Paraguay: Narcodemocracy and presidential elections

by Vicky Pelaez at 23/04/2013 16:06

The corruption virus is more lethal than the plague (Augusto Roa Bastos, 1917 - 2005)

Ten months ago, the quadrilateral alliance of MOICN (Monsanto, the Catholic Church, the oligarchs, and the drug cartels) introduced a new type of coup d'etat in Paraguay, dubbed "express" or "preemptive," to oust President Fernando Lugo, the nation's legitimate leader elected by popular vote in 2008. His timid attempts to emulate Hugo Chávez and to do something to improve the lives of the country's 3.7 million poor (53% of the population), as well as his unrealized goal of raising the taxes on soybeans and meat exports from 3% to 4% (in Argentina, the tax is 30%), irritated the rich and powerful so much that the decision was eventually made to remove him from power "for the sake of democracy."

Monsanto was naturally involved in the conspiracy. The world's largest producer of genetically modified crops disapproved of Lugo's idea to abolish the per-ton royalty of $4 on soybeans, to be paid by growers using Roundup Ready RR1 and Intenta RR2 Pro seeds. Recall that on his fifth day in office, the new president, Federico Franco, offered new concessions to Monsanto concerning the distribution of its GM cotton, soybean and corn seeds in Paraguay.

The country's most vulnerable have been hit the hardest. Shortly after the coup, the distribution of free medicine to low-income residents was suspended, along with subsidies for 20,000 families living in extreme poverty. The needy found themselves even more marginalized as new education laws were adopted, and farmers were stripped of all the state benefits they had enjoyed previously. Franco also decided to wipe trade unions off the map, stating famously that "the trade unions should go." His presidency ushered in a new wave of political persecution, social repression, and mass layoffs.

Over the past ten months, unofficial employment has soared to 66% (this proportion is higher only in Perú (67%) and in Haití (92%)). The bulk of the shadow labor market is formed by farmers pushed off the fields by such groups as Monsanto and Cargill, which use biotechnology to industrialize agricultural production and convert farmland into a contaminated "green desert," slowly but surely implanting a system of "farming without farmers."

Every year 100,000 farmers are displaced, forced out by farmland contamination and the influx of large agricultural businesses.

The Monsanto Protection Act adopted in the United States a couple of weeks ago allows the corporation to ignore judicial orders suspending GM crops cultivation.  Given this, it is easy to imagine how powerful this company must feel in a corrupt country like Paraguay.

At the moment, 70% of Paraguay's soybean and meat producers are foreign companies, including Pampas Húmedas and its subsidiary Adecoagro, in which the main shareholder is George Soros. He was smart enough to invest in the country's farmland, the price of which has risen by 1200% since 2000. And he sent a confidant, Jordi Robinat, to the Paraguayan capital, Asunción, with a view to expanding his real estate business. There are also plans to step up the expansion of local maquiladora factories (foreign-run companies producing merchandise for export). This type of company currently operates in Paraguay in as many as 48 industries. 

It looks like the entire country is for sale now and that the number of corruption scandals grows with every passing day.

Legal proceedings began in Paraguay several days ago against Speaker Jorge Oviedo Mato, accused of misappropriating $12 million in a shady real-estate deal. It looks like in the run-up to this year's presidential elections, set for April 21, all politicians were desperate to get themselves a piece of the farmland pie originally intended for the 300,000 displaced farmers. The scandal became so large that President Franco had to dismiss the head of the National Institute of Rural Development and Land, Luis Ortigoza, a relative of his.  After losing the post, Ortigoza did not mince words, accusing the majority of MPs of approaching him with land requests for themselves or their organizations.

Corruption in Paraguay goes hand in hand with drug trafficking, even though in 2011 Lugo signed an accord with USAID, granting it oversight of the national police and the judiciary.

Paraguay has been a hotbed of drug trafficking for more than 40 years now. In their book "Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror," Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle note that Paraguay was turned into a major transit center for the Corsican Mafia drug cartel in the early 1970s, following the launch of the infamous French Connection scheme in which heroin was transported from Turkey to Marseille and then on to the United States via Paraguay. The authors claim that the CIA used the same route through Paraguay's Chaco province for the transportation of Asian heroin, as well.

Later, cocaine trafficking was added. It was transported through Chaco's wild and rough terrain. Chaco is a vast, semi-arid and semi-humid region in western Paraguay, where there are at least 900 covert airplane runways and where between 60 and 70 tons of cocaine circulate annually, according to former Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola.

Curiously, there are two US bases in that region.  One is located in the city of Pedro Juan Caballero, in the Amambay province, and is operated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The other, run by the Pentagon, is part of the Mariscal Estigarriba airport, in the Boquerón province, and boasts a 3,800-meter long runway.

But this has not prevented the country from becoming the world's third largest producer of marijuana after the US (15,000 tons a year) and México (6,900 tons), according to United Nations statistics.  Paraguay is believed to account for as much as 15% of the global marijuana market. Its output, varying between 5,900 and 10,000 tons per year, is valued worldwide for its high alkaloid content. The cartels' proceeds are estimated at over $10 billion annually.

In this context of corruption, drug trafficking and the pre-election reshuffling of elites, we should not expect much from Paraguay's April 21 ballot. Center-left parties have failed to form a united front, while Lugo's Guasú Party (FT) has been weakened by infighting. Lugo ran for the Senate as an FT candidate. In a country with a strong anti-communism streak, like Paraguay, the left camp, including its more moderate wing, always faces slim chances of success.

Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party, or National Republican Action (Acción Nacional Republicana, ANR), is the obvious favorite. A successful millionaire businessman, he is popularly known as "Pablo Escobar Paraguayo."

Cartes is followed by the candidate for the Liberal Radical Authentic Party (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA)), Efraín Alegre. The 50-year-old man served as communications minister in the Lugo government.

Respected Paraguayan political analyst Euclides Acevedo argues that "the success of the April 21 elections will depend on the amount of money each of the candidates has." In this case, Cartes, with his abundant resources, stands the best chance of winning. As for his cultural level and mentality, they are succinctly captured in a recent statement: "If I find out one day that my son is gay, I'll shoot myself in the balls." But in a country mired in corruption, a person is rated not by intellect but by the ability to make money. Still, Cartes is facing all kinds of accusations about his past.

In 2000, the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (DEA) seized a small jet with 20,100 kilograms of cocaine and 348,850 kilograms of marijuana on board. The authorities later learned that the aircraft had been detained some three meters away from Cartes' property.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released a DEA cable on Operation Corazón de Piedra on the border between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. In the cable, Cartes was referred to as "an observation target." DEA agents infiltrated his business, used for laundering large amounts of money in US dollars generated by the sale of drugs smuggled into North America across the Brazilian-Argentine-Paraguayan border. In 2012, Paraguay's judiciary received a complaint from the Brazilian cigarette factory Souza Cruz, which accused Cartes' tobacco company, Tabesa, of "flooding Brazil with illegal cigars."  And the list of accusations goes on. But Paraguay's most popular man brushes them all off as "crazy."

Another politician under close scrutiny is the liberal candidate Aguirre, who served in the Lugo administration as communications minister from 2008 to 2011. Eventually, he was dismissed by the president on suspicions of embezzlement. Like Cartes, Aguirre has no political program, and his only election pledge is to create 5,000 jobs in agriculture. He is accused by the Colorado Party of accepting donations from transnationals and from Argentina and Uruguay. Those allegations were fueled by his recent meeting with Uruguayan President José Mujica, during which the two men reportedly discussed the possibility of selling off one of the Paraguayan airports.

With their strong connections in the US Congress and support from transnationals, the liberals look set to carry on with their policy of looting the country. However, they lack the financial resources of Cartes to buy off the talent.  Cartes, for his part, is said to have paid his way into the ANR/Colorado Party, as well as for his status as a member with a long enough track record to run as a candidate, according to trade union leader Bernardo Rojas.

The famous Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos once said: "In every nation, there exists a person that can singlehandedly compensate for the deficiencies of all their fellow countrymen. In moments when humanity finds itself in a state of decadence, such exceptional people are always turned to as a point of reference." One wonders why in Paraguay it's taking so long for this person to arrive. 

© 2009 The Moscow News