Freedom in the World
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President Nicanor Duarte Frutos of the Colorado Party continued to pursue a fiscal reform program as well as closer ties with the International Monetary Fund in 2007. He abandoned his unsuccessful push for a constitutional change to allow him to seek reelection in April 2008, which had the unintended effect of energizing an increasingly uncooperative opposition. With Duarte considered a lame duck, the political dialogue was dominated by squabbles among all parties regarding the selection of presidential candidates for 2008.
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 murder charges. In December 2002, Gonzalez Macchi offered to leave office three months early, just a week after lawmakers voted to begin impeachment hearings against him for embezzlement. Gonzalez Macchi and many other members of the Colorado Party were also discredited by their failed efforts to reverse the country’s downward economic spiral.
Favoring populist, antiglobalization rhetoric during his presidential campaign, former education minister Nicanor Duarte Frutos of the Colorado Party emerged victorious in the national elections of 2003. He had promised to purge the public sector and the judiciary of corruption and inefficiency, create jobs, and return fiscal stability to the country.
After taking office, Duarte moved to take control of the tax, port, and customs authorities to combat tax evasion and smuggling. Paraguay has a highly dollarized banking system, which facilitates the illegal transfer of funds to offshore accounts. This tax evasion as well as corruption deprived the state of about two-thirds 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.
Paraguay’s problems of low public security, slow economic growth, endemic public corruption, and a poverty rate of more than 30 percent have proven intractable. Furthermore, in the legislative session that began in July 2007, Duarte’s party controlled neither the upper nor the lower house of Congress. This exacerbated an already combative environment in the legislature. Little progress on the government’s structural reform agenda was expected before the 2008 election as party leaders focused on their presidential nominations. Former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, who won the endorsement of Paraguay’s largest six opposition parties, appeared in 2007 to be the strongest alternative to Colorado rule.
A 2006 standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) boosted investor confidence in Paraguay. And despite the difficult political environment, Duarte has been able to make some progress on his fiscal and tax-reform agenda. In addition to a major tax-reform bill passed in 2004, a personal income tax was enacted by Congress in January 2007.
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-duty military from engaging in politics.
The Colorado Party has ruled Paraguay for over 60 years. The other major political groupings include the Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA), the Beloved Fatherland Party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, and the National Agreement Party.
Corruption cases languish for years in the courts without resolution. New corruption scandals involving the gross misallocation of subsidies to the cotton industry were exposed in May 2007. The agriculture minister admitted that only 20 percent of the alleged cotton producers who received the subsidy were actually eligible. However, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos’s administration has worked to curb corruption through tax reforms, enacted in 2007, that encourage the formalization of previously “informal” economic activity. A personal income tax was introduced, and taxes on businesses were lowered to discourage evasion. Still, Transparency International ranked Paraguay 138 out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, below all other countries in the Americas save Ecuador, Venezuela, and Haiti.
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 drug trafficking are often the victims of threats and violent attacks. This climate of insecurity showed no improvement in 2007. For example, in August a radio reporter was shot and killed after receiving several death threats for his bold coverage of local corruption and organized crime. Vague, potentially restrictive laws that mandate “responsible” behavior by the media 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 were undermined by the government of former president Luis Gonzalez Macchi, which tolerated threats and the use of force against the opposition. However, the constitution does guarantee these rights, and abuses have subsided under Duarte. There are numerous trade unions, although they are weak and riddled with corruption. A revised labor code, designed to protect workers’ rights, was adopted in October 1993. It provides for the right to strike and prohibits retribution against strikers; however, employers often illegally dismiss and harass strikers and union leaders.
The judiciary, under the influence of the ruling party and the military, is highly corrupt. Courts are inefficient and political interference in the judiciary is a serious problem, with politicians routinely pressuring judges and blocking investigations. While the judiciary is nominally independent, 62 percent of judges are members of the Colorado party. In 2007, the Supreme Court absolved two prior presidents of corruption charges despite clear evidence of their guilt. The constitution permits detention without trial until the accused has completed the minimum sentence for the alleged crime. Illegal detention by police and torture during incarceration still occur, particularly in rural areas. Poorly paid and corrupt police officials remain in key posts. Furthermore, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and mistreatment of inmates are serious problems in the country’s prisons; the prison population is currently at 179 percent of capacity.
The lack of security in border areas, particularly in the tri-border region adjacent to Brazil and Argentina, has allowed organized crime groups to engage in money laundering and the smuggling of weapons and narcotics. 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 and extensive river network. While there are no known terrorist cells in the tri-border area, it is suspected that Lebanese residents living there send money to terrorist-linked groups in the Middle East.
The constitution provides Paraguay’s estimated 90,000 indigenous people with the right to participate in the economic, social, and political life of the country. In practice, however, the indigenous population is unassimilated and neglected. Low wages, nonpayment of wages, and lack of access to social security benefits are common. Peasant organizations sometimes occupy land illegally, and landowners often respond with death threats and forced evictions by hired vigilante groups. Impoverished indigenous groups in the Chaco region are among the most neglected in the Americas, with the vast majority of homes lacking proper sanitation and drinking water.
An estimated 6 out of every 10 children born in Paraguay are not registered at birth and consequently lack access to public health and educational services. Sexual and domestic abuse of women continues to be a serious problem, with thousands of women treated each year for injuries inflicted in the home. 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 will not respect their privacy. Employment discrimination against women is pervasive, and spousal abuse is common. Trafficking in persons is proscribed by the constitution and criminalized in the penal code, but there have been occasional reports of trafficking for sexual purposes.