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Paraguayan senator lectures on failures of government

John-Paul Witt | Friday, November 17, 2006

Diego Abente Brun, former Paraguayan senator and minister of Justice and Labour, spoke Thursday at the Hesburgh Center on the challenges facing Paraguayan democracy.

Throughout his lecture entitled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Dilemmas of a Small Latin American Democracy,” Abente criticized the state of Paraguay’s democratic government and explained the various challenges that need to be overcome to bring Paraguay to the level of the most developed Latin American nations – Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Abente introduced his lecture with a brief history of modern democracy in Latin America, saying that by the 1980s and 90s, most nations were moving away from the Marxist foundations of their democratic system and adopting a more liberal system. Paraguay has a legislature with a proportional system of representation and direct elections, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives, he said.

Institutions may appear democratic from the outside, Abente warned, but “after decades of democracy [in the region], evaluations of the performance of Latin American democracies show there is much to be desired.”

Abente then posed a controversial question: Are the democratic regimes of the least successful Latin American countries – Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia – really better for the people than the authoritarian regimes they replaced?

Paraguay has the worst record of economic development, government effectiveness and ability to preserve the rule of law in Latin America. It has the highest gap between the “extremely poor” class and the “poor” class in the region, Abente said, as well as the lowest support for democracy.

The reason why Paraguay is so unsuccessful, Abente said, lies in the nature of its democratic system. Paraguay has always had universal suffrage, he said, so political parties attempt to win over poor voters by providing jobs to members of the most powerful families, who could in turn influence the votes of the poor economic classes.

Abente provided a shocking statistic: in 2005, 76 percent of all tax money collected by the Paraguayan government was used to pay government employees. Abente explained this as a result of party politics.

“Even if I were a senator from the opposition party that may be opposed to government corruption,” he said. “I would need the government to allow me to employ people from my district to ensure I am re-elected.”

The Paraguayan government can never rule with legitimacy, Abente said, because Paraguayan society has become an “invertebrate.” Citizens expect their government to reward them with jobs and food, and there is no desire for economic growth or change in the government.

Paraguay is between “a rock and a hard place,” Abente said, because Paraguay’s problems are caused by its democratic system, and democracy itself cannot provide the answer.