Under the spectre of a dictatorship

Presidential hopefuls: Abdo (left) has to beat Alegre for Paraguay

IT’S been pointed out to me that I have something of an obsession with South and Central American politics. And I have to admit it’s true. It’s not just about the romantic image of Che Guevara either. For the last 15 years, it’s been one of the most exciting places to watch as a wave of left wing governments took power in most countries, only for most to be rolled back. In that time the region’s traditional subservience to the United States was re-examined and many countries enjoyed a boost in economic growth. And we had personalities like Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, the poorest president in the world.

And it’s still an exciting time. Cuba now has a president who isn’t a Castro, Lula is the most popular man in Brazil but they are trying to throw him in jail, Maduro seems to be half rigging Venezuela’s elections and reformist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading the opinion polls ahead of Mexico’s next election.

This time around, though, we are looking at Paraguay. Paraguay is going to the polls today to elect a president. And usually the candidate of right wing Colorado Party will win. Even when it was a military dictatorship, the Colorado Party was there to aid and abet. Basically the party enjoyed 61 years of unbroken rule before tasting defeat in the 2008 presidential elections. Just imagine that, 61 years. Under the same party.

Most of that time was under the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Of German descent, he was a bit of a Nazi wannnabe and indeed is known to have harboured ex-war criminals such as Joseph Mengele, the ‘mad Doctor’.

Stroessner was a sadist whose chief of secret police apparently called him on the phone so that he could listen to an opposition leader being dismembered by chainsaw.

Thousands were murdered, tortured and disappeared, but he got strong support from the US for his anti-Communist stance. Only the presence of neighbouring tyrant Augusto Pinochet prevented Stroessner from being the most vile dictator in town.

Well guess who is the front runner this time?

Senator Mario Abdo Benitez, who appears to be running on a platform of nostalgia for the old dictatorship. His father was Stroessner’s private secretary and amassed a fortune during the regime. Abdo defeated ex-finance minister Santiago Pena, in the Colorado primaries and that’s usually a guarantee of the Paraguayan presidency.

Interestingly, the only time since the late 1940s that the Colorado Party lost that election was when the bishop of the poor Fernando Lugo, a priest with radical roots, challenged the status quo and swept to power.

The charismatic clergyman campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-land reform platform but in a poor, land-locked nation used to one party domination, he had a mountain to climb. He also had to contend with revelations about his personal life, particularly that while a priest, he had fathered a number of children out of wedlock!

Lugo navigated the presidency for four years before a clash between landless peasants and the police led to his impeachment by a hostile Congress.

This time Abdo is due to fight lawyer Efrain Alegre, who won the Liberal Party’s nomination and has formed a coalition with Lugo. Given the recent victories of monied conservative bastions of the privileged classes in Chile and Argentina, it would be no surprise if Abdo does persevere.

But then again, perhaps the call for change that saw Lugo sweep into power, may rear its head.

News editor Martin Vengadesan wonders which revolution will be rolled back next.

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Opinion , Politics , Martin Vengadesan , Paraguay


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