Five years ago today Paraguay was a country striding towards a better future.
On April 20th, 2008, voters elected former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo as president, bringing to an end six decades of increasingly mafia-style rule by the populist Colorado party with promises to clean up public life and redistribute wealth in a desperately unequal society.
But the new dawn turned out to be a false one. Lugo was impeached last June after four wasted years in power and now the man favourite to win tomorrow’s presidential election is a shady Colorado businessman whom foreign governments believe is involved in drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling.
Horacio Cartes laughs off the suggestion that he is a “narco”. But during the campaign he has ducked talking to foreign reporters least they question him about US diplomatic cables which discuss Drug Enforcement Agency investigations that identify him as heading up an organisation “believed to launder large quantities of United States currency generated through illegal means, including through the sale of narcotics”.
And while Washington clearly believes Cartes is involved in Paraguay’s booming drug trade the Brazilians have identified him as a key player in the country’s cigarette smuggling rackets.
Paraguay’s outsized cigarette industry is built for contraband. Local factories produce 20 times more than domestic demand and legitimate exports do not explain the surplus, most of which is exported illegally around the world — in 2006 gardaí seized five million cigarettes hidden in a container that originated in Paraguay.
The main destination for such contraband is Brazil where a 2004 congressional investigation identified a firm owned by Cartes (himself a smoker) as a major offender in flooding the country with illegal cigarettes.
Some in Asunción shrug their shoulders at all this and explain that Cartes amassed his dubious fortune in a different era when rules did not apply in Paraguayan business and that this past should not be read as a guide as to how he would rule as president. Maybe so, but for all his modernising business bluster on the stump Cartes’s campaign has been dogged by ample evidence of good old-fashioned Colorado vote-buying.
Luckily for him his opponents have had their own corruption scandal. The president of Paraguay’s congress was forced to resign this week after evidence emerged his party – the National Union of Ethical Citizens – was paid a $15 million bribe with public money to back the ruling Liberal party candidate Efraín Alegre.