Doubts about Paraguay's Election

Article excerpt

PARAGUAY is an unusual country in several ways. The Spaniards drifted in, rather than riding in as conquerors. They intermarried thoroughly with the indigenous Guarani, so that today there are very few pure-bred Indians; the great majority of Paraguayans are mestizo and speak both Spanish and Guarani. And for a country of its intermediate stage of development, there is a lot of money in Paraguay, quite widely distributed. Without import duties, Paraguay is reputedly the largest importer of American cigarettes and Scotch whiskey, which melt profitably across the endless borders with Argentina and Brazil.

The political system also has its unusual features, dominated by a more than century-old two-party system in which the original ideological and sectoral identities of the parties have disappeared under the accretion of characteristics bestowed by critical historical junctures. The Colorados (Reds', though technically the National Republican Alliance) are the long-time governing party, thus associated with dictatorial practice, money corruption, electoral fraud, and military power and privilege. Because Liberal army officers once participated in an unsuccessful revolt, officers were until three years ago required to be members of the Colorado party. The Liberals are defined by their opposition to the Colorado party, and thus to all things that party represents.

Over the last two years an alliance called Encuentro Nacional has developed out of a variety of groupings -- Catholic, Social Democratic, |good government', progressive -- that want to transcend the deep and bitter Colorado-liberal hostility that fruitlessly consumes so much political energy. Because of the primitive stage of the Paraguayan political system, rudimentary ideas like honesty, democratic elections, and the depoliticization of the military provide the principal issues of politics. The social and economic questions of European politics are far away, and Encuentro includes |Opus Dei' religious militants as well as Catholic progressives. The issues it stresses could be expected to have more resonance among ex-liberal voters, but a substantial proportion of its vote -- conventionally put at 30 per cent -- comes from ex-colorados fed up with the ills of the traditional system.

Nevertheless, the official Colorado presidential candidate in the May 9 elections, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, mouthed the same platitudes about democratization and freedom as the other candidates. He was indeed the candidate sponsored by incumbent President Andres Rodriguez, who had led the successful revolt of 1989 against the 40-year-old dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Growing out of conflicts over personal questions, the revolt was only retrospectively interpreted, reputedly under the tutelage of the American ambassador, as a revolution for democracy and all other good things, so it was at first unclear how far the inherited system would be changed. It was true that both Liberals and Colorados, in the flush of the new enthusiasm for democracy, held primary elections to pick their candidates for President. It proved, however, that an unreconstructed supporter of Stroessner named Jose Maria Argana had the majority among Colorados and so -- after US Ambassador Jon Glassman intervened to head off a military annulment of the primary and cancellation of the elections -- the appropriate party body was purged and reorganized, whereupon it found that enough of Argana's votes were invalid to declare Wasmosy the winner. It was all pretty blatant, but seemed to be in the higher interest of preventing a return to the dictatorship, and so drew scoffing rather than principled objection from the opposition parties.

The general elections of May 9th then served to demonstrate that the Rodriguez forces had not altogether broken with the old system but had simply taken it over and made it work for them -- or rather they had modernized it and made it more subtle, so that it would work even under |democratic' conditions. …