’s election will hopefully prevent another sixty years of Colorado rule, the ease with which he was impeached and the speed at which the Mercosur members cut their ties with the country shows that the terratenientes still hold the reins of power and that it may be some time before Paraguay sees any major changes.

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