Paraguay - Political background

Although both Portuguese and Spanish explorers came to Paraguay during the early part of the sixteenth century, by 1537 the territory was under Spanish rule. In 1609, the Jesuits arrived and over the next century they established more than 40 missions throughout the country. In 1767, however, King Charles III banished the Jesuits from the entire Spanish empire, and that included Paraguay. On 14 May 1811, Paraguayans deposed the Spanish governor and declared their independence from Spain. Five years later, the educated, but authoritarian José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was declared ruler for life by the fledgling republic's legislature. Despite his isolationist policies, the country flourished and a tradition of dictatorial rule was established that prevailed for the next 150 years. In 1865, Paraguay's president, Francisco Solano Lopez, provoked a devastating five-year war with Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay because they were refused access to the Paraná River basin. During the war, three-quarters of Paraguay's male population was killed and the overall population decreased from one million to 221,000. In 1932, after the discovery of oil, Paraguay again went to war in a territorial dispute, this time with Bolivia. The three-year Chaco War gave the victorious Paraguay some additional land, but little else.

During the late nineteenth century, two political parties emerged, the Colorado Party and the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party held power during the first four decades of the twentieth century. But for most of the last 120 years, the Colorado Party has controlled Paraguayan political life. In 1954, after more than a decade of coups and revolts, General Alfredo Stroessner took the reigns of power and ruled with an iron fist for the next 45 years. The Stroessner administration, in a strong alliance with the Colorado Party, was characterized by corruption, persecution of political opponents, and human rights violations.

Stroessner was deposed in 1989 by Major General Andrés Rodríguez, who represented a rival faction within the Colorado Party. Rodríguez began a process of transition toward democracy in Paraguay. He ended censorship of the press and promoted a new Constitution, adopted in June 1992. Under the new charter, the president is elected to a five-year term and may not succeed himself. Paraguay has a bicameral legislature, one chamber of 45 senators, another of 80 deputies. In 1993, Juan Carlos Wasmosy became the country's first civilian elected president in nearly 50 years. Wasmosy completed his five-year term and was succeeded by Raúl Cubas, the nominee of the Colorado Party, in May 1998.

The circumstances under which Cubas was elected sowed the seeds for his premature departure from office and the turmoil that engulfed his country. In 1996, Cubas served as finance minister in the Wasmosy government. He sided with his longtime friend, General Lino Oviedo, who led an unsuccessful coup attempt against Wasmosy. When Oviedo was stripped of his rank, Cubas campaigned to nominate him as the Colorado Party's presidential candidate. Oviedo selected Cubas as his vice-presidential running mate. When Oviedo won the primary election, Wasmosy had him arrested. After being convicted of insubordination, Oviedo was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Cubas became the Colorado Party's presidential candidate and was elected with 52% of the vote. He was always seen as the stand-in for Oviedo. Even his campaign slogan was indicative: "Cubas in government, Oviedo in power." Cubas, who never had a strong political base, did not last long as the country's president. His decision to free Oviedo a few days after taking office proved to be his undoing. On 28 March 1999, under international and domestic pressure, he resigned and flew to Brazil. Luis González Macchi was installed as the country's new president.

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