A Conversation with Federico Franco

Agência Brasil / CC-BY-3.0-BR

Moments in the spotlight are rare for Paraguay. Yet in June 2012, all eyes turned to the small, landlocked country as its Senate impeached leftist president and priest Fernando Lugo. The lightning-fast trial – the result of a clash between peasants and the police that left 17 dead – was decried as a coup d’état by the country’s neighbors. Almost as quickly as President Lugo was deposed, Paraguay was suspended from both Mercosur and Unasur on the grounds that democratic rupture had taken place.

Unsurprisingly, President Lugo’s successor and former vice president, Federico Franco, had strong words for the regional organizations when he visited the Inter-American Dialogue on April 4. Within Mercosur, the “political now prevails over the legal,” President Franco asserted, a reference to the admission of Venezuela following Paraguay’s suspension. The bloc’s members must make decisions unanimously, and the Paraguayan Senate has yet to ratify Venezuela’s entry. Bypassing the rules in this way, President Franco asserted, is simply “illegal.”

Audience members pressed the president on whether Paraguay would formally leave Mercosur as a result. He denied these rumors, yet affirmed that the bloc needed to be “re-founded,” that is to say, returned to its original purpose.

President Franco also stated that he hopes subsequent Paraguayan presidents will be more assertive in the bilateral relationship with Brazil, especially regarding the energy generated by the jointly owned and operated Itaipú Dam. The terms of this arrangement have long been a source of antagonism between the two countries, and President Franco expressed hope that his successor will not “simply go to São Paulo to negotiate prices” instead of using the country’s share of the electricity to fuel its own development. This echoed previous warnings the president has issued that Paraguay intends to use a larger share of the dam’s energy instead of selling it to Brazil.

President Franco reserved his harshest words, however, for the late Hugo Chávez. There is credible proof, he asserted, that the Venezuelan president actively supported insurgencies across South America and even “facilitated the formation” of cells within Paraguay. This statement referred to the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP in Spanish), an armed group in the country’s northeast that counts on the support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Paraguayans will go to the polls on April 21 to decide their next president, who will replace President Franco come August. Yet whoever prevails will have a difficult time increasing the country’s sway in the region. With no access to the sea and just a fraction of the continent’s population and economic output, Paraguay will likely have to play by its neighbors’ rules for the time being.

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