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A new page in Paraguayan history


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A new page in Paraguayan history
In April this year, an ex-bishop, Fernando Lugo, ushered in a new era in Paraguay's history when he led a coalition, the Patriotic Alliance for Change, to victory in the country's presidential election. His triumph over the incumbent Colorado Party, which has monopolised power for the past six decades by a combination of terror and patronage, has paved the way for social change at home and greater regional cooperation with the neigbouring progressive regimes.
Michael Fox
'I'M so happy,' cries an ecstatic Smilzer Jimenez in a thick Guarani-Spanish accent. 'When I was two years old, the Colorado party was already in power. I hope for a better country.'

Just a few people away amidst the packed crowd is Graciela Bogadin, another tiny elderly Paraguayan who can't control her excitement.

'I came here to vote for Lugo, and now I'm here for him. I came here to vote, and I voted, and now I'm here, present for my president!' she cries, first in Spanish and then in Guarani.

Bogadin is a Paraguayan who, like hundreds of thousands of her brethren, was forced to live abroad over the last five decades. She has now lived in Argentina for many years, but was one of thousands who came back to vote in April's historic elections. Clapping her hands now, she begins to chant and the multitudes around her join in. 'President Lugo, President Lugo!'

The crowd of tens of thousands extends on for blocks, well past the marble architecture of downtown Asuncion's Hero's Pantheon, from which Vice-President-elect, Federico Franco, emerges moments later. Jubilant supporters dance in the streets and wave the red, white and blue colours of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC).

The man at the microphone on the makeshift stage in the middle of the crowd officially announces what everyone here already knows: that the progressive ex-bishop Fernando Lugo has just won the presidency of Paraguay, breaking a six-decade Colorado party stranglehold over the country.

The crowd erupts with euphoria. 'I am renewed!' cries someone from the foot of the Pantheon in the midst of the jubilant revelry. 'For the first time in our lives, we have hope, we have possibilities... We are a new nation!'

This is the moment for which nearly everyone in the crowd has been waiting their entire lives, and which many never believed they would actually live to see: the fall of the Colorado regime. In the words of President-elect Lugo, it is 'a new page in Paraguayan history.'


A new page
'It's a beautiful day,' says Lilian Soto the next morning with a large smile, under a clear blue sky. Soto, the former President of the Municipal Council of Asuncion, was a radical leader of the student movement in the 1980s which helped to topple the brutal 35-year Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship in 1989. She explains that while the students in her era were repressed and jailed, they did not suffer the widespread disappearances and torture common under the earlier decades of the Stroessner dictatorship.

Stroessner was appointed head of the Paraguayan Armed Forces in 1951 and came to power three years later, through a coup d'etat in which he overthrew those in his own party to take power.

He offered strong fiscal policy, and a crackdown on social movements, labour and campesinos (peasants). He also quickly opened his arms to both Washington's 'anti-communist' interests in Latin America, and that of many of the region's more conservative leaders. In 1973, he was the first foreign head of state to visit Chile's Augusto Pinochet after the latter's overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende.

As verified by tens of thousands of recovered documents in the so-called 'Terror Archives' (available at George Washington University's National Security Archives), the Stroessner dictatorship was an integral piece of the US-backed Plan Condor, in which South America's dictatorships in Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia shared information and resources in the 1970s to suppress opposition. The result was the assassination of thousands, and countless tortured and exiled.

But as the years progressed into the 1980s, Paraguay's economy weakened, the region's dictatorships toppled, and Stroessner did his best to repress the increasingly widespread student and labour protests. With more attention than ever on the failing human rights record of the dictatorship, even Washington's President Ronald Reagan was forced to give Paraguay's dictator the cold shoulder.

And so, when Stroessner was finally removed from office in 1989 in yet another military coup, Paraguayans across the world rejoiced. Nevertheless, control over the country remained in the hands of Stroessner's own Colorado party, keeping the system in place.

'The fall of the dictatorship didn't mean anything but a change of the man in power, it didn't change the style of coexistence,' said retired Asuncion school teacher, Marina Recalde Odone, at Lugo's last rally before the elections. 'Till this day there is still a lot of fear... there's a lot of fear because everything is done arbitrarily, justice doesn't work at all, money governs here, and political favours.'

Indeed, the Colorado party is one of the largest employers in the country, with 200,000 employees, 95% of whom are party members. As numerous Asuncion residents verified shortly before the elections, 'if you want to get anywhere, you need to be a member of the party.' Corruption is endemic, as are political favours, and coercion.

Maria Clemencia Bereido is one of the few public employees at the Ministry of Social Assistance who is not a member of the Colorado party. She testified on Election Day to the pressure to participate in Colorado party events. 'Some of the ministries even take roll,' she said. 'It's terrible... They send you cards saying that you are responsible for the victory, and in order to keep your job... it's a question that affects your pocketbook, and your ability to maintain your family.'

'We are up against a party-state, because it has all the power,' said Juan Fernando Kurz, National Director of the Tekojoja movement campaign in support of Lugo, just before the elections. 'The government isn't the government of a country, it is the State... and governs in a way that is omnivorous.'

'Practically, this is constitutional dictatorship,' Kurz continued. 'Because when we speak about democracy, without a doubt we should speak about grassroots participation, but also about the rights of the people to decide, to change, to modify, that the will of the majority is respected, and in this case we are before a government which is always the majority, and they continue with the same model that they had with the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship that lasted 35 years.'

This perhaps partially explains why so many Lugo supporters on election night had joyful tears in their eyes.

'In a way, we are the new founding fathers,' said Jose Tomas Sanchez, a young member of the communications team of the Tekojoja movement, the evening after the elections. Tekojoja (pronounced Teh-koh-yoh-yah), which means 'egalitarian life' in Guarani, is a grassroots convergence of campesinos, social movements, and students and was a major force behind the Lugo campaign, especially in the Paraguayan countryside where countless campesino communities put aside their own activities while they campaigned for Lugo.
On the campaign trail
Paraguay's President-elect, 56-year-old Fernando Lugo is not new to Paraguayans. He is the 'bishop of the poor' who spent years preaching to campesinos in Paraguay's poor San Pedro province, after working as a missionary with Ecuadorian indigenous communities, and a stint at the Vatican. Nor are his Liberation Theology beliefs a secret, or the fact that his father was jailed numerous times for defiance against the dictatorship, that various family members were exiled, and that he himself was called abroad to work at the Vatican as a result of what some say was pressure from the Stroessner government.

But for most of the last 20 years, he was merely the Catholic bishop who supported the struggles of Paraguay's campesinos and social movements.

In March 2006, however, all of that changed. Paraguay's President Nicanor Duarte Frutos had attempted a sly power grab to become President of the omnipresent Colorado party while still leading the South American country. Tens of thousands marched in the streets against the unconstitutional move, which they feared could lead them back down the road to dictatorship. Bishop Lugo was thrust onto the political scene when he was given the sole speaker's slot at the massive demonstration of 40,000 people.

Days later, Lugo met with close friends to discuss political aspirations. 'It was still a far-off dream,' says Carolina Castillo, an activist with the Tekojoja movement, who was at the meeting.

A coalition with the charismatic political playboy, Pedro Fadul, fell apart quickly, but other groups jumped on board. By mid-2007, the major Paraguayan opposition party, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), was backing his candidacy, and in September 2007 Lugo officially launched his Patriotic Alliance for Change, with a broad political coalition of nearly 20 parties and social organisations in support of his presidential bid, and with Liberal party member, Federico Franco, as his running mate.

But it was still an uphill battle. Article 235 of the Paraguayan Constitution forbids ministers of any religious denomination from holding electoral office. Lugo's resignation from the church was temporarily rejected by Pope Benedict XVI, casting a shadow of uncertainty over his presidential bid.

Death threats against the former bishop and his supporters stained the campaign trail. Two campesinos with the Tekojoja movement were assassinated just months out from the elections, presumably in a push to stall the Lugo campaign.

'This is the price that we are ready to pay, so that Paraguayans, in the future - live and are born in this country - have a different country,' said Tekojoja's Kurz only days before the elections.

As Election Day grew nearer, the Colorado party was spinning its fear campaign. Posters were plastered across the city attempting to link Lugo to the anti-Christ, and Colorado supporters spoke about ties between Lugo and the Colombian FARC guerrillas.

At the closing Colorado rally four days before the elections, the former Education Minister, Colorado presidential candidate Blanca Ovelar, called Lugo a 'failed priest'. President Duarte reiterated warnings that foreign agitators from Ecuador and Venezuela were going to try and destabilise the elections and told supporters that a Lugo win would be a disaster, which would 'destroy the future of Paraguay.'

Meanwhile, word on the street had it that the Colorado party was once again preparing to resort to widespread fraud in order to ensure their victory on 20 April.

'What we are sure about is that there is going to be fraud, in the multitude of diverse ways that the history of this country has taught,' said Juan Jose Dominguez just three days before the elections. Dominguez, an Uruguayan member of the Mercosur Parliament for the Frente Amplio coalition, was in Paraguay as an international election observer.

But Lugo supporters were ready. The Tekojoja movement had prepared a Fraud Manual highlighting dozens of ways the Colorado party may try to cheat on Election Day. Hundreds of international election observers descended on this tiny South American nation of just over six million citizens, and a hundred international journalists were set to cover what many said was the most important election in the history of the country.

Ahead in the polls, the Lugo campaign was cautious, but upbeat.

'The bad news is that the thieves of the homeland, the traitors of the nation's heritage, that kidnapped hope for so long, are still here, and the good news is that they only have three days left...' cried Lugo before hundreds of multicoloured flags and an ecstatic crowd of 100,000 at the close of his campaign the Thursday night before the election in downtown Asuncion. 'Sunday will be a resurrection.'

For Lugo supporters, that's exactly what it was. With the highest participation in decades, more than 65% of the voting population of nearly three million Paraguayans cast their vote 'for change' on Sunday, 20 April. Among them were a healthy number of Colorado party defectors, who, in their own words, 'had had enough.' Shortly after 9pm, Colorado party challenger Ovelar conceded to Lugo amidst the 'irreversible' incoming results which resulted in Lugo achieving a 10-point victory over Ovelar, and being nearly 20 points ahead of third-placed challenger, ex-General Lino Oviedo.

Observers had witnessed blatant Colorado vote-buying during the day, but it didn't seem to matter. As various Lugo supporters laughed afterwards, 'Voters took their money, and voted for Lugo anyway!'

International observers congratulated Paraguay on its elections and confirmed that 'in general', things ran smoothly. Lugo supporters agreed that the presence of the international observers played a decisive role. 'The Colorado party couldn't do the things they're used to, because they knew the whole world was watching,' remarked Lilian Soto the day after the elections. Nor did threats and violence play out as some had expected.

'I'm happy that, generally speaking, it's been a legitimate event, without the violent altercations which some people with certain interests were calling for,' said Mariano Arana, former Uruguayan Minister of Housing, after Lugo's conference at the posh Hotel Granados in downtown Asuncion, shortly before the official results were announced.

'We are convinced that this country has the right to better horizons,' said Lugo, flanked by his Vice-President-elect Franco and dozens of campaign supporters at the press conference shortly before greeting supporters at the Pantheon. 'We've felt it in the pain and tears of so many mothers, and the hopelessness of so many youth, and the suffering of so many children.'

Lugo offered 'a special invitation to all of the Paraguayan political class, to join together for this country, which was great, and together we believe will once again be great in the concert of nations.'
Colorado resistance
The offer won't likely be accepted. Less than three days after the elections, a group of Colorado party government workers staged the first protest against the President-elect, to ensure that Lugo doesn't touch their jobs. Lugo has promised to respect contracts, and told Paraguayans that they no longer have to be card-carrying members of any party to be state employees.

Meanwhile, the Colorado party is still reeling from the defeat, which ex-Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy called 'catastrophic'. As a result, the party has been turned upside down. President Duarte has been blamed for the loss, and the former Paraguayan Vice-President, and major Washington-backed Colorado party member, Alberto Castiglioni has called for him to step down from his leadership role within the party. Castiglioni is the head of the Colorado Vanguard faction of the party, which he said - shortly before casting his ballot on Election Day - will be the 'true Colorado party.' Meanwhile a Crisis Cabinet has been debated, in order to map out a potential solution to the party's convulsions, and perhaps new Colorado leadership elections.

But the Colorado party isn't entirely out in the cold. Paraguay's presidency was not the only seat up for grabs on 20 April. More than 700 local seats for governor, senator, congress member, Mercosur parliament and department council member were contested across the country. Early results suggested that while Lugo's APC party may have picked up a few new local victories, Colorado representatives will still hold a small majority in both the Senate and the House. Paraguay's judiciary also remains in Colorado party hands, not to mention the state apparatus with the party's 200,000 employees.

Such local resistance will likely play a decisive role in determining the kinds of changes Lugo can - and can't - enact while in power.


Lugo presidency
'If today we are dreaming of a different Paraguay, the majority of its humble and simple citizens are those responsible for this change that is beginning in the Paraguayan Republic, so that our country isn't simply remembered for its corruption and poverty, but for its honesty and efficiency, and so that never again... will we do politics based on clientelism and political favours that has hurt our nation so greatly,' said Lugo on Election Day.

Lugo takes the reins of the country on 15 August. He has promised to fight corruption, and support Paraguay's poor, but he has his work cut out for him. While Paraguay is energy-rich, it is also considered one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in Latin America. While statistics vary, more than 40% of the population are without potable water, more than 40% live in poverty and less than 10% have medical insurance.

The worst-off are those in the countryside, where Paraguay's campesinos have been increasingly affected by the growing multinational genetically modified soy industry. At number four in world soy cultivation, over 2,500,000 acres have already been converted to soy, destroying ecosystems and local communities. The results have been disastrous especially in the states bordering Brazil, such as Alto Paran , where Brazilian and Japanese landowners have muscled their way in with Monsanto's industrial pesticides and genetically modified seeds, leaving in their wake what locals call a sea of 'green deserts.' Since the 1980s, nearly 100,000 small farmers have been evicted from their land, and over a hundred campesino leaders have been assassinated.

'Integral agrarian reform and attention to indigenous communities are inescapable commitments in this political project and I mean to pay off the social debt with the Paraguayan people,' said Lugo in late January at the presentation of his future government's foreseen priorities.

He has since reiterated his agrarian reform promise, as well as one of his first priorities, to renegotiate the Itaipu hydroelectric dam on the Paran river, which it jointly owns with Brazil. Itaipu, the largest dam in the world, supplies Paraguay with nearly all of its energy and Brazil with 20% of its power. By renegotiating, Lugo wants to raise Paraguayan returns on energy sold to Brazil, and perhaps other neighbours as well. Brazilian Itaipu General Director Jorge Samek said in May that he is open to negotiations. Lugo hopes to generate $1.6 billion in increased yearly revenue to support social, education and health programmes in order to fight poverty and redistribute Paraguay's resources to those who most need them.

Relations between Paraguay and Brazil have been off and on all the way back to the Triple Alliance War in the mid-19th century, when Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay invaded Paraguay, and massacred over 80% of the population, leaving - according to Eduardo Galeano, in his acclaimed Open Veins of Latin America - only 250,000 survivors, most of them women and children.

In more recent years, as the smallest members of the Mercosur (Common Market of the South) trading bloc, Paraguay and its tiny neighbour Uruguay have often found themselves overshadowed by the larger and more powerful Brazil and Argentina.

'You cannot dream of harmonious regional integration while you don't focus on the smallest members of Mercosur,' said Lugo last year during a demonstration marking the 34th anniversary of the signing of the Bi-national Itaipu Agreement.

But with Venezuela's entry into Mercosur less than two years ago, the trade bloc has taken a shift towards what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calls more 'cooperative' values. With Lugo's win in April, Mercosur now finds itself in the hands of all progressive presidents, an example of the larger leftward political shift in the region.

Only two governments in South America, Peru and Colombia, are still on Washington's list of allies, and the others - with President Chavez at the helm - are working towards increased regional integration. Lugo has said he's ready to get on board.

'We are open to meet with all of the representatives of the international community... to construct the true integration of the region, the continent and the world,' said the President-elect on election night. The same day, Paraguayans were the first in the region to elect their own representatives to the new Mercosur Parliament.

Chavez congratulated Lugo on election night. Chavez and Lugo agreed on the importance of continuing to work towards the South American Union of Nations and both presidents expressed their desires to meet as soon as possible in order to talk about cooperation plans.

People across the globe are itching to know if Lugo is going to follow the path of Latin America's more radical leaders, such as Chavez. Until now, however, Lugo has done his best to distance himself.

'Chavez is a military man and I have a religious background,' Lugo told the Associated Press in Washington last year. 'My candidacy has arisen at the request of the people, it was born in a different way than Hugo Chavez's.'

During the same trip, last June, Lugo met with Thomas Shannon, US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Since the election, the Bush administration has welcomed Lugo's victory, and the Washington Post reported that according to a State Department official, Lugo has had 'a good relationship' with the US embassy in Asuncion.

Such courting may seem out of place, but as the Council on Hemispheric Affairs pointed out last summer, 'What Lugo seems to be saying is that he wants access to the US market, as well as to be a beneficiary of Chavez's now well known generosity.'

'I believe in Lugo's good intentions,' says Agustin Barua, a Lugo supporter, and a progressive community worker in some of Asuncion's poorest barrios. 'Although I don't know how leftist they are. I also recognise the strong conservative groups, within and outside of his government, that are going push to stop him from carrying out real social change.'

The Paraguayan campesino movement played a large role in the landmark Lugo victory. Some campesinos, however, like those from the Association of Alto Paran Farmers (ASAGRAPA), believe that the former bishop handed over his government to Paraguay's conservative parties months ago.

'Here, the masses and the grassroots Paraguayan sectors were utilised so that an oligarchical, conservative party could come to power - the Liberal party,' says Tomas Zayas, an ASAGRAPA leader who ran for Paraguay's Senate on Election Day. 'So there's going to be a drunken democratic stupor here, but we imagine it will not last long.'

ASAGRAPA had been a member of Lugo's coalition until the former bishop shook hands with conservative parties, such as the Liberals (the PLRA). While many Lugo supporters admit that the well-established Liberal party helped to win the election, the fact that Lugo's running mate Franco is from the political right is disconcerting for progressive coalition members.

In this sense, Lugo's run for office does hearken back images of Luiz In cio Lula da Silva's campaign in the 2002 Brazilian presidential elections, which the long-time Worker's Party leader was only able to win with the help of a coalition of more conservative support. As a result, over the last five years, Lula's ability to effect more radical change has been fairly neutralised by his own, more conservative cabinet, and the lack of a majority in Congress. The comparison isn't lost on Lugo's progressive base.

But despite such fears, hope is in the air, and nearly every sector, including ASAGRAPA, is organising to offer their proposals to the incoming administration.

'Of course Lugo played an indispensable role in all of this,' says Barua. But it wasn't just Lugo. It's 'the exhaustion of the economic, political and social model', wrote Paraguayan sociologist, Jorge Lara Castro, in the Chilean journal Punto Final in May. 'The levels of poverty and marginalisation of the Paraguayans have increased. After 18 years of transition towards democracy, the real existent democracy in Paraguay was only associated with a simple electoral mechanism, which permitted the exchange of political authorities and higher levels of inequality and social exclusion. The political model is in crisis. Within this context of the democratic crisis and the legitimacy of political representatives, Fernando Lugo emerged, a figure who expressed in some way - and personified - the collective frustration and necessity for change.'

Many would agree, like the masses that filled the streets outside of the Hero's Pantheon on election night to celebrate Lugo's victory.

Like Miriam Blanco, a 50-year-old Asuncion pharmacist who said that this was the first time she had ever come to a large demonstration, and admitted, 'This is the first change I have ever seen in my life.'

Lugo may not be perfect, and the direction of his administration may still be completely up in the air. '(But), it doesn't matter what comes next,' said Jose Tomas Sanchez, Tekojoja communications team member, the evening after the election. 'We've already turned a new page in Paraguayan history, and there's no going back.'


Michael Fox is a freelance journalist based in South America and a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News . He reported for Upside Down World during Paraguay's elections.


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