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24 April 2008 Edition

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International : Paraguay opts for new political path

It can happen to a bishop


BY DARA MacNEILL

AND SO another Latin American nation thumbs a collective nose at the colossus of the north and decides that self-determination may not be such a bad thing after all. Earlier this week, voters in Paraguay finally ended 61 years of Washington supported stagnation, corruption, official theft and bloody dictatorship.
In dumping the Colorado Party from power, the electorate of Paraguay has finally ousted what was in effect Latin America’s most enduring dictatorship, even if it did occasionally indulge in the pretence of elections. They never lost.
Indeed, such was the seismic shock felt by Paraguay’s hereditary rulers when the results of Sunday’s election started to trickle in, that the Colorado Party candidate and presumptive president, Blanca Ovelar, threatened to emulate Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. But wiser counsel prevailed.
In place of the ousted one party rulers, Paraguayans have opted for a rather unique replacement – Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who left the sanctuary of the church three years ago because, as he explained, he felt powerless to help the poor. He is popularly known as the Bishop of the Poor.
For his impertinence and for favouring the secular over the celestial, the unelected head of Vatican City suspended Lugo from the church.
Lugo’s arrival in office is further confirmation – if any was needed – that Latin America has come of age and is no longer ‘the backyard’ of its larger neighbour to the north. Another vestige of Latin America’s ancien regime has fallen, withered by age, progress and the determination of its peoples.
The long, living nightmare is coming to an end – that of endless coups and brutal military regimes, of massacres and death squads, of nations metamorphosing into subsidiary plantations of the United Fruit Company.
Although Lugo, who fashioned a coalition from across a range of opposition parties, grassroots groups and trade unions, was careful not to openly align himself publicly with any other regional leader and campaigned as an anti-corruption independent, it is clear that Paraguay has voted to venture down a path already travelled by Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Landlocked Paraguay – bordered by three countries that have gone left, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina – has always been something of an anachronism, even in Latin America. To date, it has perhaps been best known for the fervently anti-Communist regime of General Alfredo Stroessner, one of life’s original, deranged zealots and something of a ‘role model’ for the other home-grown tyrants who would follow,across the continent.
Indeed, the very stereotype of the Latin American strongman – the caudillo – probably owes more to Stroessner than any other historical figure. Hardly surprising that Stroessner’s Paraguay became a safe haven for many an escaped Nazi after World War II – or at least those Nazis deemed unemployable in the US nuclear weapons’ programme. Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death – spent some time in Stroessner’s Paraguay.
Stroessner took part in four separate coups before finally assuming office, in 1954. Washington responded with the traditional signal of approval – an immediate rise in official aid, which increased by some 50 percent when the General finally tasted coup success. 
He himself was finally unseated in a coup in 1989 and went into exile in Brazil, where he died some years later.
Stroessner’s all-pervasive regime was utterly obsessive about the ‘red menace’. No Eastern bloc country had an embassy in Paraguay during his reign. His obsessive paranoia also manifested itself in extreme brutality towards all potential or threatened insurgents.
Ironically, while a soldier, Stroessner himself was reprimanded for cowardice, during the Paraguay’s infamous Chaco War with Bolivia, from 1932-35.
In 1958, some four hundred guerillas attempted an incursion into Paraguay from neighbouring Argentina. Three months later, 17 made it home alive. The rest were hunted and killed without mercy. No prisoners were taken. Some were dropped from planes (a tactic also favoured by the Argentine military dictatorship), others fed to pirhanas. This set the tone for the Stroessner years.
In 1975, the regime sent another chilling message to those who might be tempted by notions of change or progress, when the General Secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party – Miquel Soler – was methodically dismembered with a chainsaw.
At the time of Stroessner’s unplanned departure from office, in 1989, Paraguay had the largest number of untried (interned) prisoners, in the Western hemisphere. No mean feat that, considering the competition.
Fernando Lugo’s Patriotic Alliance for Change  campaigned on the key issues of land reform and corruption. The country currently sits at number 138 in the Transparency International Corruption Index, while a small minority own the majority of the country’s ranches and farmland.
Lugo’s electoral success occurred within a few days of the sixth anniversary of the failed coup against Hugo Chavez, in 2001.  In those days, Chavez had only one ally in the region, Cuba. Now an additional seven countries – including its largest economies and most populous nations – have opted for an alternative path to that mapped by Washington. The ‘popular surge’ now has critical mass across the region. And the colossus of the north looks considerably smaller when seen from this new Latin America.

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