Paraguay: Is Being Against Corruption and Organized Crime Enough?

by Esteban Caballero*

The Gran Palacio Nacional in the capital of Paraguay, Asunción / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

As Paraguay prepares for general elections next year, the opposition is running on a platform condemning the corruption of the incumbent Colorado Party, but candidates so far have not articulated credible policies to weed out what is a deeply systemic problem.

  • President Mario Abdo Benítez, whose five-year mandate (with no possibility of reelection per the Constitution of 1992) ends next August, has faced several challenges. His Colorado Party has had to manage the COVID pandemic and a series of climatic and economic headwinds that impeded the performance of the agro-exporting sector, the backbone of Paraguay’s economy. Although the country’s fiscal health is better than others in the region, public debt has risen, and pension subsidies have taken resources away from meaningful public investment projects.
  • In July and August, the United States designated former President Horacio Cartes and Vice President Hugo Velázquez – also from the Colorado Party – as “significantly corrupt.” The news sent shockwaves through the body politic and fueled nationwide angst about corruption and, more seriously, the ability of organized crime to permeate government institutions.

Combatting corruption and organized crime has become the central theme of the opposition’s efforts to contest the governing party’s hold on power in the April 2023 elections for president and vice president, deputies, senators, and departmental governors and councilors. Preparing for primaries on December 18, a group of opposition leaders has created a coalition called Concertación Nacional 2023. Early polls indicate that Efraín Alegre from the Liberal Radical Authentic Party will win the primary. He shares the ticket with Soledad Núñez, an independent candidate for vice president.

  • The opposition says that giving the boot to the Colorado Party and rebuilding government institutions will solve the problem. Still, analysis of the more prominent opposition leaders’ discourse signals the need to generate more substantive, programmatic proposals to counter corruption and narco threats. Whether this weakness is because they have no policy think tanks or an indicator of disregard for the policy debate in Paraguayan politics remains to be seen. In any case, the opposition appears poorly prepared to deal with the problems.
  • The challenge is that the country faces two intertwined phenomena – the more traditional corruption linked to government procurement and personnel recruitment and the growing threat of sliding toward being a “narco-state.” Washington’s allegation against former President Cartes is that he “obstructed a major international investigation into transnational crime to protect himself and his criminal associate.” Narcos have killed several well-known local politicians. When model and influencer Cristina Aranda died in an accident in a shoot-out, it shocked public opinion. Nonetheless, the opposition is having difficulty harnessing that revulsion and delineating policies to stop Paraguay’s various forms of corruption.

The opposition’s promise to strengthen government institutions, preserve the rule of law, increase the proper functioning of the police, and reform the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary are laudable goals that will win support among its base and some fence-sitters. Undoubtedly, the Colorado Party is the party most at fault when it comes to condoning corruption and opening the gates to organized crime’s influence. Nevertheless, the opposition cannot only run on a negative campaign, and should ask itself how credible its discourse can be without specifics, especially if it comes from professional politicians who belong to parties, such as the Liberal Radical Authentic Party, that have also had corrupt elements among them when in office.

  • Polls and media reports show that a significant contingent of the electorate continues to support the Colorado Party even if they agree on the need to stop corruption and organized crime. The opposition’s messaging in that context has to draw a fine line between holding the Colorado Party accountable and avoiding broad sweeps that may alienate many of those potential voters and that risks pushing them to consider change as a menace more than a form of deliverance.

* Esteban Caballero is a columnist and political analyst. He is the academic coordinator of the FLACSO Program in Paraguay and former regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the UN Fund for Population.

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