2001 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 3.5
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 4

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Paraguay received an upward trend arrow due to a free and fair special election that resulted in the selection of a new vice president.

Overview

Liberal party leader Julio Cesar Franco won the Paraguayan vice presidency in August 2000 in a special election designed to fill a post left vacant by a March 23,1999, hit-squad-style assassination that triggered the overthrow of the country's president. Franco's victory at the head of an opposition coalition was a blow to President Luis Gonzalez Macchi, the former head of the senate, whose shaky grasp on power was already buffeted by internal divisions, labor unrest, and restlessness from within the ranks of the military anf the police. González Macchi assumed the presidency on March 28, 1999, after the forced resignation of Raul Cubas, who as chief executive was a stand-in for General Lino Oviedo – a former head of the army who led a 1996 coup attempt. Oviedo, who was detained in Brazil in 2000, was accused of masterminding the killing of his long-time rival, Vice President Luis María Argaña. The dead man's son, Felix Argaña, was the losing candidate in the race to replace his father in the 2000 election, a victim of González Macchi's inability to create a government of national unity and the first member of the Colorado Party to lose a presidential election in 60 years of uninterrupted party rule.

In 1989 a coup ended the 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. Oviedo himself stormed into the bunker of Latin America's oldest surviving dictator with a pistol in one hand and a grenade in the other and demanded that Stroessner surrender. General Andrés Rodriguez took over Stroessner's Colorado Party and engineered his own election to finish Stroessner's last presidential term. The Colorado Party won a majority in a vote for a constituent assembly, which produced the 1992 constitution. It provides for a president, a vice president, and a bicameral congress consisting of a 45-member senate and an 80-member chamber of deputies elected for five years. The president is elected by a simple majority, and reelection is prohibited. The constitution bans the active military from engaging in politics.

In the 1992 Colorado Party primary election, Luis María Argaña, an old-style machine politician, apparently defeated the construction tycoon Juan Carlos Wasmosy. Rodriguez and Oviedo engineered a highly dubious recount that made Wasmosy the winner.

The 1993 candidates were Wasmosy, Domingo Laino of the center-left Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), and Guillermo Caballero Vargas, a wealthy businessman who founded the National Encounter Alliance. Wasmosy promised to modernize the economy. Laino played on his decades of resistance to Stroessner. Caballero Vargas campaigned as a centrist, free of the politics of the past.

Every poll showed Wasmosy trailing, until three weeks before the election, when Oviedo personally took over the direction of the campaign – in spite of the fact that he was an active military officer – and threatened a coup if the Colorado Party lost. Fear of a coup proved decisive, as Wasmosy won with 40.3 percent of the vote. Laino took 32 percent, and Caballero Vargas, 23.5.

Oviedo was then appointed army commander, and Wasmosy allowed him to eliminate rivals in the military through forced retirement. The partnership came to a bitter end when Wasmosy moved to reduce the influence of the drug-tainted military in government and it became increasingly obvious that Oviedo and a hardline Colorado Party faction planned to use Wasmosy as a stepping stone for the general's own accession to the presidency. Wasmosy ordered Oviedo's resignation on April 22, 1996. The general in turn threatened a coup and mobilized the troops. Wasmosy took refuge in the U.S. embassy and prepared his resignation. International pressure and mass protests in Paraguay allowed Wasmosy to outmaneuver his rival, who then vowed to return as a presidential candidate in 1998.

Wasmosy's government was shaken by a number of corruption scandals. These included money laundering in the banking system by financial racketeers from neighboring countries and by drug traffickers, as well as two bank collapses provoked by the theft of assets by bank managers. In 1997, Oviedo won the Colorado Party presidential nomination by besting Argaña by 10,000 votes. Argaña 's supporters claimed fraud, despite the fact that they controlled the party electoral tribunal, and demanded that 50,000 of the votes cast be reviewed.

Cubas, a civil engineer and originally Oviedo's vice presidential choice, was elected in May 1998, after Oviedo was jailed in March by a military tribunal for his 1996 attempted putsch and banned from standing for election. Despite the deep divisions within the Colorado Party, Cubas not only bested Laino 54 to 42 percent, but also led the party to majority status in both chambers of congress for the first time since 1989. One of Cubas's first acts was to free Oviedo, in a maneuver widely described as a "constitutional coup."

In early March 1999, an armed forces spokeman warned that the military would be obliged to defend Cubas if congress tried to remove him for failing to carry out a judicial order to send Oviedo back to jail. The murder of Argaña, a bitter Oviedo foe, and the killing of eight student protestors by rooftop snipers, ended the fiction of a truce in the long-ruling Colorado Party. After Cubas's impeachment by congress, González Macchi appointed a "national unity" government including members of the two main opposition parties – the PLRA and the National Encounter Party. More than 100 army officers, including several generals, believed to be Oviedo supporters were forced into retirement. Oviedo – who had received asylum from his long-time friend, Argentine president Carlos Menem, and sought to surgically alter his appearance – fled to Brazil following the December 1999 change of government in Buenos Aires. In June he was jailed and awaiting possible extradition to Paraguay.

In May 2000, several dozen military and police officers were arrested following an unsuccessful effort by pro-Oviedo factions to oust González Macchi. In August Oviedo ordered his supporters, from his jail cell, to vote for Franco for vice president. At the same time two Brazilian congressmen sought to have him put on trial for drug and money laundering offenses. In October, a general who once headed the national antidrug effort was sentenced to seven years in prison for defrauding the government of several million dollars. Two men accused of assassinating Argaña were allowed to escape from the Argentine Federal Police headquarters in Buenos Aires, presumably with the help of high-ranking law enforcement officers there.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The 1992 constitution provides for regular elections. The 2000 elections, although they were raucous, were considered free and fair by local standards. More than 80 percent of eligible voters participated in the 1998 elections. Although the presidential campaign was marred by the political proscriptions of Oviedo and threats against the national electoral tribunal, voter fraud was held to a minimum by the work of the tribunal, coverage by the media, and willingness of the military to stand firm in favor of the process.

The constitution guarantees free political and civic organization and religious expression. However, political rights and civil liberties are undermined by the government's tolerance of threats of intimidation and use of force, including imprisonment, by its supporters against those Oviedo followers who remain in the country. In the tense days following the August 2000 vice presidential balloting, the press was the target of intimidation, including physical attacks, by supporters of both candidates.

The judiciary, under the influence of the ruling party and the military, is susceptible to the corruption pervading all public and governmental institutions. Corruption cases languish for years in the courts, and most end up without resolution. The courts are generally unresponsive to human rights groups that present cases of rights violations committed either before or after the overthrow of Stroessner. Allegations include illegal detention by police and torture during incarceration, particularly in rural areas. Colombian drug traffickers continue to expand operations in Paraguay, and accusations of high official involvement in drug trafficking date back to the 1980s. In 1997, the commander of the national police was dismissed following a newspaper exposé about his force's involvement in car theft, corruption, and bribery. In November 1999, the congress began impeachment proceedings against Paraguay's top anticorruption official, who is accused of bribery and extortion. Transparency International ranks Paraguay 92 out of 99 nations rated for public corruption.

Overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, and mistreatment are serious problems in Paraguayan prisons. More than 95 percent of the prisoners held are pending trial, many for months or years after arrest. The constitution permits detention without trial until the accused completes the minimum sentence for the alleged crime.

In Paraguay, there is only one state-owned medium, the Radio Nacional, which has a limited listenership. A number of private television and radio stations exist, as do a number of independent newspapers. However, journalists investigating corruption or covering strikes and protests are often the victims of intimidation and violent attacks by security forces. Free expression is also threatened by vague, potentially restrictive laws that mandate "responsible" behavior by journalists and media owners.

Peasant and Indian organizations demanding and illegally occupying land often meet with police crackdowns, death threats, detentions, and forced evictions by vigilante groups in the employ of landowners. Peasants have been killed in the ongoing disputes. Activist priests who support land reform are frequent targets of intimidation. The government's promise of land reform remains largely unfilled, as nearly 90 percent of agricultural land remains in the hands of foreign companies and a few hundred Paraguayan families. A program financed by the European Union to restore traditional lands to Native Americans in the eastern Chaco region has been riddled with fraud. According to official statistics, 39 percent of Paraguayans speak only Guarani, 49 percent are bilingual, and 12 percent speak only Spanish.

There are numerous trade unions and two major union federations. The 1992 constitution gives public sector workers the rights to organize, bargain collectively, and strike, and nearly all these workers belong to the ruling Colorado Party. A new labor code designed to protect worker rights was passed in October 1993.

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