Stemmed Growth: Paraguay’s Election Results Hinder Agricultural Development

BY ROBERT DELLINGER

Presidential candidate for Paraguay’s Colorado Party Mario Abdo Benitez attends a campaign rally ahead of Paraguay’s April 22 National election in Paraguari, Paraguay April 18, 2018. (REUTERS/Andres Stapff)

Though Mario Abdo Benítez—the newly elected Paraguayan president—may have a history of being linked to Paraguay’s late dictator Alfredo Stroessner, it didn’t harm his campaign and he was elected to office on April 22, 2018. While Paraguayan democracy has made progress since the end of its dictatorship in 1989, fear is sweeping through the agricultural lands as  farmers and indigenous communities opposed government attempts to take away the little land that they have left. Paraguay is considered one of Latin America’s poorest countries, with over 40 percent of Paraguay’s 6.8 million population living in poverty. While agricultural development is normal, the nation is tormented by corruption and political unrest that threatens Paraguay’s exceptionally delicate democracy.

Despite the past public outcries against former President Horacio Cartes, results of the April 2018 elections show Paraguay will follow Latin America’s current populist trend and continue with its support of the  conservative Colorado party. The Colorado party performed better than expected in the election, ensuring strict fiscal policies while diminishing chances of a tax hike on the key soy sector. President Benítez won the presidential election with 46.5 percent of the votes, aided by his party’s role in economic growth.  In 2017, , Paraguay experienced protests when demonstrators set fire to the  congress building in response to President Cartes’ attempts to change a constitutional amendment that would enable him  to run for a re-election. The strong public response is reflective of the worry and fear many people experienced through Stroessner’s dictatorship.

Agricultural land is Paraguay’s main source of wealth: the country is the world’s sixth largest exporter of soybeans and the sixth largest exporter of beef.  Roughly 45 percent of Paraguay’s population relies upon subsistence farming.  Measured by land distribution, Paraguay is one of the most unequal societies in South America.  Booms in agribusiness are driving macroeconomic growth, however farmers are in fear of a proposed 10 percent levy on exports. These proposed levies threaten the way of life of many Paraguayan farmers, along with increasing the environmental and economic impacts of mono-cropping. Stroessner set the stage for this inequity, distributing 10 million hectares of public land among the military and political elite among the members of the Colorado Party. Farmers  have resisted and are frequently met with violent responses: hundreds of land activists have been assassinated since 1990’s.

Farmers fear new taxes on the agriculture sector could further uncertainty amongst Paraguay’s already dismayed farming population, risking economic downturn in for the  country’s booming agricultural sector. About half of the rural population is living in poverty, and women and indigenous people are affected the most. The laissez-faire attitude of the Paraguayan government may have helped to boost the industrial strength of Paraguay, but in order to move into more successful and inclusive agriculture setting, regulations will need to be put into place. The president’s Colorado party supports current low-tax policies aimed at stimulating foreign investment and  increasing agricultural production. The results mean the right-wing Colorado party, which has dominated Paraguayan politics for decades, will hold onto power.

The Colorado party has been known to implement controversial policies, that risk disturbing Paraguay’s population and could also disrupt  the much needed economic development in the future. The election results showed that the people of Paraguay shifted to the right in order to move into a more agribusiness friendly tax policy. Even though the dark days of dictatorship may seem distant, for the farming and indigenous communities, the memory feels a lot closer as they have to constantly fight to defend their livelihoods.

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