By Trevor Cohen
A Haunting History: Authoritarianism in Paraguay
Many world leaders have described the recent impeachment of ex-President Fernando Lugo as a “constitutional coup.” Interestingly enough, this setback for democracy was one of the least authoritarian mishaps to befall Paraguay in its two hundred year history – the ouster reflects a hauntingly despotic past.
However, this historical legacy is anything but benign and it lives on in a central reality. According to a survey conducted by Latinobarómetro in 2010, 33 percent of Paraguayans agreed that “in certain circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one.” Even more frightening, in 2001, 43 percent agreed with the same statement. By comparison, between 9 percent and 23 percent of people polled in other Latin American countries in 2010 said they would endorse a non-democratic, alternative form of governance under certain circumstances.
In his study of Paraguayan history, Harris Gaylord Warren observed: “authoritarianism was as deeply engrained among the people as the use of the Guarani language, and any effort to deviate from it entailed serious dangers.” Historically, when power changed hands, chaos ruled.
Thus, in order to understand Paraguayan politics today, one must travel back to where the narrative began: the nation’s inception.
Dr. Francia, the Supreme
Within three years of attaining independence in 1811, Dr. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia rose to political supremacy within Paraguay. The most educated man in the least educated South American republic, Dr. Francia rose to fame while defending Paraguay’s impoverished masses, cultivating a large following among the majority of the population in the process. This popularity made him vastly more powerful than any member of the landed elite. This victory was the only major step that reluctantly welcomed him to the top leadership position in the newly formed government.
While a member of the aristocracy himself, Francia despised the Creole elite and set out to systematically eliminate them from power in Paraguay. Finding a motive in an unearthed conspiracy against, Francia imprisoned most of the wealthy landowners for the duration of their lives, quite literally burying many alive in underground dungeons.
Part Colonel Kurtz, part Kim-il Sung, and part Robin Hood, Francia placed the estates of the incarcerated landholders under state control, using them to produced food for a new Paraguay. Meanwhile, he all but cut off the nation from trade and entrance to foreigners, and only the odd botanist or explorer who did happen to enter Paraguay was forced to stay for as long as 14 years under Francia’s watchful eye. However, among the peasants, who called him Carai Guazú, Dr. Francia was a savior. Campesinos enjoyed participation as ministers in his administration and their standard of living improved through the cultivation of land leased to them by their leader. With no elite present to persuade the masses against him, Francia maintained a monopoly on political power. His control over Paraguay was total, and he presided over nearly every aspect of the administration until his death in 1840.
The Builder and the Destroyer
While Francia left no heir apparent nor arranged for any transfer of power upon his death, those who succeeded him built upon his foundation, continuing the legacy of absolutism, which he personified. Carlos Antonio Lopez, the first leader following Francia, became known as “the Builder” for his efforts to modernize and industrialize the nation. He built schools, made magnificent renovations to the capital, and, in 1861, oversaw the completion of one of the first functioning railroads in South America. Antonio Lopez also reversed Francia’s policy of isolationism, and opened the nation up to foreigners. Notably, he welcomed foreign engineers to help design factories, boosting local production of high cost, value added products. This, while the elites of other Latin American countries opened their nations to often disastrous trade agreements with European powers. Such agreements enriched the coffers of the Latin American elite who controlled the ports, but they also saddled their nations with gaping trade deficits.
However, Paraguay’s atypical success – albeit achieved under a despotic ruler – did not last long. Dubbed the failed “Napoleon of South America,” Francisco Solano Lopez would destroy his father’s work. Having been sent to train in European military academies by his father, Solano Lopez was determined to expand landlocked Paraguay’s domain to the Atlantic. He envisioned an empire that included parts of Argentina, Brazil, and all of Uruguay.
After mobilizing an army of 80,000 by 1865, Lopez declared war on Brazil and Argentina in rapid succession, bent on satisfying his territorial ambitions. This lead Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to form and alliance against Paraguay. The war quickly devolved into a protracted struggle for Paraguayan survival, which ended in genocide by 1870. Paraguay was destroyed by the ambition of a misguided leader; by the war’s end, 90% of the adult male population had been killed.
Aftermath: Anarchy and the Authoritarian Republic
After a period of occupation by Brazilian forces, Paraguay regained independent governance in 1878. Unfortunately, this left the country in the hands of green political who knew nothing but despotism. Thus, the two political parties that emerged – the Colorado Party and the Liberal Party – brought little change from previous eras. The Colorados, largely the remaining supporters of Lopez, dominated Paraguayan politics from 1878 to 1904, while the Liberals, born of an oligarchic coalition, were handed control from 1904 to 1936.
A republic in name only, as Warren pointed out, “the entire [Paraguayan] electoral process from registration of voters to recording the voice of votes was permeated with fraud.” Administrative transition was accomplished only through civil war or military coup, the last of which toppled the Liberal government in 1936. The following decades featured a series of interim governments, interspersed with more coups.
The Stroessner Dictatorship and Modern Democracy
In 1954, Alfredo Stroessner seized the presidency. Stroessner returned Paraguay to its post-independence history of one-man rule, though without a commitment to improving the lives of the peasantry. His regime favored the Colorado Party, relegating their Liberal Party rivals to the status of political pariahs, all the while reserving access to economic and political power to an elite cadre composed of his supporters and family members.
In 1989, a coup ousted Stroessner after 35 years of uncontested authority. Leading Paraguay into the new era of democracy was the Colorado Party, which retained the presidency in successive elections through a well-oiled patronage system established during the dictatorship.
Paraguay’s first turnover election came in 2008, with the triumph of ex-Bishop Fernando Lugo at the head of the Alliance for Progress: a loose coalition of left-leaning factions. Less than four years later, Lugo was swept from his office by a hurried impeachment. Unfortunately, true Paraguayan democracy existed for little less than three years before the politics of an authoritarian past terminated its sadly short life.
Trevor Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
This is an amended version of an article soon to be published by Fair Observer as part of an ongoing series on Lugo’s Impeachment and Paraguayan Democracy.