Freedom in the World
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International concern about individuals and organizations with ties to Middle Eastern extremist groups operating in Ciudad del Este and along the tri-border area between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina grew following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. Throughout 2001, the political instability that appears endemic to Paraguay continued unabated, as congressional efforts to impeach President Luis Gonzalez Macchi--fraught with the intrigue and backbiting that characterizes Paraguayan political life-- came to naught, and the country's legal economy continued its downward trend.
In March 2001, the president announced a cabinet reshuffle that resulted in three of the four appointments going to technocrats rather than politicians, something unique in Paraguayan politics. The reshuffle occurred in the wake of an unsuccessful impeachment effort against Gonzalez Macchi's public works minister, who was accused of having been involved in the torture of detainees while holding an earlier post as law enforcement minister.
Charges about official corruption made by the political opposition have proved to be the most serious challenge faced by the government. In 2001, trade unionists and Paraguay's association of industrialists made common cause, demanding that Gonzalez Macchi act against "smuggling, tax evasion, corruption and impunity." A public opinion survey suggested that 22.6 percent of Paraguayans believed that the country was run by the "mafia"; 20.8 percent by the political parties; and only 16.8 percent by the government. Another poll suggested that most citizens would prefer to return to the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner than to continue to live in the situation of near chaos characteristic of Paraguay throughout the year.
In 1989 a coup ended the 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. Another general, Lino Oviedo, 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 Andres Rodriguez took over Stroessner's Colorado Party and engineered his own election to finish Stroessner's last presidential term. The Colorado Party won the 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 Maria Argana, 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 Argana by 10,000 votes. Argana'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.
Raul 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 March 23, 1999, hit-squad-style murder of Argana, 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, Senate President Gonzalez Macchi assumed the presidency on March 28, 1999, and 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.
Oviedo, who was detained in Brazil in 2000, was accused of masterminding the killing of his long-time rival, Argana. In May 2000, several dozen military and police officers were arrested following an unsuccessful effort by pro-Oviedo factions to oust Gonzalez Macchi. 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 Argana's murder. The dead man's son, Felix Argana, was the losing candidate in the race to replace his father in the 2000 election, a victim of Gonzalez 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. From his jail cell, Oviedo had ordered his supporters 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 Paraguay, in October 2000, a general who once headed the national antidrug effort was sentenced to seven years in prison for defrauding the government of several million dollars.
In 2001, the Paraguayan police had to provide a prosecutor and a bishop with special security after they received death threats in the wake of corruption charges filed against a provincial governor. In December 2000, the bishop had issued a strong denunciation of corruption and warned that Paraguayans were being "manipulated and dominated by mafias." Oviedo remained in prison in Brazil, pending a request from Paraguay for his extradition to face trial in the murder of Argana. The political opposition claimed Gonzalez Macchi was linked to a group of "speculators and swindlers" who transferred $16 million from the Central Bank to accounts in Miami. In a positive development, in March 2001, the U.S. State Department "certified" Paraguay as cooperating in the fight against drug trafficking, after six years of its not being certified or of its receiving a conditional waiver. In 2001, Oviedo was released by Brazil from prison, the political party system appeared on the verge of total collapse, and two high-profile kidnappings suggested that ideologically motivated acts of persecution were on the upswing. The discredit of the entire political class--encompassing the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government--was evidenced by the low turnout in 2001 municipal elections, where the participation by young people, nearly three-fourths of the population, was nearly nonexistent.
The 1992 constitution provides for regular elections. Municipal elections held in 2001 were generally free and fair, although electoral participation throughout the country was the lowest since 1989. In a positive development, Colorado Party reformer Enrique Riera won the Asuncion mayoralty, one of the country's most powerful political posts. 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 General Lino 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 the 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, Julio Cesar Franco and Felix Argana.
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 General Alfredo Stroessner. Allegations include illegal detention by police and torture during incarceration, particularly in rural areas.
In 1997, the commander of the national police was dismissed following a newspaper expose about his force's involvement in car theft, corruption, and bribery schemes. In November 1999, congress began impeachment proceedings against Paraguay's top anticorruption official, who is accused of bribery and extortion. The presence of law enforcement is scarce throughout Paraguay. Reportedly corrupt police officials remain in key posts and are in positions to give protection to, or compromise law enforcement actions against, narcotics traffickers.
Despite receiving U.S. government certification in 2001, Paraguay remains among the 24 countries most involved in narcotics trafficking. Colombian drug traffickers continue to expand operations in Paraguay, and accusations of high official involvement in drug trafficking date back to the 1980s. In October 2000, former counternarcotics secretariat chief Jose Tomas Centurion was sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption during his tenure at the helm of the antidrug agency. Little progress was made in curbing money laundering, fighting public corruption, monitoring Paraguay's porous borders, or increasing the legal authority that police needed to effectively enforce antidrug statutes.
The lack of security in border areas, particularly in the tri-border region, has allowed large organized crime groups to engage in piracy and in the smuggling of weapons, narcotics, and contraband. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, attention focused on the serious lack of government control over Paraguay's lengthy and undeveloped land borders, extensive river network, and numerous airstrips (both registered and unregistered). The Iguazu triangle, as it is called, given its proximity to Iguazu Falls, is the region extending from the cities of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, Foz do Iguacu in Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. The region contains more than 100 runways, many clandestine, and the Paraguay-Brazil border has long been a scene of major commercial contraband, including the smuggling of stolen cars.
More than 12,000 Arab immigrants have come to the region since the 1970s, and many of these live in Ciudad del Este. Although many of the recent arrivals from Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine are legitimate business operators, law enforcement and intelligence sources say that a significant number are involved in smuggling operations. The Islamic extremist organization Hezbollah and other militant organizations are active in the region. In 1996 a Lebanese man was arrested after he was discovered to be in possession of weapons and explosives that he was allegedly going to use to blow up the U.S. embassy in Asuncion or Buenos Aires. Argentine investigators also discovered that the van used in the deadly 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires had been purchased in a second hand car dealership in Ciudad del Este one week before the attack. Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay had established a joint intelligence center to monitor the region, and all three countries had begun to use their air forces for surveillance and interdiction efforts.
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 attack by security forces. Free expression is also threatened by vague, potentially restrictive laws that mandate "responsible" behavior by journalists and media owners.
The Paraguayan constitution provides indigenous people with the right to participate in the economic, social, political, and cultural life of the country; however, the indigenous population, estimated at 75,000 to 100,000, is unassimilated and neglected. Low wage levels, long work hours, infrequent payment (or nonpayment) of wages, job insecurity, lack of access to social security benefits, and racial discrimination are common. Weak organization and lack of financial resources limit access by indigenous people to the political and economic system. Indigenous groups rely primarily upon parliamentary commissions to promote their particular interests. The constitution also protects the property interests of indigenous people, but these rights still are not fully codified. The constitution allows Public Ministry officials to represent indigenous people in matters involving the protection of life and property. Lack of access to sufficient land also hinders the ability of indigenous groups to progress economically and maintain their cultural identity. This is made worse by insufficient police and judicial protection from persons encroaching on their lands. Many indigenous people find it difficult to travel to the capital to solicit land titles or to process the required documentation for land ownership.
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 Roman Catholic 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. In June 2000, a former director of the government's National Indigenous Institute, which had authority to purchase land on behalf of indigenous communities and to expropriate private property under certain conditions to establish tribal homelands, was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for embezzlement. 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, although they are weak and riddled with corruption. 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 workers' rights was passed in October 1993.
Sexual and domestic abuse of women, which is both widespread and vastly underreported, continues to be a serious problem in Paraguay. Spousal abuse is common. Although the new Penal Code criminalizes spousal abuse, it stipulates that the abuse must be habitual before being recognized as criminal, and then it is punishable only by a fine. Thousands of women are treated annually for injuries sustained in violent domestic altercations.