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In 2005, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos saw his leadership role in the long-ruling Colorado Party challenged by supporters of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Despite his having strengthened his influence over Congress, Duarte's popularity appeared to wane even as he pushed for reform of the 1992 constitution to allow for his reelection.
Paraguay, which achieved independence from Spain in 1811, has been wracked by a series of crises since civilian rule was restored in 1989 and the 35-year feudal reign of Alfredo Stroessner and the right-wing Colorado Party was ended. The fragility of the country's democratic institutions resulted in nearly 15 years of popular uprisings, military mutinies, antigovernment demonstrations, bitter political rivalries, and unbroken rule by the Colorados.
Luis Gonzalez Macchi assumed the presidency in 1999, after his predecessor fled the country amid charges that he had orchestrated the murder of his vice president. International concern about individuals and organizations with ties to Middle Eastern extremist groups operating in Ciudad del Este and along the tri-border area- where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet-followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
In December 2002, Gonzalez Macchi offered to leave office three months early, just a week after lawmakers voted to begin impeachment hearings against him. Accused of buying an armor-plated BMW stolen from Brazil, mishandling millions of dollars in state revenues, and embezzling $16 million from two banks in the process of liquidation, Gonzalez Macchi barely survived an impeachment trial in early 2003. Even his supporters did not defend the president-who allegedly doubled his personal wealth during his four years in power-saying only that it was inadvisable to oust him so late in his term. Gonzalez Macchi and many in the Colorado Party were discredited, too, by their failed efforts to reverse the country's downward economic spiral.
Favoring populist, antiglobalization rhetoric during the 2003 presidential campaign, former education minister and journalist Nicanor Duarte Frutos, an insurgent Colorado, emerged victorious in national elections held in April. Duarte had promised to purge the public sector and the judiciary of corruption and inefficiency, create jobs, and return fiscal stability to the country. Although the Colorado Party lost ground in Congress in the concurrent legislative elections, it retained a majority of the 17 state governorships. On taking office in August, Duarte quickly began to inaugurate the good-government agenda that he had promised during the campaign. Skeptics, however, questioned whether the new anticorruption regime would be selectively applied to Duarte's rivals inside and outside the Colorado Party, or whether the elections would truly usher in a new period in Paraguayan politics.
Duarte did move to take control of the tax, ports, and customs authorities to combat tax evasion and smuggling; Paraguay has a highly dollarized banking system and a tax system in which two-thirds of what should be collected is never paid or is siphoned off, owing to corruption. In October 2003, his law enforcement minister, the commandant of the national police, and the head of customs were forced to resign following revelations about a smuggling and corruption scandal.
Despite Duarte government efforts to promote good governance, fight tax evasion, pay foreign debt arrearages, and adopt International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms, Paraguay appeared near paralysis in 2004 in the face of an increase in public insecurity, a long-running economic recession, endemic public corruption, and a poverty rate of more than 60 percent. The country was shaken by a crime wave whose magnitude was symbolized by the seeming impunity with which criminals abducted the daughter of a former Paraguayan president in a blaze of gunfire. Sometimes violent land seizures by armies of homeless people in and around the capital city, Asuncion, contributed to a growing debate about the distribution of wealth in the country.
Public opinion surveys showed that after a decade and a half of turbulent civilian rule and 50 years after he had seized power, the once-discredited Stroessner-living in exile in Brazil-was viewed with favor by some two-thirds of Paraguayans. In September 2004, a Paraguayan court ordered Stroessner and his former armed forces chief of staff to be arrested in connection with the disappearance of three Paraguayan activists in Argentina in the 1970s under a secret regional police action known as Operation Condor.
Duarte justified his push for constitutional reform that would allow his reelection by pointing out that the current constitution was approved in an era of what he called "mutual mistrust," just three years after Stroessner's fall. Duarte's influence in both houses of Congress improved after a pact with the fractured Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA), the country's strongest opposition party, secured the votes necessary for Duarte supporters to take control of the leadership positions in both bodies. However, in October 2005 the newspaper ABC Color accused Duarte supporters of spying on legislators known to oppose his reelection bid. The following month, between 10,000 and 40,000 Stroessner supporters rallied in an effort to oppose a new term for the president.
Citizens of Paraguay can change their government demo-cratically. The 2003 national elections were considered to be free and fair. The 1992 constitution 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 vote, and reelection is prohibited. The constitution bans the active military from engaging in politics.
The Colorado Party has ruled Paraguay for 50 years; the other major political groupings include the PLRA, the Beloved Fatherland Party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, and the National Agreement Party.
Corruption cases languish for years in the courts, and most end without resolution. According to the comptroller-general, corruption has cost the Paraguayan treasury $5 billion since the country returned to democracy in 1989. Transparency International consistently ranks Paraguay as the most corrupt country in Latin America; in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, Paraguay was ranked 144 of 159 countries surveyed worldwide.
The constitution provides for freedom of expression and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. There are a number of private television and radio stations and independent newspapers, but only one state-owned media outlet, Radio Nacional, which has a limited audience. Journalists investigating corruption or covering strikes and protests are often the victims of intimidation or violent attack by security forces, and even death threats from politicians. In April 2004, radio reporter Samuel Roman was shot dead by two men riding on a motorcycle in a Paraguayan border town. In 2005, there were several threats and attacks on journalists that caused the Paraguayan Journalists Union to issue a statement complaining about a climate of insecurity around the country in which the media are forced to work. Vague, potentially restrictive laws that mandate "responsible" behavior on the part of journalists and media owners also threaten free expression. The government does not restrict use of the internet, nor does it censor internet content.
The government generally respects freedom of religion. All religious groups are required to register with the Ministry of Education and Culture, but no controls are imposed on these groups, and many informal churches exist. In August, the Senate approved a bill that would seize some property owned in the Chaco region by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which was accused by President Nicanor Duarte Frutos of paying local workers "starvation" wages. The government generally does not restrict academic freedom.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of association and assembly, these rights have been undermined by the previous government's tolerance of threats and the use of force, including imprisonment, by its supporters against the opposition. There are numerous trade unions and two major union federations, although they are weak and riddled with corruption. The constitution gives public sector workers the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike, and nearly all these workers belong to the ruling Colorado Party. A revised labor code designed to protect workers' rights was adopted in October 1993.
The judiciary, under the influence of the ruling party and the military, is susceptible to the corruption pervading all public and governmental institutions. The constitution permits detention without trial until the accused completes the minimum sentence for the alleged crime. There have been continuing reports of illegal detention by police and torture during incarceration, including of minors, particularly in rural areas. Reportedly corrupt police officials, who are poorly paid, remain in key posts and are in a position to give protection to, or compromise law enforcement actions against, narcotics traffickers. Colombian drug traffickers continue to expand operations in Paraguay, and accusations of high official involvement in drug trafficking date back to the 1980s. Overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, and mistreatment of prisoners are serious problems in the country's prisons; more than 95 percent of those held are pending trial, many for months or years after arrest.
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, 2001, attacks, attention focused on the serious lack of governmental control over Paraguay's lengthy and undeveloped land borders, extensive river network, and numerous airstrips (both registered and unregistered). The Islamic extremist organization Hezbollah and other militant organizations are active in the so-called Iguazu triangle region, which is delineated by the cities of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, Foz do Iguacu in Brazil, and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina.
The constitution provides indigenous people with the right to participate in the economic, social, political, and cultural life of the country. However, in practice, the indigenous population is unassimilated and neglected. Low wages, long work hours, infrequent payment or nonpayment of wages, job insecurity, lack of access to social security benefits, and racial discrimination are common. Peasant and Indian organizations that demand and illegally occupy land often meet with police crackdowns, death threats, detentions, and forced evictions by vigilante groups in the employ of landowners. Impoverished Indian groups in the Chaco region are among the most neglected in the hemisphere, with 93 percent of homes lacking sanitation or drinking water. In February 2005, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights accused the government of violating six articles of the American Convention on Human Rights by displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral lands and denying them the right to land, education, health, and judicial protection.
Paraguay's economy remains heavily based on agriculture and various forms of contraband. The country has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world, and the top 10 percent own 40 percent of the wealth. Nearly 242,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 work in Paraguay, and many are used in narcotics and weapons trafficking in Brazil by criminal bands.
Sexual and domestic abuse of women, which is both widespread and vastly underreported, continues to be a serious problem in Paraguay, with nearly one in 15 women reporting having been raped at least once in their lives. Although the government generally prosecutes rape allegations, often obtaining convictions, many rapes go unreported because victims fear their attackers or are concerned that the law does not respect their privacy. Employment discrimination is pervasive and spousal abuse is common. Trafficking in persons to, from, and within the country is proscribed by the constitution and criminalized in the penal code; however, there were occasional reports of the practice for sexual purposes.