By R. Viswanathan (*) - Horacio Cartes of the Colorado party won the presidential elections held last Sunday in Paraguay. The Colorados had ruled the country continuously for 61 years in a one-party dictatorship until 2008 when Fernando Lugo, the leftist “Bishop of the Poor” defeated the Colorado candidate and made history.
Lugo was hailed as the historic saviour of the poor and was expected to bring about a much needed change in the poor and backward country ruled by traditional oligarchs.
Part of the reason for the Colorado defeat was the division within the party leadership. But as soon as Lugo came to power, the Colorados reunited and did not let Lugo implement his reformist agenda. Poor Lugo was not allowed to help the poor by the rich Colorados who dominated the Congress.
Eventually the Colorados in collusion with Vice President Franco from the Liberal party ousted President Lugo through impeachment in an ugly congressional coup in June 2012. As a punishment for this breach of the spirit of democracy, Paraguay was suspended from Mercosur and Unasur.
The country will regain its presence in these regional organizations when the new president takes over as the legitimately elected one.
Until 2008, Paraguay, the geographically landlocked country remained as a kind of politically landlocked sanctuary with its rightist governments while all the surrounding countries had gone Left in the last couple of decades.
The Leftists continue to rule in Brasil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay, while the Leftist government of Paraguay was overthrown before the completion of its term.
Again Paraguay has become the exception by going back to the oligarchic rightist rule now while the other countries of the region are progressive, reducing poverty and inequality.
True, Chile had also gone right after two decades of centre-left rule in 2010. But it seems that the leftist candidate Michelle Bachelet is likely to win back the presidency in the next elections to be held in 2014.
The return of the Colorados means business as usual with the government agenda driven by the rich and powerful. The President-elect Cartes is one of the richest businessmen with interests in 25 companies and he is also the owner of the football club La Libertad. Paraguay was until very recently the only country in the western hemisphere which does not have Personal Income Tax.
The governance is opaque and the institutions are weak. They are not based on rules or systems. Even the economy is mostly informal. Unofficial foreign trade is much more than the official one. One of the biggest businesses in the country is smuggling electronic and other goods to Brazil and Argentina from the border city of Ciudad del Este.
The Colorado party is not just like any other political party. It is the strongest institution in the country with a stronghold over the whole political, economic and social system. One has to be a member of the Colorado party to succeed in government career. Most government servants including diplomats are members of the Colorado party. There is no proper merit-based transparent system for recruitment to government jobs. There are very few avenues for upward mobility of the bottom of the pyramid given the poor educational and socio economic conditions.
There are over a million (one sixth of the total population) Paraguayans who have moved to work as maids and labourers in Argentina.
Paraguay has not changed much from the portrayal of the country by Graham Greene in his novel Honorary Consul. Greene describes the country as a corrupt, decadent and backward. Even today, visitors to the country are likely to feel as though they have entered the nineteenth century.
The scandal caused by the resurfacing of President Lugo's affairs with some women when he was a catholic priest is illustrative of another unusual social aspect of the country. A number of women had alleged that they had affairs with Lugo when he was working as priest.
President Lugo admitted to fathering a child with one of the women and agreed to pay compensation. In another case, he neither admitted nor denied. In any other country, such a scandal would have brought him down from power immediately. But he was able to ride out the scandal since the country is full of such sinners.
The Colorado party could have had him impeached for this. But they did not do it since their political leaders had more skeletons in their cupboards. Affairs with many women are common in Paraguay due the shortage of males after most of the men were wiped out in the Triple Alliance War (over sixty percentage of the entire population was killed in the war) which Paraguay had foolishly waged against the combined powers of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in 1864-70.
Paraguay has enormous agricultural potential with its vast tracts of arable land and abundant water resources. It is the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world. It has huge surplus electricity which it sells to Brasil. With these agricultural and energy resources and a small homogeneous (Paraguay is the only country in Latin America where the native language Guarani is spoken by all the citizens) population of just six million, the country can become prosperous easily and quickly if only the Paraguayan political leaders change their mindset.
President-elect Cartes could get inspiration from the new Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, who has given a new direction and image to the PRI party which had ruled Mexico for 71 years and was also perceived negatively like the Colorados in Paraguay. President-elect Cartes could add Inclusive Development in his political and economic agenda and modernise the country to move it into the twenty first century and make it as part of the emerging New Latin America.
(*) Indian diplomat and Latinamerican affairs advisor