Monday, April 21, 2008

Another domino falls

The tiny country of Paraguay is in new hands today. A successful alliance of unions, poor farmers and Indians brought Fernando Luco, the "bishop of the poor," to power. He has pledged to carry out agrarian reform, a phrase that will duly resonate in certain quarters. Also high on Luco's agenda is the corruption-tainted and grossly inequitable Itaipu hydroelectric deal with Brazil. The business folks are already offering solicitous advice.* But for now, he's not listening: "This is the Paraguay I dream about, with many colors, many faces, the Paraguay of everyone," he said to his cheering supporters.

Once home to career Nazi war criminals--Martin Bormann and Josef Mengele--Paraguay's government has always enjoyed the strong backing of the United States. It was a backwater dictatorship for four decades after a 1954 coup, under the iron heel of General Alfredo Stroessner. His successor, General Andres Rodriguez, who launched a successful palace coup in 1989, set up "free" elections: the US was beginning to insist upon such optical illusions as world opinion was changing. Needless to say, his party and that of the deposed Stroessner, El Partido Colorado, remained firmly in power.

The history of Paraguay makes depressing reading. In The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano gives us a taste of it--his description of the so-called War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), in which Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay attacked the only country in Latin America with the effrontery to have established a self-sufficient economy. It was, in fact, a well-off country, with no national debt, universal literacy and a huge trade surplus. Begging, hunger and theft were unknown. With the help of Great Britain, the country was ravaged, its people slaughtered--five-sixths of the population were killed--and one third of its territory was annexed, leaving it landlocked. The country had the breath squeezed out of it, and it has been an economic and social basket-case ever since: now the second-poorest nation in Latin America.

This election was subject to the usual attempts at rigging: so many dead and impossibly aged voters were on the rolls that a joke soon made the rounds--the only reason Methuselah didn't take part was because he lacked Paraguayan citizenship. Nevertheless, as we have recently seen in Zimbabwe, there is only so much rigging that is humanly possible, short of handing each elector a Yes ballot. Paraguay is at a turning-point: let us hope that the turn is to the left, with Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, and not to the neoliberalism and unkept promises of Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

*For those interested in the entity known as Transparency International, cited in this article as an authoritative source re Venezuela's alleged "corruption," Greg Palast has some well chosen words here.)

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