Political Developments Since 1986

Political Developments Since 1986

The splits in the Colorado Party in the 1980s and the conditions that led to this--Stroessner's age, the character of the regime, the economic downturn, and international isolation--provided an opportunity for demonstrations and statements by the opposition prior to the February 1988 general elections. In addition, the official attitude to human rights benefited somewhat as Stroessner attempted to improve his image abroad. In March 1986, for example, Stroessner met with an Americas Watch delegation, the first time he had ever received a human rights group. Two years earlier, another Americas Watch delegation had been arrested and expelled from the country upon arrival. The state of siege was also allowed to lapse in Asunción in April 1987.

The PLRA leader Laíno served as the focal point of the opposition in the second half of the 1980s. The government's effort to isolate Laíno by exiling him in 1982 had backfired. In fact, Laíno received considerable international attention during five unsuccessful attempts to return to Paraguay. On his fifth attempt, in June 1986, Laíno returned on a Uruguayan airliner with three television crews from the United States, a former United States ambassador to Paraguay, and a group of Uruguayan and Argentine congressmen. Despite the international contingent, the police violently barred Laíno's return. The police action dashed hopes that Stroessner's meeting three months earlier with the Americas Watch representatives presaged a substantial liberalization of government policy.

In response to increased pressure from the United States, however, the Stroessner regime relented in April 1987 and permitted Laíno to arrive in Asunción. Laíno took the lead in organizing demonstrations and diminishing somewhat the normal opposition party infighting. The opposition was unable to reach agreement on a common strategy regarding the elections, with some parties advocating abstention and others calling for blank voting. Nonetheless, the parties did cooperate in holding numerous lightning demonstrations (mitines relampagos), especially in rural areas. Such demonstrations were held and disbanded quickly before the arrival of the police.

The elections of 1988 provided the opportunity for two organizational innovations. The first was the establishment of the MDP. In addition, the Accord groups, which now expanded to include the Colorado ethicals and some labor and student movements, organized a National Coordinating Committee for Free Elections to monitor the political situation, expose what they termed the "electoral sham," and encourage either abstention or blank voting.

Obviously stung by the upsurge in opposition activities, Stroessner condemned the Accord for advocating "sabotage of the general elections and disrespect of the law" and used the national police and civilian vigilantes of the Colorado Party to break up demonstrations. A number of opposition leaders were imprisoned or otherwise harassed. Hermes Rafael Saguier, another key leader of the PRLA, was imprisoned for four months in 1987 on charges of sedition. In early February 1988, police arrested 200 people attending a National Coordinating Committee meeting in Coronel Oviedo. Forty-eight hours before the elections, Laíno and several other National Accord members were placed under house arrest.

During the six weeks of legal campaigning before the elections, Stroessner addressed only three Colorado rallies. Despite limited campaign activities, the government reported that 88.7 percent of the vote went to Stroessner, 7.1 percent to PLR candidate Luis María Vega, and 3.2 percent to PL candidate Carlos Ferreira Ibarra. The remaining 1 percent of ballots were blank or annulled. The government also reported that 92.6 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballots. The National Coordinating Committee rejected the government's figures, contending that abstention was as high as 50 percent in some areas. In addition, election monitors from twelve countries, including the United States, France, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina, reported extensive irregularities.

Shortly after the elections, researchers from the Catholic University of Our Lady of Asunción and the West German Friedrich Naumann Foundation released the findings of a public opinion poll that they had conducted several weeks earlier. The poll, which measured political attitudes of urban Paraguayans--defined as those living in towns with at least 2,500 residents--suggested that the Colorado Party had considerable support, although nowhere near the level of official election statistics. Asked for whom they would vote in an election involving the free participation of all parties and political movements, 43 percent named the Colorado Party; the PLRA, which finished second in the poll, was mentioned by only 13 percent of all respondents. (The two "official" opposition parties, the PLR and the PL, trailed badly with only 2.9 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.) Stroessner's name also topped the list of those political leaders considered most capable of leading the country; indeed, after Laíno, who finished second in the list, Colorado traditionalists, militants, and ethicals captured the next five positions.

Although contending that these results reflected the Colorados' virtual monopoly of the mass media, opposition politicians also saw several encouraging developments. Some 53 percent of those polled indicated that there was an "uneasiness" in Paraguayan society. Furthermore, 74 percent believed that the political situation needed changes, including 45 percent who wanted a substantial or total change. Finally, 31 percent stated that they planned to abstain from voting in the February elections.

Relations between militants and traditionalists deteriorated seriously in the months following the elections. Although Chaves and his followers had not opposed Stroessner's reelection bid, Montanaro denounced them as "legionnaires"--a reference to those Paraguayan expatriates who fought against Francisco Solano López and who were regarded as traitors by the original Colorados. Prominent traditionalists, among them the head of the Central Electoral Board and the minster of foreign relations, lost their government positions. Luis María Argaña left his post as chief justice of the Supreme Court following the completion of his five-year term and was replaced by a militant. Argaña attempted to distance himself somewhat from his traditionalist colleagues by claiming that he had not authorized his name to appear on a traditionalist list prior to the August 1987 convention; nonetheless, most observers thought that he was the most likely candidate to succeed Chaves as head of the movement. By late 1988 the only major agencies still headed by traditionalists were the IBR and the National Cement Industry (Industria Nacional de Cemento). In September 1988, traditionalists responded to these attacks by accusing the militants of pursuing "a deceitful populism in order to distract attention from their inability to resolve the serious problems that afflict the nation." Traditionalists also called for an end to personalism and corruption.

The Colorado Party was not the only political group confronted by internal disputes in the late 1980s. The PLRA had two major currents; Laíno headed the Liberation for Social Change (Liberación para Cambio Social), whereas Miguel Abdón Saguier led the Popular Movement for Change (Movimiento Popular para el Cambio). Despite the efforts of PDC founder Luis Alfonso Resck, a bitter leadership struggle erupted within that party in late 1988. Finally, the PRF found itself in the middle of an acrimonious battle between the Socialist International and the Latin American Socialist Coordinating Body.

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