This weeks incumbent is not a fading pop-star or even a fading soap-star. He is, if anything, a rising star, having this week won Paraguay’s Presidential Election in emphatic fashion, beating his nearest rival by a whopping 9%. Horacio Cartes is however well deserving of his place on the Wall of Wankers even if his newfound power is rather less deserved.
The past 18 months have been a turbulent time for Paraguay to say the least. The fact that this election even happened is hailed by many as proof that the country is back on the democratic path. But to understand the real circumstances which have brought us to this point – and to the successful election of
Fellatio Horacio Cartes – it’s necessary to see just how far from the democratic path the elite in Paraguay has strayed in recent times and throughout history. The country only escaped formal dictatorship in 1989. The final coup was brought about not because the Generals cared about the lack of freedom or wanted to hold themselves accountable for their horrendous crimes; they just didn’t fancy their power being threatened by either the coke addict son or the gay son of the dictator who were set to take over. They removed the dictator and installed their own man. The fake multi-party system which had been constructed was developed and extended, but the Colorado Party remains the largest party and the party of power in Paraguay to this day. It is the party of the new President-elect Cartes. But back in 2008, for the first time in 61 years, a candidate who was not the approved state/army/Colorado Party Candidate won the Presidency. And then it all went wrong.
Fernando Lugo had earned the nickname “The Bishop of the Poor” whilst Bishop of the Diocese of San Pedro for his support of peasants’ demand for land reform and his redistributive ideas. Very quickly it was found than when pollsters asked Paraguayans who they like to be president, his name was up there with any of the tired Colorado Party hacks. He was tipped for Presidency in 2006 despite not actually joining a political party, or saying he wanted to stand for President until the end of 2007. Whilst he joined the small Christian Democratic Party he cleverly began to construct a “we‘re not the Colorado Party” coalition of pretty much everyone drawing from the Christian Left, social democrats, socialists and liberals, including crucially the main liberal opposition party, the ARLP. In exchange for their support, the ARLP’s Federico Franco stood as his Vice President. The coalition’s name “Patriotic Alliance for Change” did not hide the wooliness of its aims. But it was nonetheless change which was so desperately sought. Catching the establishment off-guard, Lugo romped home with 42% of the vote. The Colorado Party candidate managed just 30%. The first peaceful transfer of political office in Paraguay’s recent history took place. You’ll notice I said office and not power.
Lugo’s presidency was troubled. He built houses and gave many of the poorest access to food, water and basic health care. But his land reform and fight against corruption became stalled. While at least part of this was due to conflicts within the diverse alliance who had supported him, it was mostly due to the fact that landowners and businessmen weren’t about to just be nice. The Colorado Party and the people they represented continued to control the economy, much of the media, the police and the judiciary. Lugo was ill-prepared to take on the people who were really running the country. But they were well prepared for him.
On 15th July 2012, in a clash between the police and landless farmers, 10 farmers and 7 police were killed. The exact circumstances are highly contested. The opposition were clear that it was entirely the President’s fault. They claimed this was more evidence of the growing insecurity that having a President who wasn’t one of their own would bring. I hate conspiracy theories. I hate to put forward the notion that just because a government says it’s a bit left wing it won’t do terrible things. I hate suggesting Lugo didn’t bear some responsibility for what happened. But the speed and definitive style of what happened next makes me question the “official” version of events.
Within 3 days Lugo, the first democratically elected left-wing President in the history of Paraguay, was gone. A deal was struck which saw power handed to the ARLP Vice President. The government, the ARLP and most of the smaller parties who had initially supported Lugo voted to impeach him, the courts ratified it and that was that. A coup, albeit a constitutional one, had taken place. Paraguay’s neighbours knew it, even its right-leaning allies like Columbia. They had already watched on as Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was marched out of office in his jammies by his own party a year earlier for daring to be a bit more social-democratic. Paraguay was suspended from UNASUR and Mercosur, making it a pariah state in Latin America.
While the Colorado Party were not officially in power, an ARLP government with few actual seats in either house and no mandate amongst the electorate for its program was a sitting duck. The economy remained in freefall, crime has been rising and all the old problems have not gone away. The Colorado Party knew they were destined to be asked to step in and take control. All they needed was a hardman. Cometh the hour, cummeth the wanker.
Horacio Cartes had never been interested in politics really. He was mainly interested in making lots and lots of money. A currency trader who built up his own bank, Banco Amambay. The Bank makes use of Cook Islands tax havens, so presumably won’t be giving much to the treasury of his own government. A Wikileaks cable revealed that the bank and Cartes are the subject of anti-money laundering investigations. Cartes has used his wealth for many philanthropic causes over the years but mainly he has sold fags. His Tabesa brand now rivals Marlboro in terms of sales in the country. Following the logic that every oligarch needs a sports team, in 2001 Cartes dutifully acquired the most successful football team in Paraguay, Club Libertad. His empire extends far beyond banking, football and smoking. If some reports are to be believed he has had more than a brush with snorting as well. The official tale is that Cartes once very kindly let a pilot who was in distress land at his ranch. This clearly explains why police found a planeload of cocaine there. Having already been to jail for fraud (although he was cleared), Cartes again managed to escape the long arm of the law. Rumours this had anything to do with his money and power remain unverified.
But Cartes was angered by the election of Lugo and what he saw as the leftist swing that was taking place in the country. Determined to stop him, Cartes enthusiastically signed up for the Colorado Party in 2009 and set about building himself a profile. Cartes said what the business elites wanted to hear in a time of crisis, most likely because he’s one of them. He didn’t share Lugo’s dislike for the grinding poverty which around half the country was living in. He talked about “opening up” to business, investment in infrastructure and being tough on crime and those kicking off about the fact the President they voted for was suddenly gone. Oh, and he’s TOTALLY AGAINST DRUGS and definitely not an international narcotics trafficker. His undoubted campaign highlight and what first led me to see his potential for this esteemed slot was his response to the question of gay rights. Now, I don’t expect conservative tobacco barons to have particularly enlightened views. That fact that neither the Colorado Party nor the ARLP support gay marriage – and it was not therefore much of an election issue – didn’t stop Cartes from going on a rampage. “Everyone should live within the rules. If not, we’d be like the monkeys that swing in the trees” he foamed while comparing the point at which homosexuality is accepted as normal to “the end of the world“. Not content with apocalyptic prophecies and comparing gay people to monkeys the almost inevitable “what would you do if your son…” question was rebuked with “I would shoot myself in the balls.”
Yet somehow he managed to present himself as being from a new generation of the party not associated with the dictatorship. His “ideals” (i.e make lots of money and have lots of power) are hardly a radical break from the outlook of his party and he easily gained their nomination. Of course the election was never going to be free or fair. The state media simply didn’t broadcast the Party Political slots of Lugo’s new party, Frente Guasa. Although he was banned from standing for President, he and his party campaigned on a now unsurprisingly rather more leftist platform. Having been shafted by the forces of darkness they intended to point out that both the main parties and candidates had been cheerleaders for his shady removal. The ARLP had been complicit in the coup and were hardly an oppositio,n having been so delighted to have their man be President for 5 minutes. Cartes’ victory was decisive.
It’s not nice to wish ill on a President who has yet to even take office but if his campaign is anything to go by, Cartes is shaping up to be a Grade-A wanker. His election offers only continuation of right-wing economic policies which breed poverty and insecurity. His phoney “war” on drugs will continue to make him richer on all counts – punting ciggies and, if Wikileaks is to be believed, the hard stuff – while the police and security services remove the competition. And continuing to deny demands for basic democratic and human rights is unlikely to pan out well. Paraguay finds itself far removed from the trajectory in Latin America. While countries like Venezuela and Bolivia are taking an explicitly leftist path, once supportive neighbours like Brazil and Argentina are finding themselves increasingly being pulled in that direction. Cartes’ plan is for nepotistic capitalism in one country in the midst of a region full of people waking up to the reality that unequal societies simply can’t deliver the goods. Latin America is booming and (perhaps not unconnected) social attitudes are being transformed. Incidentally, the one issue which is the easiest and clearest indicator of this trend is gay rights. Attitudes on variations of the question “is it OK to be gay?” would have received around a two-thirds negative reaction 15 years ago. Today, that’s the other way round. Latin American governments have been leading the way in terms of getting to fully equal unions, with Argentina and Brazil soon to be followed by Colombia and Uruguay. Paraguay is now encircled by queer loving communists.
So Mr Cartes, get ready to take aim good sir. Because whether it’s your smokes, fraud, corruption, narcotics or just hating democracy and human rights – one way or another – all those fags will get you in the end. I for one, would love to see your smoking balls.