In recent weeks, an otherwise unremarked — if not unremarkable — land-locked country in the heart of South America has done enough to gain the attention of the world’s media. An ear has been turned to a country — bordering Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil — known primarily for its meat exports, its market in counterfeit goods, and its periodic qualification to the football World Cup. For a moment at least, the world has taken heed of Paraguay.
April saw an explosion of political violence in Asunción — the little country’s capital — and in the second-largest city, Ciudad del Este. Protesters set the nation’s Congress building ablaze and police responded with rubber bullets, water cannons, mass arrests, and the shooting and killing of 25-year-old Rodrigo Quintana — the leader of the main opposition party’s youth wing.
The catalyst was the announcement of a bill — similar to bills passed in neighbouring Bolivia, in Venezuela, and in Russia — which, if passed, would allow the ‘millionaire, criminal, business titan, homophobe’ and President of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, to repeal the constitutional ban on re-election and therefore enable him to run for a second term in office. Critics and political opponents, understandably, believed this to be the first step on the way to dictatorship — another dictatorship.
Alfredo Stroessner’s regime — one of the longest in history — fell in February 1989, after more than 34 years of a ‘vile and brutish’ rule supported by the USA. According to the writer John Gimlette, Stroessner’s opponents ‘were hurled from aeroplanes or — more economically — simply bound up in wire, mutilated and dumped in the Río Paraguay.’ A character in Gimlette’s At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, about his travels in Paraguay, puts it slightly differently: ‘he’s a fuck-head! […] A total fuck-head!’
A total fuck-head he probably was, attaining power after a bloody coup against the president who had given him his previous job as military chief of staff, and imposing an introspective regime whose financial support came mainly through official trade in contraband. Apparently, in this second-poorest country in South America, more whisky was drunk than in Japan, the capital had more Mercedes’s than any city on the continent, and coffee — a crop the country did not grow — became a staple export.
Most telling, and most pertinent to Paraguay’s recent politics, is Stroessner’s shameless disregard for elections. Whilst the electoral rigmarole was performed, each was overwhelmingly ‘won’ by Stroessner, who gained ninety to one hundred percent of the vote each time. If he occasionally permitted an opposition, they were puppets, and they suffered harassment and intimidation regardless. One gruesome story tells of how the leader of the outlawed Paraguayan Communist Party was dismembered by the police chief’s chainsaw — whilst Stroessner listened on the phone.
As it couldn’t come from an opposition, the dictator’s death knell struck from within his inner circle. In 1989, fearing that Stroessner would hand power directly to one of his sons — unacceptably, either a cocaine addict or a homosexual — his closest confidante, Andrés Rodríguez, turned against him. In a pleasing symmetry, Rodríguez led a bloody coup against his friend’s regime — a regime that ended the same way it began.
Cartes’s bill to amend the constitution’s prohibition of re-election — a measure to prevent precisely the return of a Stroessner — must inevitably conjure memories of this most repressive of regimes. It signals, for many, the threat of a return — after nearly thirty years — to a state without elections, the possibility of a slip away from democracy. The main opposition party, the Guasú Front, supports the bill, and these cross-party supporters held a vote on the bill outside of the Senate, to the exclusion of those vowing to vote it down. This capitulation of the political opposition too has raised the spectre of Stroessner.
Cartes has since said he will ‘in no event’ stand in next year’s election, yet the bill remains unscrapped. With Fernando Lugo, the opposition leader, also seeking re-election, there is no reason why it will be. But the fear of authoritarianism remains real in Paraguay and it will for a long time to come.