National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

On April 28, pedestrians in Asunción, Paraguay, walk past displays of newspapers declaring the victory of Nicanor Duarte Frutos in the presidential election.
-- AFP/Norberto Duarte
Analysis: Elections bring ‘same old thing’ -- for now

Paraguay’s ruling party keeps grip on power, but there is cause for hope

Santa María de Fe, Paraguay

It seems to have escaped the notice of the world’s press that April 27 was the Paraguayan general election. Paraguay’s neighbor, Argentina, had an election on the same day. The two countries are covered by the same correspondents and they could not be in two places at once. But Paraguay is always the forgotten country.

As someone who has lived in the Paraguayan countryside for two and a half years, I should declare a bias, but the Paraguayan election seems to me more important than the Argentinean one, for it produced a result. Argentina’s did nothing more than select its two presidential candidates for the second round on May 18: former President Carlos Menem, with 24 percent, and Néstor Kirchner from the same party, the Partido Justicialista, with 21 percent.

So what is the significance of the victory of Nicanor Duarte Frutos, as new president of Paraguay, with 37 percent of the votes, and of the general victory of his party -- the Colorados -- at every level of government? The election selected diputados (the equivalent of a member of parliament), senators, departmental governors and departmental councilors for the next five years.

At one level it is an unsurprising result: The Colorado party has already been in power for 56 years. The word that is heard all around is continuismo -- more of the same old thing. Yet continuismo itself has its fascination. How is it that Paraguay, which allegedly is a democratic country, is in fact in the grip of an irremovable corrupt gang? With international observers all around, and a splendid electoral law prescribing long prison sentences for electoral fraud, how exactly does the cheating take place?

At another level, the Paraguayan result is utterly amazing -- not for the man who won, but for the man who came from nowhere and nearly won, Pedro Fadul. He overtook the candidate of the second party, the Liberals, two weeks before the election, though in the end he polled slightly below him -- 21 percent, against 23 percent for Julio César Yoyito Franco. If Paraguay had a second round like Argentina and so many other South American countries, and if Fadul had gotten just over 2 percent more, then he might have picked up all the other anti-Colorado votes and become the winner. But in any case his meteoric rise suggests that he should be taken as a serious contender for the future. People here are keenly aware that in neighboring Brazil, the current president, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, had to fight five elections before finally winning.

Pedro Fadul
-- Notimex/Jorge Caceres

Fadul is a committed Catholic and a member of the Schoenstatt movement -- a Marian movement that is widespread among the middle class in this part of Latin America. He has used money made in his career as a financier to cofound the church-run project, Paraguay Jaipotáva (“The Paraguay that we want,” in Guaraní), which encourages the Paraguayan peasantry to plan for the future of the country.

Fadul enjoys the barely disguised support of all sectors of the church to such an extent that there was a row in the cathedral of Asunción on the Friday night before the election. An ecumenical religious service had been arranged for all the presidential candidates, but both Nicanor and Yoyito Franco were furious over the favor shown to Fadul, who was greeted with applause from the congregation when he entered, and was the first to be greeted by Archbishop Pastor Cuquejo. This provoked Nicanor to clench his fist in rage rather than extend his hand, as he protested to Cuquejo about the error in protocol. Meanwhile Yoyito had been allocated a place behind the other two candidates, on the grounds that he was the last to accept the invitation. He disdained it, turned up late, and sat at the back.

Fadul has become an icon for a new era of honesty in politics. And to do this he has to break the mold completely, for politicians are the most distrusted sector of society (and the church the most trusted). He entered politics only eight months ago. He has no political party -- only a “political movement” that he has founded, called Patria Querida (“Dear Motherland”). The logic of this is that people can join Fadul’s movement without giving up their traditional party affiliation.

Traditionally, Paraguayan politics runs according to long and unbreakable family allegiance, with a passion as illogical, arbitrary and passionate as support for a football team. It is called fanatismo, and if your father is Colorado, loyalty demands that you are Colorado to the death. The poor enjoy the thrill of being on the perpetually winning side, with its sea of red waving banners, loud-blaring party songs and caravans of tooting cars with jubilant supporters. And the more miserable their lives, the more seduced they are by that thrill. This explains some of the mystery of a Colorado victory, despite the fact that the whole country is heaving and groaning with the desire for change. But it does not explain all of it. There is also vote buying.

“Are you happy with the election result?” I asked the builder working next to my house. “Yes,” he told me. “Why?” I asked. He fell silent and concentrated on his plumb line. His colleague answered for him: “Because the Colorados have fed him.” “Given rice?” I asked. “Yes,” the first man reluctantly conceded, “Oil. Flour. That sort of thing. Pasta. A bit of sugar. The other parties don’t give food. All they have to give is honesty. And you cannot eat honesty.”

The two men began to laugh in a carefree way. “So we eat today, and then for the next five years we suffer.” What difference does one vote make? None. But a package of food, or a 50,000 guaraní note ($7), makes a tangible difference.

Vote buying is an expensive business nationwide, and the Colorado party has been associated in the past with criminal theft and extortion. This year they were associated with forgery. On April 11, the police trapped a gang of four, caught red-handed with 200,000 forged dollars. Registered on the gang’s mobile phone was the number of the presumed head of operations, who turned out to be Nicanor’s campaign advisor in Asunción, Tomas Fretes Gómez.

The buying of votes goes back a long way. This year the Paraguayan episcopal conference felt the need to repeat again the words of the late Bishop Juan Sinforiano Bogarín, who said in long-ago 1921: “There is no baseness more low or abject,” he said, “than to sell your vote, whether for money or for employment.” There are a vast number of people who owe their jobs to their party allegiance, including a considerable number who get salaries for doing no work at all. This sea of public sector employees -- and their relatives -- fears that if the Colorados fall from government they will lose their livelihood.

The corruption reached its apex in the 35-year dictatorship (1954-89) of Gen. Don Alfredo Stroessner, who was also of the Colorado party. It sounds incredible that the end of the dictatorship did not signal a change in the party of government, but it is a fact. In the dictatorship it was totally impossible to get a job as a doctor or teacher unless you were Colorado, and you could be put in prison for as little as listening to a Liberal song on the radio. The irony is that Stroessner maintained his position with U.S. support, on the grounds that he was fighting “communism,” but the truth is that nothing could be a more extreme example of the over-inflated state, the corrupt economy and the attack on free speech than Stroessner’s own government.

Nicanor stands in this tradition. Of course he declares that he will fight corruption. But everyone always says that. So can we believe him? There is no way of knowing.

Among Colorado politicians, Nicanor is one of the better ones. He made some good reforms as minister of education (in two former governments), and he has declared, “If the pope asked for forgiveness, why shouldn’t the Colorado party do the same?” His victory speech was conciliatory, and generous to his opponents.

A former journalist, Nicanor also has qualifications in law and philosophy. He has been in politics for a decade, and has acquired what is usually one of the most important assets for a politician, an elegant, fair-skinned, blonde wife, in this land of brown skins and black hair. The most sinister factor is the company he keeps. He has political favors to repay to some very unpleasant people, and he is surrounded by a corrupt team, which would appear to give the lie to his promise to clean up the system.

Yet Latin America now has the example of Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños, who rode to power on a corrupt system, and has proceeded to fight a heroic and unexpected battle against corruption, turning first and foremost on his former colleague, ex-President Arnoldo Alemán. Paraguay itself also has the example of President Andrés Rodríguez, often said to be the best president since the dictatorship fell. Rodríquez was Stroessner’s No. 2 man, yet turned on him and deposed him.

The most wildly optimistic hopes are that Nicanor could be another Bolaños or Rodríguez. But only time will tell.

Margaret Hebblethwaite writes from Misiones, a rural area in the south of Paraguay.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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