Freedom in the World
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In 2006, an antagonistic political opposition undermined the ability of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos to govern effectively as November municipal elections approached. Duarte renewed his push to change the constitution to allow him to seek reelection in April 2008, but his efforts were hampered by the combative political environment. Meanwhile, the country’s anticorruption efforts began to make headway, even as press freedom conditions deteriorated amid violence against journalists.
Paraguay, which achieved independence from Spain in 1811, has been racked by a series of crises since authoritarian President Alfredo Stroessner of the right-wing Colorado Party was ousted in 1989 after 35 years in power. The fragility of the country’s emerging democratic institutions resulted in nearly 15 years of popular uprisings, military mutinies, antigovernment demonstrations, bitter political rivalries, and unbroken rule by the Colorados.
Senate leader Luis Gonzalez Macchi assumed the presidency in 1999 after the incumbent fled the country amid charges that he had orchestrated the murder of his vice president. In December 2002, Gonzalez Macchi offered to leave office three months early, just a week after lawmakers voted to begin impeachment hearings against him. He was accused of buying an armor-plated BMW that had been stolen from Brazil, mishandling millions of dollars in state revenues, and embezzling $16 million from two banks in the process of liquidation. He barely survived an impeachment trial in early 2003. Gonzalez Macchi and many in the Colorado Party were also discredited by their failed efforts to reverse the country’s downward economic spiral.
Favoring populist, antiglobalization rhetoric during the 2003 presidential campaign, former education minister 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. Upon taking office in August, he quickly began to implement the good-governance 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.
Duarte moved to take control of the tax, port, and customs authorities to combat tax evasion and smuggling. Paraguay had a highly dollarized banking system, which facilitated the illegal transfer of funds to offshore accounts. This tax evasion as well as corruption left the state with about one third of its legitimate revenues. In October 2003, Duarte’s law enforcement minister, the commandant of the national police, and the head of customs were all forced to resign following revelations about a smuggling and corruption scandal.
Despite the administration’s efforts to promote good governance, pay foreign debt arrears, and adopt International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms, Paraguay was hobbled in 2004 by a decline in public security, a long-running economic recession, endemic public corruption, and a poverty rate of more than 60 percent. Intermittent violent land seizures by groups of homeless people in and around the capital city, Asuncion, contributed to a growing debate about the distribution of wealth in the country.
Beginning in 2006, Duarte pushed for constitutional reform that would allow him to seek reelection, pointing out that the current constitution was approved in an era of “mutual mistrust,” just three years after Stroessner’s fall. Duarte’s influence in Congress increased after a pact in September 2006 with the fractured Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA), the country’s strongest opposition party, secured the votes necessary for his supporters to take control of the leadership positions in both chambers. However, opposition parties took an increasingly combative stance against the president in 2006 as the November municipal elections approached.
The resulting congressional deadlock blocked progress on much-needed economic reform. Friction increased after a Duarte ally left the post of Senate president in June 2006 and was replaced by Enrique Gonzalez Quintana, an open critic of Duarte. Also in June 2006, former president Gonzalez Macchi was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud and embezzlement.
Faced with the country’s troubled political and economic conditions, a record number of Paraguayans emigrated to Spain in 2006, a phenomenon for which the political opposition blamed the Duarte administration. Duarte’s mandate has been weakened by stubborn unemployment levels and low real economic growth, in spite of macroeconomic stability. Duarte’s popularity declined through 2006 due to his perceived inability to address rising unemployment and growing crime. However, a June 2006 IMF stand-by agreement worth $97 million was expected to boost investor confidence in the government.
In November, the ruling Colorado Party captured over 49 percent of the vote in municipal elections, winning in Asuncion and three of the five next-largest towns. The opposition PLRA finished second, with over 34 percent and the other two of those towns.
Paraguay is an electoral democracy. 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, all elected for five-year terms. 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 some 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. Corruption is most rife in the informal economy, which accounts for an estimated 50 percent of national output. Only 5 percent of imports are declared at customs. Before 2006, Transparency International consistently ranked Paraguay below all other Latin American countries on its annual Corruption Perceptions Index. However, Paraguay’s 2006 ranking was 111 of 163 countries surveyed, placing it ahead of countries like Honduras, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The administration of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos has worked to curb corruption by formalizing more economic activity through tax reform in 2006. An income tax has been introduced, and taxes on businesses have been lowered to discourage evasion. While income tax accounts for only 12 percent of government revenue—low by regional standards—tax receipts overall have increased by 80 percent since Duarte took office.
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 2005, there were several threats and attacks against journalists that caused the Paraguayan Journalists Union to issue a statement complaining about the climate of insecurity. This atmosphere continued through 2006, as press freedom advocates condemned the violence and intimidation aimed at reporters after a brazen attack on a journalist in southern Paraguay in February 2006. A year following the attack and probable murder (the journalist remains missing), none of the individuals involved in the attack had been arrested or even questioned. 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. The government generally does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedoms of association and assembly had been undermined by the Macchi government, which tolerated threats and the use of force, including imprisonment, against the opposition. However, the constitution does indeed guarantee these rights, and their abuses have subsided under the current Duarte administration. 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 of 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 that could allow them to give protection to, or compromise law enforcement actions against, narcotics traffickers. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and mistreatment of inmates are serious problems in the country’s prisons; more than 95 percent of those held are awaiting trial, many for months or years after their arrests.
The lack of security in border areas, particularly in the tri-border region adjacent to Brazil and Argentina, has allowed large organized crime groups to engage in money laundering, and the smuggling of weapons, narcotics, and other contraband. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, 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). Sympathizers of the Lebanese Islamic extremist organization Hezbollah and other militant groups are active in the tri-border region, also known as the Iguazu triangle
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 working hours, nonpayment of wages, lack of access to social security benefits, and racial discrimination are common. Peasant organizations that illegally occupy land often result in death threats and forced evictions by vigilante groups employed by landowners. Impoverished indigenous groups in the Chaco region are among the most neglected in the hemisphere, with 93 percent of homes lacking proper sanitation or drinking water. In February 2005, the Inter-American Commission on 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.
Nearly 242,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 work in Paraguay, and many are used in narcotics and weapons trafficking to and from Brazil by criminal bands. Sexual and domestic abuse of women continues to be a serious problem in Paraguay, with nearly 1 in 15 women reporting having been raped at least once in their lives. Although the government generally prosecutes rape allegations and often obtains 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 have been occasional reports of the practice for sexual purposes.