Paraguay's Historic but Not Radical Change

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, April 25, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Up until last week, Paraguay seemed frozen in time. While other countries in the region underwent political and social transformations demanded by electorates fed up with corrupt and elitist ruling classes, the Colorado Party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner was in its seventh decade in power.

On Sunday, however, Paraguayans dealt a strong blow to Colorado dominance and elected Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, as president. Lugo, a leftist, took 41 percent of the vote while Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado Party candidate, received 31 percent. The oldest one-party rule in the world is no more.

The Bush administration welcomed Lugo's election, saying "we would look forward to working with him and his new government." A State Department official noted Lugo has had "a good relationship" with the U.S. embassy in Asuncion and had met last June with Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Such a measured response from Washington is a notable change. Not long ago, a leader with ties to radical leftist movements -- while in the clergy, Lugo identified with Liberation Theology -- would have been a cause of unsettlement here, if not outright condemnation.

Still, such pleasantries directed toward Paraguay shouldn't be mistaken for a profound policy evolution in Washington. Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, acknowledges the gentler Shannon touch but says that Paraguay is simply not on Washington's radar. "The degree of distraction (in the Bush administration) is much greater than it used to be," he said.

There may be no better indication of this than the difficulty in finding a State Department official willing to comment specifically about the historic defeat of the Colorado Party this week. Certainly Lugo's victory warrants at least a small celebration of the triumph of democracy, particularly from an administration that believes, as President Bush noted, "the advance of freedom is the calling of our time."

Then again, little or no attention is probably better than the fare Washington served up not long ago. Just six years ago, the menace from the south was Brazilian presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Washington politicians warned that should Lula be elected, he would join Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in forming "an axis of evil in the Americas which might soon have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles." Lula is now seen as a pragmatic leftist posing no threat to Washington.

Latin America's leftward swing has run parallel to an administration in Washington first too ideologically charged and later too compromised in other parts of the world. Still, most incoming Latin American leaders, including Lugo, have signaled their interest in maintaining good relations with the United States, albeit on their own terms.

So far all indications are that Lugo will be more a Lula than a Hugo. The only nationalist chord Lugo stroked during the campaign was not an anti-American diatribe. Rather, the bishop of the poor, as he is known, targeted Brazil and pledged to change an unpopular hydroelectric treaty that forces Paraguay to sell all surplus energy to Brazil at below market rates.

Paraguay experts agree that Lugo won't be at liberty to make radical reforms, such as the nationalization of industries or expropriation of private lands. The Colorado Party's influence remains strong in Congress, where it still has a majority, and in the other branches of government.

Also, Lugo will be limited by his own Patriotic Alliance for Change, a diverse band of leftists, centrists and conservatives. Add to that his inexperience in government and Lugo could really benefit from the support of other governments, even if it is only limited to messages of friendship.

That is precisely all that the U.S. can offer at this time, contends Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin America project coordinator for the Cato Institute. Free trade agreements, the main tool the Bush administration had for rewarding friends in the region, have been tabled by the Democratic majority in Congress.

No wonder the next election to watch is the U.S. contest in November. If a Democrat wins, the political climate in the region might warm toward Washington, presenting the chance to advance relations on more constructive terms. But considering how little the Democratic candidates have said about Latin American policy and how much they have bashed free trade, whether the opportunity will be seized remains open to question.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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