Yesterday, Paraguay held its first presidential elections since the ouster of democratically elected Fernando Lugo last year, and as expected, Horacio Cartes won with over a million votes (45.8%), defeating runner-up Liberal Party candidate Efrain Alegre, who finished with over 800,000 votes for 37% percent of the vote. Mario Ferreiro of the Avanza Pais coalition finished with just 5.9% of the vote (around 140,000 votes), while Anibal Enrique Carrillo of the Frente Guasú, the party formed out of Fernando Lugo’s old coalition, received 3.3% of the vote (nearly 80,000 votes). Nearly 3% of the ballots were turned in blank, while another 2.5% were null ballots, be it through mistaken voting or as a sign of protest against the options. That Ferreiro finished a distant third is unsurprising, but it should be remembered that he and Carrillo both still had support; indeed, the New York Times‘ Simon Romero tweeted a photo of a campaign poster yesterday that called both Cartes and Alegre “golpistas,” or coup-mongers, a reminder of the ongoing anger at the removal of Lugo last June. Such resentment over his removal, and the support Ferreiro and Carrillo received, reveals that some Paraguayans have not given up on the message of social reform and a more equal society.
Though Cartes was expected to win, the election is not without its own allegations of corruption; although over 300 international observers monitored the elections, some reports said people were selling their votes for as little as 12.50 dollars (though in other areas it was apparently going for 25 dollars), a reminder not just of political chicanery but of the very real economic inequalities and troubles that lead people to sell votes just to find some extra income. To what degree such practices took place is unclear; what is clear is that, barring any massive scandals, institutional coups, or medical emergencies, Cartes is set to be President for the next five years.
However, the prospects for Paraguayan citizens going forward are bleak. As an individual, Cartes, who had not even voted in an election prior to 2009, represents the wealthy, landed elite of Paraguay, and as a member of the Colorado Party, he represents a return to the conservative and corrupt practices that defined Paraguayan politics for the latter half of the twentieth century during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (with whom the Colorado Party was a willing accomplice) and into the twenty-first century. Though Cartes insists he will change Paraguay’s path, such a claim seems unlikely, as he has been repeatedly connected to smuggling and fraud as well as having ties to organized crime. (And it’s not like the Liberal Party that ultimately abandoned Lugo last year would have marked a significant alternative in this regard, given its recent scandal involving land and the use of government money for political alliances). Given Cartes’ victory and his background and the Liberal Party’s status as runner-up, it seems unlikely that Paraguay will see a sudden shift towards transparency or more egalitarian politics in the executive or the legislative branches.
The problems are not limited to political corruption, either. The victory of Cartes, a landed and wealthy oligarch, means Paraguay is unlikely to see any substantial socioeconomic reforms. Indeed, the outcome of yesterday’s election suggests that inequalities and unequal development will most likely continue to plague a country where, according to a CEPAL study, 56% of the population lived below the poverty line as late as 2009 and where less than two percent of the population controls over 77% of the land. And it is not as though Cartes is exactly open-minded on other social and cultural issues; the now current president-elect publicly compared homosexuals to monkeys and said he would “shoot [himself] in the testicles” if he had a gay son who wanted to marry another man.
There are other very real issues also confronting Paraguay, beyond economic inequalities and social bigotry. Perhaps most visibly, there’s the issue of Paraguay’s poorly-monitored border with Brazil, where the drug trade is highly active; indeed, in addition to being the world’s second-largest marijuana producer, Paraguay’s border is also a key region for the transportation of cocaine and other drugs to Brazil and on to Europe. And regardless of what one thinks regarding the debate of the legality/illegality of marijuana, the production and transportation in Paraguay’s border region is a major social and environmental issue. The production of marijuana transforms and shapes the environment of the Paraguayan forests and lands. And the power of organized crime shapes society at the local level in this borderland, complicating the state’s role in the region even while providing a means to rapid (if illegal) acquisition of wealth for those impoverished Paraguayans looking to improve their standards of living. Thus, the drug trade and drug production constitute their own very real social issues, and what, if anything, Cartes does about these issues will be worth watching.
Beyond the domestic outcome, the completion of an election may help Paraguay diplomatically. Greg Weeks argues that Honduras may be a model for reacceptance that could apply to Paraguay. Of course, Honduras was a regional pariah after the 2009 coup of Manuel Zelaya; yet once the country held elections to elect a new president, other countries in the region eventually renewed diplomatic and economic relations with it. That could be good news for Paraguay, a pariah as well since last year, most notably through its suspension from Mercosur. However, the issue of Cartes’ alleged ties to possible drug lords could complicate matters as Paraguay seeks re-integration into regional trade networks. Certainly, neighboring countries have yet to directly indicate whether they are willing to once again accept Paraguay, and Cartes’ social stances and dubious background could be a hindrance. Nonetheless, based on recent historical events in Honduras (and at least one cryptic tweet from Argentine president Cristina Kirchner), it seems more likely that the region will eventually move on and Paraguay will become reincorporated more directly. And even if South America is slow to respond, Paraguay can count on one country for aid: the US. Paraguay is the only country in Latin America to see an increase in bilateral aid from the US even while the US slashes aid to other countries in the region.
That said, what happens to Paraguay internationally is a geopolitical question with no clear answer yet. From a domestic standpoint, however, it is hard to see how the election of Cartes will lead to a marked improvement in the daily lived experiences of most Paraguayans socially, economically, or politically.