“Would you mind if I put some ornaments on the table?” 32-year-old Federico Filártiga, the host of the YouTube show Lomitos y Leyendas (Sandwiches and Legends), jokes with his somewhat uncomfortable guest Federico Franco as he pulls out a small flower vase, alluding to the latter’s alleged reputation as a merely decorative vice president under Fernando Lugo. For the next twenty minutes, as the two sit in the plastic chairs of a down-to-earth food stand in Asunción and chew on paper-wrapped sandwiches, the Paraguayan politician is peppered with more serious questions, ranging from corruption during his time in office to his contested legacy as president. Alternative media such as Lomitos y Leyendas – whose incisive style contrasts starkly with that of the country’s stale traditional formats – are part of a broader, and generally overlooked, change in Paraguay’s public debate and its politics.
Long written off as hopelessly conservative and stuck in the past, Paraguay is rarely mentioned in debates about the current political upheaval and renewal in Latin America. The small land-locked country lived through 35 years of dictatorship under Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, before an internal power struggle within the ruling Colorado Party – rather than public pressure – led to a somewhat accidental transition to democracy in 1989. The party has remained in power for all but five years since then, and it can expect to be victorious in next year’s presidential elections.
Yet in several ways, a new generation of Paraguayans is beginning to change politics, though perhaps in a less dramatic fashion than elsewhere in Latin America, where 14 presidential elections are expected to profoundly alter the political landscape in the next two years. In Paraguay, where nearly half of the population is under 25, the Colorados remain near hegemonic, and Mario Abdo Benítez (known as Marito), who won the primary contest on December 17, is the clear favorite in April’s presidential elections.
Yet to some extent, party bigwigs have been increasingly aware of the public desire for change. In 2008, the Colorados chose a female presidential candidate for the first time in the country’s history. Four years later, the party picked an outsider, recruiting the tobacco magnate Horácio Cartes, who became president in 2013 and promptly irked many old-school Colorados by adopting tougher transparency measures. Marito’s primary win against the 39-year-old Santiago Peña – a Cartes protegé known as Santi – shows that Colorado traditionalists still wield power, but the candidate knows he’ll have to cooperate with the more modern Peña to assure a united front in the upcoming elections.
While the prospect of an opposition party with the structure to win both the presidency and a legislative majority remains elusive for now – largely because new parties like the center-left Guasú Front lack the political machinery to get enough legislators elected – the Colorado Party has received powerful messages from Paraguay’s youth over the past years that things are changing. In March, Asunción witnessed public outrage unseen in more than a decade when Cartes attempted to stealthily amend the constitution to allow himself to run for re-election. Within hours of the Senate’s controversial vote, protesters – with young people making up the largest part of the crowds – filled the streets, some setting parts of the Senate building on fire.
What was most remarkable was that the protests occurred in the midst of a broadly positive economic scenario. Paraguay still faces dramatic challenges. It has stubbornly high poverty levels, and a government with limited capacity to raise taxes to provide better public services to the poor. It also has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world – over three-quarters of its arable land is controlled by 1 percent of the nation’s landowners – and persistent corruption, including allegations against Cartes. Yet Paraguay’s economy has fared rather well. The economy grew at a solid 3 percent per year in 2016 and 2017, and Paraguay is now the world’s fourth largest soy exporter. This was particularly noteworthy at a time when the rest of Latin America was doing far worse.
Contrary to Bolivia and Nicaragua, where presidents Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega used periods of temporary prosperity to eliminate constitutional constraints and erode democracy without facing much resistance, Paraguay would have none of it. Cartes’ attempt to change the constitution faced resistance, and was shelved. Even Nicanor Duarte, a government critic, and Fernando Lugo, a leading opposition voice who was ousted in an impeachment in 2012, supported the constitutional change. The entire traditional political elite had failed to anticipate how the public would react.
That may be because Paraguayan society is changing faster than its political elite, and a generation is gaining influence that has no clear memory of non-democratic rule – a first in Paraguayan history. In 2015, university student protests against corruption and lack of transparent decision-making led to the arrest and prosecution of numerous officials. A year later, high school students occupied more than a hundred schools to protest against mismanagement, causing the minister of education to resign.
At the same time, Paraguayan civil society is showing unprecedented elements of plurality and vibrancy. In addition to independent media producers such as Federico Filártiga – whose Youtube show was deemed sufficiently important to attract both main Colorado primary candidates to an interview – NGOs led by a new generation such as TEDIC, which focuses on digital rights, Somos Gay, and Panambi, which defend gay rights and transgender rights respectively (until recently a taboo topic even among the urban elite), are contributing to a more active citizen participation. Whoever succeeds Cartes next year will have to contend with a new generation that is out to change Paraguay for the better.
Tags: Elections 2018, Paraguay