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Paraguay Modern History

Between 1954 and 1989, Paraguay was ruled by South America's most resilient dictator, Alfredo Stroessner. The country gained a reputation for being a safe hiding place for old Nazis. Since Stroessner's overthrow, the country has been democratized and opened up to the outside world, but a conservative elite consisting of military and landlords has largely retained its grip on power. The Conservative Colorado Party has continued to rule the country with the exception of a mandate period 2008 - 2013.

The Colorado Party ruled Paraguay after the Civil War in 1947 (see Older History), but despite the party's dominance, the country remained politically unstable. Various party factions fought for power and a number of coups were the result.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Paraguay. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

In a 1954 military coup, Commander Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda took power. Stroessner, who had a German father and a Paraguayan mother, was then allowed to be nominated by the Colorado Party as the only presidential candidate and won the election that year. Thereafter, President Stroessner was re-elected every five years between 1958 and 1988.

As president, Stroessner gained far-reaching powers and built up a cult of personality around himself. Opponents who did not go into exile were killed or imprisoned, including in concentration camps in the jungle. Stroessner also regularly carried out purges within his own party. Other political parties were allowed from 1962, but they had no real influence.

The Colorado Party was Stroessner's foremost instrument of power. On all important posts in the military, business and administration sat party representatives. All government services required membership. Stroessner also became known for offering drug dealers, ex-dictators and old Nazi offenders a sanctuary. Those who were protected included Nicaragua's deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza and the "death angel from Auschwitz", Doctor Joseph Mengele.

Contemporary History of ParaguayThe United States changes page

Guerrilla groups with support from Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba tried to stand up to the regime, but with the help of extensive military assistance, including from the US, the armed forces were able to keep them under control. The peasant unions (league agrarias), where small farmers organized themselves with the support of the Catholic Church, began in the 1970s to be considered a threat, and in 1976 government forces made violent efforts against the unions.

During the 1980s, the opposition grew, fueled by the unemployment that followed when the Itaipú hydroelectric dam was completed in 1982 (see Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment). The return to civilian government elsewhere in Latin America became a source of inspiration. The end of the Cold War caused the United States to move from supporting anti-communist regimes to attaching greater importance to democratic freedoms and rights in other countries. The dictatorship lost much of its foreign and domestic support.

In February 1989 Stroessner was deposited with the good memory of the United States in a coup, led by Deputy Commander Andrés Rodríguez. A key figure in the coup was also General Lino Oviedo, who thereby gained popular popularity. Stroessner was allowed to go into exile in Brazil.

Rodríguez encouraged fugitives to return home and arrested several leading people from Stroessner's regime. He won the presidential election a few months after the military coup and promised to surrender power to a civilian president in 1993. In the congressional election, the Colorado Party won big.

Problems on the road

But the new government had strong ties to the old one. Only small progress was made in the investigations of torture, murder and disappearance during the dictatorship. Crime increased, not least drug smuggling. Rodríguez also failed to overcome the corruption: many of his employees plundered the Treasury on their own behalf. The economic and social divisions remained large. A neoliberal economic policy, which gave companies great leeway at the expense of employees, led to government-critical trade unions and farmer organizations growing stronger. Landless families began to occupy land but were driven away, often with brutal methods.

A new democratic constitution was adopted in 1992. In the presidential election the following year, the candidate of the Colorado Party, the construction millionaire Juan Carlos Wasmosy, won "only" 42 percent of the vote. Also in the congressional elections, opposition parties were strengthened and Wasmosy found it difficult to cooperate with the newly elected congress. The Colorado party was divided into different phalanges and most of the party members allied with the opposition.

Wasmosy's neo-liberal politics and his opposition to land reform created dissatisfaction among landless peasants. In 1994, a farmer's march to Asuncion was carried out and in the same year a general strike broke out. From 1995 to 1996, the country was shaken by protests, demonstrations and banking crises.

The vice president is murdered

The president's hardest opponent was the army chief and party mate Lino Oviedo. Oviedo led a coup attempt against Wasmosy in 1996, but the coup was intercepted with the aid of the Air Force. Oviedo was then arrested, but soon released and went underground in 1997.

Oviedo was sentenced to ten years in prison for the coup attempt and banned from running in the 1998 presidential election. Instead, the candidate for the Colorado Party became Raúl Cubas Grau, a close ally of Oviedo. Luis María Argaña, who led another party faction, became the vice presidential candidate.

Cuba's Grau won in the presidential election, thanks in large part to his being perceived as Oviedo's deputy. Oviedo, who had roots in the countryside and spoke Guarani fluently, had many followers among poor peasants. He also had strong support in the military and in the political elite. In the congressional elections, the Colorado Party gained a majority in both chambers.

In 1999, Vice President Luis María Argaña was assassinated. The suspicions were soon directed at supporters of Oviedo and Cubas Grau. The murder triggered demonstrations in Asuncion demanding the departure of the president. Police and military tried in vain to disperse the protesters for several days. Eight people were killed and around 150 injured when supporters of Oviedo shot sharply straight into the crowd.

The president flies the country

The event prompted Congress to decide to put Cuba's Grau before state law and thus dismiss him. The president then chose to resign himself and flee to Brazil. At the same time, Oviedo fled to Argentina, and later on to Brazil.

President of the National Congress, Colorado Partyist Luis González Macchi, took over as president in March 1999. He formed a unifying government between the Colorado Party and the opposition, and dismissed senior officers who sympathized with Oviedo. The following year, soldiers loyal to Oviedo made a coup attempt, which was defeated. In the same year, Julio César Franco was elected Vice President of the True Liberal Radical Party (PLRA). It was the first time someone outside the Colorado party got that job.

Parallel to the political turmoil, Paraguay experienced a severe economic crisis. Violent protests erupted in 1997 against the government's economic policy and a state of emergency was introduced for a few days. General Oviedo was suspected of being behind the unrest from his exile.

The Oviedo-friendly faction within the Colorado Party formed in 2002 the breaker party National League for Ethical Citizens (Unace), whose goal was to make the coup general president. But Oviedo was banned from running in the 2003 presidential election, in which Colorado Party's Nicanor Duarte Frutos won 37 percent of the vote. In the congressional elections, the Colorado Party was once again the largest, but the opposition parties together could achieve a majority of the votes.

President Duarte Frutos sought to fight corruption and crime and improve the state's finances. He dismissed six of the Supreme Court's nine judges in December 2003. The same year, ex-President Macchi was indicted for fraud and sentenced in 2006 to eight years in prison for corruption and imprisonment.

The occupation of land

In 2004 Oviedo returned to Paraguay. He was immediately placed in jail, suspected of involvement in the assassination of Vice President Argaña. In addition, the prison sentence against him remained for the attempted coup in 1996.

In 2004 and 2005, farmer organizations carried out a number of land occupations and demanded land redistribution. Several occupants are shot to death by landowners' private militias.

Cecilia Cubas, daughter of ex-president Cubas Grau, was kidnapped in 2004 and found dead the following year. Popular outrage over the murder led to President Duarte Frutos dismissing his Interior Minister and some 50 police officers. Left-wing activists with ties to the Colombian guerrilla Farc were believed to be behind the kidnapping and murder.

In 2007, General Oviedo was released conditionally after having his sentence shortened. He was then allowed to run for office in the 2008 presidential election as a candidate for Unace.

The Colorado Party presented Blanca Ovelar, the first woman to run for president. Her main opponent was former Bishop Fernando Lugo, who led the newly formed Alliance Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC). The alliance included a number of middle and left parties as well as several trade union and social movements.

Historical shift in power

The election resulted in the Colorado party's 61-year-old power being broken, and Paraguay experienced its first peaceful shift of power. Fernando Lugo, who went to elections with promises to deal with corruption, poverty and the deep social divisions, won with 41 percent of the vote. Ovelar received 31 percent and Oviedo 22 percent. Independent election observers did not criticize the election.

In the congressional elections, the Colorado Party returned but still remained the largest party. President Lugo formed a unity government with members from both the Colorado Party and the central parties and the left. In the congress, PLRA signed a pact with Oviedos Unace. Together, the two parties got a clear majority.

The Colorado Party had thus lost both government power and control of Congress, but the party still controlled large parts of the state apparatus and the badly corrupt judiciary. President Lugo therefore challenged strong interests in his election promise to fight corruption. The old guard in the Colorado Party began to compare him with the radical left-wing presidents of Venezuela (Hugo Chávez) and Bolivia (Evo Morales). Lugo himself described himself as independent and did not use radical socialist rhetoric in his speeches.

Some time after the election, rumors began to circulate about a new military coup. President Lugo therefore replaced the country's chief of police, the chiefs of the defense and a long line of commanders. In the coming years, several remodels were carried out within the military command.

Land reform came to shame

One of Lugo's most important election promises was a land reform that would redistribute land from the big landlords to hundreds of thousands of poor peasants and landless people. After his entry, peasants began to invade more goods by force, thus pushing Lugo to accelerate land reform. The landowners responded by blocking off roads to prevent the farmers from accessing their property.

The conflict between the peasants and the landowners became a dilemma for President Lugo, not least because agriculture is the backbone of the country's economy. He ruled out confiscation of landowners' land and stressed that he respected private ownership. Lugo had to proceed cautiously in his attempts to carry out the land redistribution.

President Lugo's popularity dwindled, mainly because land reform was not implemented and more jobs were not created. In addition, a conflict between Lugo and Vice President Federico Franco led Franco's party PLRA to leave the APC alliance. However, the party remained in government. APC's weakened position in Congress made it difficult to get through some legislative proposals. The president's reform program was slow.

Lugo's situation was made worse by the fact that several women came forward and claimed that Lugo during his time as bishop made them pregnant. The president eventually acknowledged paternity of two children, and apologized to the Catholic Church and the nation. The opposition was not late to seize the opportunity and coined the phrase "Lugo - the father of all Paraguayans".

In May 2009, parts of the opposition tried to initiate a civil procedure against Lugo, but they did not receive enough support in Congress. Shortly thereafter, the president lost, at least temporarily, the struggle to introduce an individual income tax when the Senate voted against the proposal. However, Lugo reaped success in July 2009 when he agreed with his Brazilian colleague Luiz "Lula" Inácio da Silva that Brazil should start paying three times as much as before for the electricity it receives from the Itaipu dam in the Paraná River (see Natural Resources, Energy and environment).

Record fast national law

In the summer of 2011, supporters of Lugo made an attempt to get Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution so that the president could stand for re-election, but the plan failed. Instead, Lugo was deposed a year later by a swift judicial procedure. The background was a bloodbath that occurred in connection with the military evacuating land occupants in the province of Canindeyú. At least eleven farm workers and six police officers were killed, and the army was then sent to the scene to restore order.

President Lugo dismissed both the interior minister and the police chief because of the violence. But the opposition felt that the president himself would be held accountable. The prosecution was brought against Lugo in congress in June 2012. The main reason was the eviction, although accusations were made against the president also for lack of security and nepotism. It took less than a day from the issue being raised in Parliament until the president was dismissed by a vote in the Senate. Vice President Federico Franco took power and set up a PLRA government with Unace as a support party.

Lugo called it a parliamentary coup, and government officials in neighboring countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay talked about a coup d'etat. They were strongly critical of the management and called their ambassadors home for consultation. The criticism was mainly that Lugo was only given a couple of hours to prepare his defense. The regional free trade organizations Mercosur and Unasur shut down Paraguay until the 2013 presidential election.

Back to power

In the election, former coup general Lino Oviedo was a new candidate for Unace. But in February 2013, two months before the election, Oviedo died when his helicopter crashed on its way from an election meeting. The crash occurred in severe weather. Speculation about an attack occurred, not least as the accident occurred on the day 24 years after the dictator Alfredo Stroessner's fall.

The accident created uncertainty before the election, although Oviedo had relatively weak support in opinion polls. It was generally assumed that Unace's voters would now support PLRA's candidate, Efraín Alegre. A couple of weeks before the election, Alegre also announced that a valiant alliance had been formally concluded between PLRA and Unace.

Despite the alliance, however, the Colorado Party candidate Horacio Cartes won in the presidential election, by a good margin (see Calendar). One contributing reason may have been that the outgoing PLRA government was not considered to have been very much done. International observers from, among others, Unasur and Mercosur as well as the EU found that the elections were held according to democratic rules. The Colorado Party also strengthened its position in Congress and gained its own majority in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Cartes, one of Paraguay's richest men, took office as president in August 2013.

 
 

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