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President Fernando Lugo struggled to advance reforms in 2011 due to divisions within his Patriotic Alliance for Change coalition and an opposition-controlled Congress. The passage of the long-awaited Itaipú agreement with Brazil in September fulfilled a campaign promise for the president, but disagreement regarding the use of increased revenue shadowed the political victory. Continued violence by the Paraguayan People’s Army, a radical socialist guerilla group, prompted the deployment of troops to northern Concepción state.
Paraguay, which achieved independence from Spain in 1811, was racked by a series of crises following the 1989 ouster of authoritarian president Alfredo Stroessner of the right-wing Colorado Party 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 continued rule by the Colorados.
Senate leader Luis González Macchi assumed the presidency in 1999 after the incumbent fled the country amid murder charges. In 2002, González Macchi offered to leave office early to avoid pending impeachment hearings against him for embezzlement. Former education minister Nicanor Duarte Frutos of the Colorado Party emerged victorious in the 2003 national elections. After taking office, Duarte moved to take control of the tax, port, and customs authorities to combat rampant tax evasion and smuggling.
Fernando Lugo, leader of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) coalition—a heterogeneous grouping of 20 parties including Christian Democrats, socialists, communists, and peasant organizations—was elected president in April 2008. Lugo’s election reflected widespread disappointment in the Colorado Party and also raised expectations that the standard of living for Paraguay’s poor majority would improve. Reform necessary to address Paraguay’s highly skewed land distribution remains one of the administration’s principal goals. In the UN Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Report, Paraguay was ranked 107 out of 179 countries—worse than nearby Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Prospects for Lugo’s reforms were dealt a blow in July 2009 when the coalition’s largest member—the conservative Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA)—dropped out, leaving the Colorados, who strongly oppose Lugo’s reformist agenda, in control of the legislature.
Lugo’s party experienced considerable losses in the November 2010 municipal elections; the Colorado Party won back 132 of Paraguay’s 238 municipalities, bolstering its prospects for the 2013 general election.
The rise of the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP)—an armed leftist guerilla group—forced Lugo to declare a month-long state of emergency in half of the country in April 2010. The administration mobilized 3,300 police and troops to combat the group. After a lull, the group reemerged in January 2011 with a series of bombings across the country; one of the targets was the Asunción headquarters of a privately owned television station. The federal government responded by increasing cash rewards for information leading to the apprehension of high-level combatants. The EPP killed two policemen in the northern state of Concepción in September, and Congress voted in October to send armored troops to the region to support police forces. Several senior EPP members have been captured, but the group continued to function as of the end of 2011.
In July 2011, the opposition-controlled Congress rejected a constitutional reform that would have let Lugo run for reelection in 2013. Lugo’s increasingly hostile relationship with Vice President Federico Franco, a political rival, further undermined any semblance of a unified government in 2011. There were also tensions between the president and the military; since the start of his presidency, Lugo has initiated three major purges of military leadership, with the third occurring in mid-2011.
In September 2011, Congress ratified a 2009 agreement with Brazil that settled a decades-long dispute over payments for energy produced by the Itaipú hydroelectric dam. As a result, Paraguay’s income from the dam will triple. The Lugo government had promised that increased revenue would finance land reform, but this looked unlikely to pass the Colorado-dominated Congress.
Lugo has maintained a conventional economic program. Supportive macroeconomic policies contributed to robust economic growth in 2011. However, the economy suffered a blow due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in mid-September 2011, which forced farmers to kill over 800 cattle and to temporarily halt all beef exports.
Paraguay is an electoral democracy. The 2008 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 to a five-year term, and reelection is prohibited. The constitution bans the active-duty military from engaging in politics.
Before President Fernando Lugo and the APC came to power in 2008, the Colorado Party had ruled Paraguay for over 60 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 without resolution, and corruption often goes unpunished as judges favor the powerful and wealthy. The Lugo administration pledged to increase overall transparency in government and reduce corruption, specifically in the judiciary. However, the president has been unable to depoliticize Paraguay’s corrupt Supreme Court. Paraguay was ranked 154 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, lagging behind all other countries in the Americas save Venezuela and Haiti.
The constitution provides for freedoms 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. In 2011, journalists investigating corruption, organized crime, or drug trafficking continued to suffer threats and violent attacks. Direct pressure by criminal groups and corrupt authorities led to self-censorship by journalists, especially in remote border areas. The government does not restrict use of the internet, nor does it censor its 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 does not restrict academic freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of association and assembly, and these rights are respected in practice. There are a number of trade unions, but they are weak and riddled with corruption. The labor code provides for the right to strike and prohibits retribution against strikers, though the government has generally failed to address or prevent retaliation by employers. Strikers and union leaders are often illegally dismissed and harassed by employers.
The judiciary is highly corrupt. Courts are inefficient and political interference in the judiciary is a serious problem, as politicians routinely pressure judges and block investigations. While the judiciary is nominally independent, more than 60 percent of judges are members of the Colorado Party. 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. Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and mistreatment of inmates are serious problems in the country’s prisons.
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. The Shiite Islamist movement Hezbollah has long been involved in narcotics and human trafficking in the largely ungoverned tri-border area. In recent years, Hezbollah has developed ties with Mexican drug cartels.
The constitution provides Paraguay’s estimated 108,000 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. Peasant organizations sometimes occupy land illegally, and landowners often respond with death threats and forced evictions by hired vigilante groups. Violence between landless peasants and landowners practicing large-scale farming continued in 2011; tensions are exacerbated by Paraguay’s grossly unequal land distribution in which 1 percent of the population owns 77 percent of arable land. On a positive note, the government made some progress in 2011 in returning ancestral land to indigenous groups. After two decades of legal battles, Paraguayan authorities, local companies, and Sawhoyamaxa indigenous leaders signed an agreement in September 2011 outlining the purchase of land by a government agency to eventually return to the indigenous community.
Employment discrimination against women is pervasive. Sexual and domestic abuse of women continues to be a serious problem. 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. 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 and domestic servitude.