Paraguay Embraces Democracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Paraguay’s May, 1993, presidential election was a watershed event in the country’s transition to democracy. In the subsequent years, Paraguayans won many civil liberties, and free and fair elections became the norm.

Summary of Event

On May 9, 1993, Juan Carlos Wasmosy was elected president of Paraguay, an event that ushered in democracy after decades of dictatorial rule. The seeds of democracy in Paraguay had been planted several years earlier, however, during the administration of President Andrés Rodríguez. He came to power following a military coup d’état that brought an end to the thirty-four-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Although not strongly committed to democracy, Rodríguez took actions that enabled democracy to flourish later. Among the most important of these was the institution of multiparty elections—the first in several decades—held on May 1, 1989, in which Rodríguez won the presidency as the Colorado Party candidate. This action established an important precedent for future elections. He also facilitated the development of a new constitution, which took effect on June 20, 1992, that provided the foundation for a democratic Paraguay. Democracy;Paraguay Paraguay;government Elections;Paraguay [kw]Paraguay Embraces Democracy (May 9, 1993) [kw]Democracy, Paraguay Embraces (May 9, 1993) Democracy;Paraguay Paraguay;government Elections;Paraguay [g]South America;May 9, 1993: Paraguay Embraces Democracy[08610] [g]Paraguay;May 9, 1993: Paraguay Embraces Democracy[08610] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 9, 1993: Paraguay Embraces Democracy[08610] [c]Government and politics;May 9, 1993: Paraguay Embraces Democracy[08610] Wasmosy, Juan Carlos Stroessner, Alfredo Rodríguez, Andrés Oviedo, Lino César

When Wasmosy was inaugurated as president of Paraguay on August 15, 1993, he faced a number of almost insurmountable obstacles. His support among the political elite and the Paraguayan population was minimal. There was strong evidence that he had won the Colorado Party Colorado Party (Paraguay) nomination through fraud, which considerably diminished his support within the party.

Although the 1993 presidential general election was generally considered fair, and Wasmosy received more votes than any of his competitors, his ability to assert presidential authority was diminished because he received less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Beyond these limiting considerations, he was a political novice who possessed no broad political support even within the Colorado Party. In fact, his strongest opposition came from factions within his own party. Moreover, opposition parties controlled both houses of the congress, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Thus Wasmosy’s legislative support was virtually nil. Wasmosy’s strongest support came from President Rodríguez and the military hierarchy, a factor that contributed to his alienation from several factions of the Colorado Party who strongly distrusted the military. Finally, his credentials as a democratic reformer were considered dubious by most Paraguayans. In short, Wasmosy’s mandate to govern was exceptionally weak.

Among the major issues that confronted President Wasmosy during his five-year term were those related to the status of the military and its role in government and society in Paraguay. During the decades that Stroessner governed Paraguay, an alliance among the Colorado Party, military leaders, and the government dominated every facet of Paraguayan life. The result was an exceedingly repressive and, at times, brutal authoritarian regime that was the antithesis of democracy. In 1993, the military remained a potent force; it was feared by large segments of society and continued to be a grave threat to democracy. The dilemma for Wasmosy was that he was indebted to the military for its support during the primary and general elections. Early in Wasmosy’s term, the Paraguayan congress initiated efforts to curtail the influence of the military in government and society. These efforts were largely opposed by Wasmosy. Eventually, the congress was successful in restricting the power of the military. The most important restriction, approved by the congress in May, 1994, made political party affiliation unlawful for members of the armed forces.

Perhaps the most serious crisis faced by President Wasmosy occurred in 1996 and involved civilian control of the military. This crisis was precipitated by the overt political activities of charismatic army commander General Lino César Oviedo, who had been a political ally of Wasmosy at the outset of his term. Oviedo was strongly opposed to limitations imposed by Paraguay’s congress on the political activities of military officers and continued to participate openly in such activities. On April 22, 1996, Wasmosy was forced to dismiss Oviedo as leader of the army. Oviedo refused to accept the dismissal and tried to seize power through a coup d’état, which was quickly aborted. Following his forced retirement as army commander, Oviedo became a candidate for president in 1997. Wasmosy responded by having Oviedo arrested and charged with insubordination, based on the events of April, 1996. He was convicted by a military tribunal in March of 1998, and sentenced to ten years in prison. This series of events undoubtedly served notice to the Paraguayan military leadership that political activity and insubordination to civilian authority would not be tolerated. These events also contributed to the advancement of democracy.

Another major issue confronting President Wasmosy in his accession to power was the status of the legal system and its role in a democratic Paraguay. Under the Stroessner and Rodríguez regimes, judgeships were the exclusive domain of the Colorado Party, and appointments to these coveted positions were made by the president. A fundamental requirement for participation in the judiciary at virtually any level—from the supreme court to the lower courts—was membership in the Colorado Party. In 1993, there were compelling reasons to reform the legal system, such as widespread abuse and corruption. Wasmosy, however, was indebted to the Colorado Party, which strongly opposed any reforms that would alter the status quo. Consequently, efforts to reform the legal system were initiated by the congress.

In November, 1993, the Senate enacted legislation assigning responsibility to the congress for appointing supreme court judges. There was immediate conflict and much political wrangling between the executive and legislative branches over this issue. Eventually, in August, 1994, a compromise was reached by which a judicial council would appoint supreme court judges. Finally, in March, 1995, the judicial council appointed a new, nine-member supreme court, whose membership included only four members of the Colorado Party. This action significantly reduced that party’s influence and power. Over the long run, these events resulted in a more independent judiciary and facilitated the transition to democracy.

Although some efforts to institute democratic reforms were successful, others largely failed, most notably efforts to eliminate or reduce corruption within the government, which had been a holdover from the Stroessner era. Paraguay continued to be one of the world’s most corrupt nations. In a region where high-level corruption is the norm, institutionalized corruption in Paraguay remained pervasive. Much of the corruption was tied to smuggling and narcotics trafficking whose primary beneficiaries were government officials. Paraguay’s informal economic sector, including smuggling and the illicit drug trade, was thought to have exceeded the formal sector, a situation found in few, if any, other nations. There remained scarcely a single government agency in which corruption was not rampant. Significant evidence indicates that endemic and systemic corruption extended to the highest levels of government. The three former presidents who served in succession beginning in August, 1993, were charged with corruption, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison, including Juan Carlos Wasmosy, who was found guilty of bank fraud and sentenced to four years in prison.

Significance

Although the transition to democracy in Paraguay was not smooth, the free and fair election of Juan Carlos Wasmosy and the eventual completion of his five-year presidential term were especially significant because this period allowed the nascent democracy to become better established. Not only did several democratic institutions become stronger but, in some cases, they flourished as well. After the election of Wasmosy, there were three attempted military coups, all of which ultimately failed. Revolutions and coups;Paraguay The last two attempted coups, in 1999 and 2000, failed, at least in part, because of the precedents established by President Wasmosy during the 1996 Oviedo coup d’état attempt.

Beyond these achievements, this fragile democracy appeared to make credible advancements in a number of other areas, especially in the development of a strong and active civil society. On both the local and national stages, frequent and often passionate debate raged over fundamental democratic issues and the methods needed to resolve long-standing problems. Such discussions were unheard of in the four decades before 1993. Moreover, as a new generation of political leaders emerged, democratic ideals and values continued to be embraced. Many of these leaders were intolerant of the status quo and a political system that failed the nation for generations. The post-Wasmosy generation of leaders made new demands on an archaic political system and compelled Paraguay to continue to respond to democratic principles. Democracy;Paraguay Paraguay;government Elections;Paraguay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, Peter. “A Decade of Electoral Democracy: Continuity, Change and Crisis in Paraguay.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 19 (July, 2000): 379-396. Traces the evolution of democracy in Paraguay by examining political conflict and change in the 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, Peter, and Andrew Nickson, eds. The Transition to Democracy in Paraguay. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Collection of articles that examines the roles of institutions, organizations, and individuals as democracy took root in Paraguay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Repucci, Sarah, and Christopher Walker, eds. Countries at the Crossroads: A Survey of Democratic Governance. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. A discussion of the transition to democracy in Paraguay in relation to other democratic movements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Valenzuela, Arturo. “The Coup That Didn’t Happen.” Journal of Democracy 8 (January, 1997): 43-55. Detailed account of the mid-1990’s constitutional crisis created by General Lino César Oviedo, including an examination of the roles of Paraguayan institutions, civil society, and international entities during the crisis.

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