A Decade After Lugo Was Ousted, Paraguay’s Left Has a Chance to Regain Power

The 2012 coup against Fernando Lugo cut short the only period of left-wing rule in Paraguay’s modern history. But in elections next year, the country’s progressives have their best shot in years at unseating the corrupt, reactionary Colorado Party.

June 22 marks a decade since Fernando Lugo, a leftist former bishop who headed Paraguay’s only progressive government in living memory, was removed in a rapid parliamentary coup. (Antônio Cruz / Agência Brasil)

The sound of the helicopter announced the inevitable: the police were back, this time ready to shoot to kill. After a tense standoff, the bodies suddenly began to fall. It was a clash of machetes, horses, and high-powered rifles on one side versus rusty old shotguns on the other, while the women and children fled their tents. The red earth witnessed a massacre of eleven campesinos and six police officers that is still, ten years later, yet to be fully investigated.

June 22 marks a decade since Fernando Lugo, a leftist former bishop who headed Paraguay’s only progressive government in living memory, was removed in a rapid parliamentary coup in the aftermath of this rural bloodbath. The killings of June 15, 2012, came amid an occupation by landless farmers at Marina Kue, in Curuguaty, eastern Paraguay. They were followed by more murders of campesino leaders and a trial plagued by irregularities.

Conservative forces also used the botched eviction at Marina Kue as a pretext to impeach Lugo, in proceedings that lasted barely a few hours. Progressive governments across Latin America branded it a coup; even conservative Chile and Colombia recalled their ambassadors.

Soft Coups

The events in Paraguay in 2012 followed what happened in Honduras three years earlier, when another progressive president, Manuel Zelaya, was removed. They inaugurated an era of “soft” coups and lawfare across the region. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff cited Lugo’s fate in 2015 before she too was unseated, in a rapid impeachment that even her right-wing replacement later admitted was a coup.

The decade since 2012 has been grim for ordinary Paraguayans, with a third of its people still living in poverty. Evangelical conservatives have stifled any progress on reproductive and LGBTQ rights, penetration of the country by violent transnational organized crime has deepened, and the destruction of Paraguay’s natural world by agroindustry is accelerating. The urban activists and indigenous and campesino communities who resist face fierce repression.

In April 2023, the country will vote for a new president and congress. The ruling conservative Colorado Party, which has been in power for all but five years since the 1940s, is riven by factional infighting. With Lugo out of the running due to term limits, an array of rivals on the right, center, and left is hoping to take advantage.

If the opposition can overcome profound structural obstacles and internal divisions to reclaim power, it can arrest these somber trends and join a regional fightback of progressive forces. A decade after the coup and less than a year out from the elections, the question is whether Paraguay’s left can replicate Lugo’s electoral triumph without him on the ballot.

No Peace, No Progress

Paraguay is no stranger to violence. Between 1864 and 1870, the War of the Triple Alliance, formed by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, almost exterminated the local population. The next century was hardly better: civil wars, revolutions, coups, and countercoups were punctuated by another exhausting conflict, this time against Bolivia. Authoritarianism festered in the deep wounds of political instability. The first Nazi party outside of Germany was founded in Paraguay in 1929.

Two military dictatorships, those of General Higinio Morínigo (1940–48) and General Alfredo Stroessner (1954–1989), ruled hand in glove with the political party that governs Paraguay to this day. The enduring hegemony of the Colorado Party, otherwise known as the Asociación Nacional Republicana (ANR), has its origins in a bloody civil war. In 1947, the Colorados emerged victorious, with Paraguay now a de facto one-party state. The regime annihilated all opposition; the Communist Party and leftists in general went into hiding, and huge numbers of people were forced into exile, including most of Paraguay’s intellectuals.

Stroessner’s dictatorship, backed by the United States, trumpeted the slogan “Peace and Progress.” The reality was a totalitarian regime that lasted for thirty-five years — South America’s longest dictatorship — while giving asylum to Nazis and Francoists, murdering more than 400 people, and subjecting some 19,000 to torture.

A key legacy of the Stronato for Paraguayan politics today are the Colorado seccionales: local offices of the party that are still present in practically every neighborhood of every town. They openly provide handouts, medicines, jobs, public contracts, and sporting events in order to buy votes and convene the physical and digital foot soldiers known as hurreros.

This fierce social control, almost unique in Latin America, has installed a clientelistic political culture that has co-opted the small middle class and enriched those Tomás Palau dubs the empresaurios: crony-capitalist oligarchs close to the regime and its successors. Stroessner’s fall didn’t spell the end of the authoritarian system he created. One popular anecdote holds that the exiled dictator, seeing a photo of Paraguay’s first post-transition cabinet, remarked, “I’m the only one missing.”

A Left on Life Support

If the Colorado Party is unusually dominant, Paraguay’s left suffers multiple structural weaknesses — which are in turn hard to disentangle from the legacy of authoritarianism — that set it apart regionally. Mass public movements (and, to a lesser extent, armed resistance) forced the military regimes of Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay to restore democracy and created a ready-made generation of postdictatorship leaders on the Left (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff, José Mujica) and center-left (Ricardo Lagos). In Paraguay, by contrast, Stroessner was toppled only by a palace coup in 1989 led by his son-in-law General Andrés Rodríguez, who was then legitimized in a nominally free but unfair election.

Subsequent Colorado continuity has starved Paraguay’s progressive forces of visibility, campaign finance, and government experience beyond the truncated Lugo interregnum — which was enabled only by the Colorado vote splitting between two candidates and by Lugo’s own unique touch. According to Fernando Martínez, a Paraguayan political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires, the Lugo “phenomenon” rested on an unusual alliance between the rural Catholic faithful, left-wing social movements, and the establishment Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA).

“Lugo magically reaches the people, above all the poor and those far away from the asphalt highways of the cities,” agrees Alfredo Boccia, a political columnist. Paraguay’s left gained power in 2008 “via a shortcut,” he adds. Today that shortcut no longer exists. Lugo represented a miracle but also a kind of curse. His personalized victory deprived the Left “of a process of coordination, debate, growth, and power-building that can’t be done overnight.”

South American universities have long provided a training ground for antiestablishment movements and politicians. The Chilean social democrat Gabriel Boric and his Communist communications chief Camila Vallejo are only the latest examples. Yet in Paraguay, the traditional parties co-opt college and even high-school societies and leaders as a means of harvesting new cohorts of voters.

Political operators often take two or three successive undergraduate degrees, says David Riveros García, an anti-corruption campaigner, “so they remain in the university to project political influence for themselves or their party. It’s crazy, but it happens a lot.” When bribes fail, repression is employed. Vivian Genes, an architecture student and organizer at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción (UNA), was jailed without trial last year together with several other activists during massive protests against Colorado corruption.

Nor does ethnicity provide an organizing framework for politics in Paraguay as it does in neighboring Bolivia, where the indigenous majority has consistently returned the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) to power since 2005. Most Paraguayans are mixed-race and speak some Guaraní, a state-backed language; politicians pay lip service to the country’s indigenous heritage. However, few people identify with today’s marginalized indigenous communities, who number just 120,000 and are too dispersed geographically (and across nineteen distinct peoples) to form a solid indigenous caucus.

Nascent indigenist parties need to come under the umbrella of the larger left-wing movement, argues Mario Rivarola, a Mbyá Guaraní craftsman and organizer with the Organización Nacional de Aborigenes Independientes (ONAI). “If progressives don’t unite,” he adds, the Colorados “will keep running Paraguay like always, from the far right and with extreme corruption. There won’t be a political program for the poor or for us indigenous people.”

While nearby countries have combative labor federations that set the parameters of public policy, Paraguayan unions are weak and fragmented. Paraguay’s rate of union membership, at just 6.7 percent, is well below those of Brazil (18.9 percent), Argentina (27.7 percent), Uruguay (30.1 percent), Bolivia (39.1 percent), or even the United States (10.3 percent). The economy is short on manufacturing or mining jobs. Seven out of ten workers work in the atomized informal economy, selling chipa on the roadside or serving rich households. Just 0.6 percent of private sector employees are unionized.

According to research by Ignacio González Bozzolasco, workers often report union-busting efforts including intimidation by managers. Paradoxically, the low threshold needed to form a sectorwide union (thirty people) means bosses can easily dilute organized labor through pliable cutouts. As Brazilian firms eagerly accept the 2014 invitation by former president Horacio Cartes to “use and abuse Paraguay” and its (not unrelatedly) cheap labor, recent years have seen an explosion in the maquila textile business. This low-skilled form of industrialization along Central American lines is unlikely to produce a figure like Brazil’s Lula, who cut his teeth in the metalworkers’ union of São Paulo, or generate conditions for sweeping strike actions like the ones that set wage floors in Uruguay.

The campesinos, peasant farmers typically without title to the land they work, represent the most boisterous political sector, organizing regular marches, occupations, and demonstrations, but suffer similarly from disunity and repression. In the 1970s, Stroessner’s police viciously broke up the Ligas Agrarias Cristianas, autonomous, utopian campesino communes that had challenged the Colorado domination of the countryside. Their modern-day inheritors, like the Federación Nacional Campesina, Conamuri, and the Organización de Lucha por la Tierra, help small farmers bravely reclaim public land illegally occupied by agribusiness, despite facing stiffened judicial punishments.

“At the level of social struggle and in electoral terms, in the last twenty-five years the campesinos have been the main social group that is offering transformative ideas,” says Najeeb Amado, secretary general of the Paraguayan Communist Party (PCP). But corporate media and the government are quick to tar such organizations with the same brush as the Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP), a miniscule guerrilla group active in the north.

After the dashed hopes of the Lugo years, some rural movements are ambivalent about electoral politics, and their power is ebbing as more family smallholders are forced, often at gunpoint, to migrate to the city or abroad. How much of a chance does the Left really have, Boccia wonders aloud, in a country with an uprooted rural population and lacking an urban proletariat of any real power?

Swallowing the Toad

The year 2023 may nevertheless provide a rare chink in the notorious election-time “granitic unity” of the Colorados. The two dominant rival factions within the party are currently at war. Former president Horacio Cartes is not a Colorado by conviction but a landowner and plutocrat who joined the party barely a decade ago. On the other hand, President Mario Abdo Benítez — the son of Stroessner’s bag-carrier — represents a more statist, traditionalist strand of coloradismo.

However, analysts agree their differences are not really about ideology but rather about a struggle for wealth and power. For months, the Abdo Benítez administration has been briefing that Cartes’s fortune may derive from a vast international cigarette-smuggling and money-laundering operation in league with narcotraffickers: a suspicion long shared by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and multiple independent reports. Cartes and his employees insist such claims are politically motivated and that the reason the tobacco magnate has curtailed his trips abroad is not fear of being jailed like his close associate Dario Messer, but rather because he is tired of traveling.

Term limits mean that neither Cartes nor Abdo Benítez can run next year, and their paladins in the Colorado primary this December are deeply uninspiring. Santiago Peña, the technocratic dauphin of Cartes, was soundly beaten in the 2017 primary by Abdo Benítez. Hugo Velázquez, the current vice president, is a Colorado lifer dogged by corruption allegations of his own.

The stakes for their rival patrons are so high that the loser this December may run next year anyway, splitting the Colorado vote and providing an opening for the Left, as in 2008. Even if the notorious Colorado “embrace” materializes after the primaries, with the party machine rallied behind one candidate, the winner will emerge tarnished by all the mudslinging.

The challenge for the opposition, then, is to winnow down a field of personality-centered figures into a unified ticket that can take advantage of Colorado infighting. Within the growing centrist Concertación alliance, pre-candidates include Soledad Núñez, a bland thirty-nine year old who was housing minister under Cartes, and Sebastián Villarejo, a former city councilman with the conservative Patria Querida (PPQ).

The diatribes of congresswoman Kattya González against corruption are popular on TikTok but often veer into reheated Stroessnerism on law and order and “family” values. Yet the PLRA, Paraguay’s second political force after the Colorados, will likely insist on once more imposing its staid leader Efraín Alegre, who ran for president and lost in both 2013 and (more narrowly) in 2018. The others will probably settle for top jobs in cabinet and congress.

The leftist Ñemongeta por una Patria Nueva bloc has voted for Esperanza Martínez of the Frente Guasú as its candidate. A doctor, public health expert, and senator who massively expanded free medical care as Lugo’s health minister, Martínez is a soft-spoken figure in a strident political culture. But her appeal is obvious after the pandemic laid bare the abysmal state of Paraguay’s hospitals due to Colorado underfunding and pilfering.

For better or worse, a ticket with Alegre and Martínez seems likely. It could prove a winning formula in 2023 — a similar arrangement came within a few percentage points of victory in 2018 — but there are risks. In Paraguay, presidential elections are won with a simple majority from a single round of voting: the opposition only has one shot. If a figure like González, the boorish, hat-trick-scoring ex-goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert, or Euclides Acevedo — an avuncular social liberal who was until recently foreign minister — decides to run outside of the emerging Concertación-Ñemongeta alliance, they will fatally split the opposition vote.

Lugo, now a senator for the Frente Guasú, will throw his weight behind Martínez and the Concertación. But the former churchman’s blessing may be a mixed one. His image has been tarnished thanks to sex scandals that emerged when he was in office and the joint attempt with Cartes to allow them both to run for a second term through a secretive constitutional amendment, which led to protesters setting congress on fire in March 2017.

Even if this awkward coalition is victorious, its leaders could struggle to realize the meaningful changes that Paraguay’s people sorely need, like redistribution of land, the big increases in taxes and spending recommended even by the World Bank and the IMF, serious anti-corruption reforms, and bold moves on reproductive rights and drug policy. “We all know that the Liberal Party is a right-wing organization,” says Rivarola, who brands Alegre a “traitor” for joining in Lugo’s ouster in 2012, “but we have to swallow the toad and the viper a little to win a space in power to keep organizing. I think people will join together against a clear enemy: the Colorado Party.”

A Garden in a Soyfield

A well-worn adage coined by the writer Augusto Roa Bastos holds that Paraguay is an island surrounded by land. It lags behind its neighbors in terms of rights and freedoms, and it is the only South American country to maintain relations with Taiwan rather than China. But it is not isolated from regional political currents. With Brazil likely to return Lula to power this October, Paraguay may be the latest of its neighbors to follow the leftward trend — part pink tide 2.0, part anti-incumbency — sweeping South America.

To achieve this, the ungainly Concertación coalition, including the Ñemongeta, will have to successfully unite Paraguay’s fractured opposition to the Colorados. Bridging the gulf between the beleaguered campesinado and the squeezed urban middle classes, it can emphasize how the Colorados have not only handed out more than eight million hectares of state-owned agricultural land to their cronies — an area greater than Panama — but are illegally occupying at least a dozen public parks in Asunción, the capital, with their party offices.

It can also harness fierce national pride in Paraguay’s heroic resistance in the Triple Alliance and Chaco wars, emphasizing that Colorado neoliberalism has left the country defenseless against violent transnational drug cartels, the abusive foreign landowners cutting down its forests, and Brazilian diplomats seeking to cheat Paraguay out of a fair price for its abundant hydroelectric power.

Exposing government corruption may be an effective campaign tactic. However, progressives should take care not to delegitimize public spending itself, when Paraguay’s state hardly exists in many places except to provide armed, uniformed enforcers for cattle and soybean barons. The race will be tight, and independent international observers will need to help the opposition to protect every vote.

A progressive Paraguay would be a kick in the teeth for Latin American and international right-wingers who have long drawn inspiration from its mix of laissez-faire economics and authoritarian governance: witness the recent visit of poll-leading Argentine libertarian Javier Milei, or the tide of German anti-vaxxers and neo-Nazis who are colonizing the countryside. It may also present a challenge to the United States, whose expanding embassy in Asunción, argues the Communist Party’s Amado, illustrates Paraguay’s long-standing role as a spearhead for North American interests in the Southern Cone.

Whatever the outcome may be in 2023, Paraguay’s splintered but stubborn social movements will continue their fight against uneven odds. And it is likely the campesinos, though persecuted and exiled, who will remain the most clear-sighted in articulating their political and material aims.

Ten years on from the coup, the answer to the common refrain — “What happened at Curuguaty?” — remains murky. In 2018, however, the eleven wrongfully jailed campesinos were finally freed, and their community remains in place. At a previous commemoration of the 2012 massacre, Karina Paredes, who lost two brothers in the hail of bullets, showed visitors around the forested village, its flourishing orchards and family vegetable plots, holding out in the midst of an endless expanse of soybean. “We feel very proud,” she said. “These are the fruits of the struggle.”