If Paraguay made any headlines in the last few months, it was because of US sanctions against former president Horacio Cartes, a tobacco entrepreneur and leader of the conservative National Republican Association (ANR). The United States accuses Cartes of links to terrorist organizations and acts of corruption committed before, during, and after his term in office between 2013 and 2018.
Jazmín Acuña is editorial director and co-founder of the award-winning independent digital medium El Surtidor.
Carolina Thiede is a feminist and human rights activist and director of Fábrica Memética, a communication and design agency that helps organisations achieve greater reach and political impact through visual communication tools.
Translaed by Andrea Garcés and Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective
Santiago Peña, a former finance minister loyal to Horacio Cartes, won the general election with 43 percent of the 4,782,940 constituents eligible to vote for the presidential ticket and for the 125 members of Congress, 17 governors, and 257 members of department councils.
Despite optimistic predictions, Concertación Nacional received a mere 27 percent of the vote. The presidential candidate of this broad coalition of conservative, centrist, and leftist parties — including the strongest opposition force in the country, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) — was Efraín Alegre, a former senator and minister of public works. This marked his third unsuccessful bid for president.
The left-wing alliance Frente Guasu was replaced as the third-strongest political force in the Senate by Cruzada Nacional, the party of the controversial candidate Paraguayo Cubas, which delivered a surprisingly strong performance, securing five seats. The party’s number two in terms of votes is a man who has been charged with sexually assaulting a teenage. If he is not sentenced soon, he could be sworn in and become senator on 15 August.
Esperanza Martínez, a former health minister in Fernando Lugo’s government, is now the most high-profile politician on the Paraguayan left. She was the only candidate elected to the Senate for Frente Guasu, beating the male leaders at the top of the list in a preferential vote. Johanna Ortega, a long-standing activist with the party País Solidario, received the highest tally of votes among leftist politicians in the Chamber of Deputies. Both Martínez and Ortega are prominent feminists.
An Election Marked by Disinformation and Hate Speech
Paraguay has a history of unflattering records. It was the last Latin American country to guarantee women’s suffrage and endured the longest dictatorship in the region. Today, almost 25 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. It has also been a laboratory for the discourse and programmes of the US conservative movement, which has close ties with right-wing parties across South America. In 2017, for example, the education minister threatened to burn books in the public square and banned the word “gender” from the school curriculum.
According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s ban on abortion is “draconian”, with the procedure only permitted if the life of the pregnant person is in danger. An average of two girls between 10 and 14 give birth every day, and 80 percent of child sexual abuse is carried out in the home. Based on data from the last four years, there are about 36 femicides every year, and more than 90 percent of the perpetrators are acquaintances of the victims, such as partners and ex-partners.
Although the future of women, girls, and gender-diverse people is at stake in every election, this political cycle was marked by disinformation about gender-related issues, hateful language directed at female candidates, and the near total absence of promising projects for the advancement of the rights of these groups. During the election campaign, the leading parties vying for the presidency presented struck a conservative tone when it came to debates about gender equality.
Although Concertación Nacional’s programme included demands for increased equality, the coalition tried to avoid debate on key, long-standing issues such as the voluntary termination of a pregnancy.
The ANR, also known as the Colorado Party, has been in power for almost 70 years, and its ranks include numerous representatives of groups that oppose the rights of girls, women, and LGBTQ people, whose influence on the discourse of the party is evident. The new president-elect Santiago Peña, who used to be in favour of marriage equality when he was finance minister in 2017, ran on the promise to “fight abortion and marriage equality”.
Although Concertación Nacional’s programme included demands for increased equality, the coalition tried to avoid debate on key, long-standing issues such as the voluntary termination of a pregnancy. However, their silence did not prevent the ruling party from seeking to discredit their main figures by associating them with “gender ideology”, the UN’s “2030 Agenda”, and various other fundamentalist hobby horses.
Paraguay does not have a procedure for recognizing people’s gender identity, and there is no legislation to protect against discrimination. According to records from civil-society groups, 60 trans people have been murdered since the return to democracy in 1989. Moreover, impunity is the norm. The first conviction for the murder of a trans person in this country was delivered in 2019.
Last year’s party primaries saw a rise in disinformation about gender thanks to the exploitation of the self-proclaimed “pro-life” movement by a sector of the Colorado Party. This group, which is closely aligned with former president Cartes, opposed planned education reforms because they allegedly contained “gender ideology”.
An analysis of 211 statements made during a public congressional hearing about these reforms revealed a narrative suggesting that Paraguay is facing the threat of an “internal enemy”, which is framed as feminist, LGBTQ, and foreign, a defender of human rights under the sway of a hidden global agenda. As a result of this campaign — which received opportunistic support from politicians and media outlets owned by Cartes — the Chamber of Deputies repealed a funding agreement for the education reforms signed with the European Union, putting 38 million euro in EU funding at risk.
An Electoral Campaign without Politics
Last month, an image of a woman giving birth on the floor of a hospital after not receiving timely medical attention made headlines and sparked a massive outcry. It summed up the fragile condition of the public health system, especially when it comes to women’s health — one of the most palpable result of almost 70 years of Colorado governments. However, the image failed to trigger any solid policy ideas for how to improve the situation in the public debate. In fact, throughout the electoral campaign, very few topics related to the quality of life of half of the country’s population managed to attract attention.
Among the few that did was a pledge by the candidates of the ANR and Concertación Nacional to provide “nurseries” for working mothers. The news outlet El Surtidor examined this campaign promise and found that nurseries for infants under two years of age “are already recognized as a right in the Labour Code”. It just needs to be enforced. The women candidates of Concertación Nacional delivered more worthwhile proposals, throwing their weight behind the efforts already underway to establish a comprehensive national care system.
The presence and leadership of women among progressive and opposition forces was evident in this election campaign.
But none of these projects managed to gain more traction in the electoral conversation than the delirious proposal by the presidential candidate Paraguayo Cuba, who wanted to impose natural birth (as opposed to C-sections) and mandatory breast feeding for children under the age of two.
This reckless, chauvinist former senator — who received an important part of the anti-ANR vote in the general election — managed to connect with thousands and mobilize the anger that a large part of the population feels towards the ruling class. He did so mostly through what Brazilian journalist Natalia Viana has dubbed digital populism: a way of doing politics that consists of making strident speeches in order to achieve amplification in social networks. Cubas seems to have understood this perfectly — just like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Nayib Bukele, to name just a few.
Is There Hope for the Rights of Women and LGBTQ People?
As the feminist researcher and politician Lilian Soto highlights, women-led organizing and feminist issues were central to the 2023 election, in which women gained nine more seats in Congress than in 2018. It was also the first time that two women were elected as governors since the position was created in 1994.
In early 2022, Esperanza Martínez was initially chosen as the provisional presidential candidate by most leftist parties and movements, as well as important campesino groups, only to later be pushed down to fourth place on the Senate ticket. Today, after getting more votes than former president Fernando Lugo, Martínez is the only leftist politician in the Senate.
In the Chamber of Deputies, 35-year-old Johanna Ortega received more votes than any other politician on the Left. Kattya González, top of Encuentro Nacional’s list and a member of Concertación Nacional, received the second-highest number of votes of any senator in the country.
The presence and leadership of women among progressive and opposition forces was evident in this election campaign. Women worked tirelessly to unify the opposition, which does not mean that they were valued by the male leadership. Journalist Juliana Quintana argues that these women understood that there are other ways of doing politics that transcend the personality-driven leadership models and machismo that persist on the Left.
Amidst a crisis of disinformation and under the pall of a deeply conservative, corrupt, and extractivist political project, Paraguay has five very difficult years ahead of it. We urgently need a progressive politics that is up to this challenge.