Monday, April 21, 2008


1946 - the year in which the United Nations met for the first time, in which Italy and Bulgaria ditched their monarchies and declared themselves republics, when Juan Peron and Ho Chi Minh became Presidents of their nations and Churchill made his "Iron Curtain" speech. In 1946, you could buy a family home for £1,500, watch Olivier in Henry V, and buy the latest records by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or the Inkspots.

1946 was also the year in which the Colorado Party joined the government in Paraguay. The following year, it assumed full power of the country, and continued to rule singlehandedly, via a neo-fascist dictatorship and an emerging democracy, for nearly 62 years. China, Cuba and Zimbabwe are seen as the world's one-party-state bad-boys, but the Colorado party's rule is the only one that predates both of my parents*.

Yesterday, the Colorado Party's monolithic rule came to an end. In a general election marred by vicious smears, the outsider Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, beat the Colorado candidate, Blanca Ovelar, with nearly 41% of the vote, enough to secure him the Presidency. Lugo has pledged to reform land in favour of the poor, give greater citizenship to indigenous Paraguayans, and demand higher revenue from its giant neighbour Brazil for hydro-electric power generated at the enormous Itaipu Dam.


The outgoing President, Nicanor Duarte, was sufficiently spooked to predict instability as a result of Lugo's campaign for change: "They want to burn properties, service stations and other resources to upset the social peace," Duarte said. "The one responsible for the violence and death is going to be Fernando Lugo and his band of delinquents and kidnappers." But Duarte, who had an approval of just 15%, did not scare Paraguay's voters. They wanted change, and now, for the first time in nearly 200 years of Paraguayan history, an opposition leader has won the Presidency peacefully, without a coup d'etat.

It's tempting to see this as further evidence of South America's radical leftwards shift. Lugo is a champion of the poor, and he was certainly not the preferred choice of the United States, which enjoyed very cordial relations with ex-President Duarte. But it is likely that Lugo's government will be firmly social democratic, and will not follow the lead of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador down the path of Bolivarian socialism.

Paraguay is a politically, socially and religiously conservative nation, without a strong history of social movements. Left-wing groups, including trade unions, were blacklisted from Paraguayan society during the long Colorado rule, and Lugo will struggle to wade through its entrenched corruption and nepotism. Unlike Morales and Chavez, Lugo is not a natural-born radical either - he is an ex-bishop in the liberation theology mould.

Nevertheless, in Paraguay a statement like "I have taken a preferential option for the poor" is positively revolutionary. And it cements a further move away from the economic liberalism and sham democracies supported by Washington after the fall of the USSR, which brought many Latin American countries to their knees during the 1990s. One of the biggest failures for neoconservatism under Bush has been an erasure of support in its own backyard. It can only muster two allies in the region now: the beleaguered Colombian government, and Peru's Alan Garcia.

The Partido Colorado website is very quiet today, making no reference to their historic defeat (its headline, "Election passes without major incidents", must be understatement of the year). Lugo, meanwhile, is looking towards the future: “I believe the people are ready for a real change. I believe they are ready for a change not just in personal, parties, but a real structural change in Paraguay and its institutions.” With a bit of a push from below, Lugo may just realise that radical vision.

* a bag of Paraguayan soya to anybody who can name any countries with an existing one-party rule that is longer than the Colorado Party's...


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