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  • Latin America’s Imperiled Progress“People Power” In Paraguay
  • Diego Abente-Brun (bio)

The assassination of Paraguayan vice-president Luis María Argana on 23 March 1999 unleashed a succession of political and military events that ended five days later with the resignation of President Raúl Cubas Grau. These events signaled the completion of Paraguay’s decade-long transition to democracy, which had begun in February 1989, when the armed forces, led by General Andrés Rodríguez, toppled the 35-year-long dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. Stroessner’s downfall, however, was not the result of a massive popular uprising or of pressure exerted by the country’s democratic political forces, which, although vocal, were too weak to force the regime to negotiate with them. It was an internal adjustment made by the ruling coalition in fear of what would happen when Stroessner died, and in reaction to international pressure for democratization. In short, it was a typical transition from above that began when the coalition supporting the Stroessner dictatorship began to fall apart.

Unlike other authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the Stroessner regime was not based exclusively on military force. It rested on the support of the Colorado Party, a rigidly controlled military, and a Leninist-style party-state system run with strong-arm tactics by General Stroessner. When Stroessner, aging and ill, began to lose control of his ruling coalition, rival groups within it began to vie for power. As his [End Page 93] health deteriorated, the struggle for succession intensified. The group most closely aligned with Stroessner planned to dispose of its rivals; first it purged rival politicians from the party leadership in August 1987, and then it prepared to do the same with their counterparts in the military. To preempt this move, General Andrés Rodríguez, along with a few other generals and a dozen top-echelon colonels, struck on the night of 2 February 1989. By the early hours of the next morning, they had put an end to the Stroessner regime.

Although the new leaders did not have a clear political course of action in mind, their need to secure international and domestic support forced them to begin a process of liberalization, and they accepted several demands made by the opposition parties as conditions for their participation in the political process. General elections were held on 1 May 1989, and General Rodríguez, who won the support of nearly 70 percent of the electorate, was confirmed as the new president. Opposition political forces began to reorganize and succeeded in gaining an important number of mayorships in the municipal elections of 1991, including that of the capital, Asunción. A Constituent Assembly was convened in 1992 to adopt a new democratic constitution and new general elections were set for 1993.

Democratization proceeded slowly, gradually opening the way for fairer competition between the Colorado Party and the opposition parties, but also triggering bitter rivalries within the Colorado Party itself. In fact, it is impossible to understand Paraguayan politics without taking into account both the conflicts within the Colorado Party and the competition between it and the opposition parties.

The 1993 Elections

Soon after the Rodríguez government took office, two distinct groups began to emerge within the Colorado Party. One, led by Luis María Argana, drew its support from the party’s rank-and-file and appealed in its rhetoric to the party’s traditional values of state paternalism, party hegemony, and strong-arm political leadership. Another faction combined a group of military officers closely tied to drug traffickers (led by General Lino César Oviedo) with businessmen who had made their fortunes by working on state contracts during the construction of the Itaipú hydroelectric dam (led by Juan Carlos Wasmosy). This latter faction, which expressed a greater willingness to liberalize the economy and to privatize state enterprises, gained the support of General Rodríguez, and with it, access to government patronage. Colorado Party primary elections in December 1992 pitted Argana against Wasmosy. Although the former won a narrow victory, General Oviedo, with the complicity of party officials, managed to get Wasmosy declared the party’s presidential candidate. [End Page 94]