Irrespective of your personal take on what happened in Paraguay to oust Fernando Lugo from the Palacio de López, it does appear that his successor Federico Franco is taking the job of president very seriously. Boston.com is reporting that Franco has succeeded in pushing through a number of key policy items that have alluded previous presidents.
- Paraguayans earning more than US$4,000 a month are now going to have to pay income tax, which is a major change for a country that previously had no personal income tax in place.
- Vague suggestions of progress on land reform and security provision in the north are mentioned.
- Franco is also pushing talks with Rio Tinto/Alcan to build an aluminum smelter.
While Yves Engler has deplored the aluminum project as an example of something akin to Canadian imperialism, these sort of reactionary ideological readings fail to account for Paraguay’s abject failure to use its hydroelectric potential for national development. The $3.5 billion project represents the first serious attempt to use Paraguay’s massive electricity surplus from the Itaipu dam as a boon to national development rather than as a de facto gift to Brazil. Fox News (yes… a right wing ideological network as a counter to Engler is possibly not good form, but look at the data points in the link, not the invective, or try UPI for something similar) is reminding us that under the Itaipu treaty Paraguay has to sell from the dam that it does not use to Brazil at the very low rate of $25/MWh. Paraguay gets 50% of the binational project’s output, but only uses a scant 14%. Although Engler is right that the price being floated to Rio Tinto / Alcan is still low, but at $43/MWh is nearly twice what Paraguay is earning now. More to the point, the smelter project offers a possibility of industrial development and economic expansion that has simply failed to appear after two decades in the trade bloc Mercosur. This is the same bloc which suspended Paraguay’s political rights after Lugo’s impeachment, but left trade (and presumably energy trade) rights in place.
What Franco is doing is an important step for Paraguay. The aluminum project is a Major deal for Paraguay and a significant headache for Brazil, which relies on cheap Itaipu surplus electricity to keep the lights on in São Paulo. Even so, Brasília will likely happily deal with this headache if it will help bring further stability to Paraguay.
The stability and democratic consolidation question remains the big one in Paraguay. A presidential election date of 21 April 2013 has now been announced. More importantly, Franco has been crystal clear that he will honour the constitution, which precludes a president from ever running for reelection. So far there are no indications that Franco will follow some other regional leaders and look for favourable readings of the constitution or new magna cartas to allow a reelection bid. This leaves the question of whether or not Franco will use his position to ensure that the 2013 vote takes place without any of the explicit and implicit spending sprees and manipulations that have formed the backdrop to ballots since Andrés Rodriguez was quickly elected in 1989. We will be watching.