Category Archives: South America

Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom

Dictatorship and socio-economic bias have left Latin America home to some of the most corrupt nations in the world. Despite the continent’s recent relative success in economic development and securing regional trade agreements, 20th century political scourges still haunt many Latin American nations and Paraguay is no exception. For 35 years the nation endured a period in which popular peaceful dissent was met with the strong-arm of the military. Extralegal arrests and humans rights abuses were commonplace, and the housing of Nazi war criminals was an accepted practice. Paraguayan President Horatio Cartes’ renewed bid last week for re-election risks forfeiting the strides made towards real democracy over the past decade and may force the government back into political crisis.

While Paraguay’s political future remains in doubt, the facts surrounding the events of the 31 March are not in dispute. A majority group from the Senate and a hand-full of opposition senators met secretly to cast a majority vote to put into motion the first steps necessary to amend the Paraguayan constitution. The amendment would enable President Cartes to seek a second term in contravention of the single-term limit originally imposed to bolster Paraguay’s democratic processes. The proposition could further entrench Cartes’ Colorado Party that has enjoyed a majority in the legislature for 66 of the last 70 years.  After 35 years of despotic rule by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, the people of Paraguay were outraged by this legislative “coup d’etat” which sparked a protest at the Congressional building in Asunción.

In the melee that followed, a large portion of the building was gutted by fire and Rodrigo Quintana, the leader of the Liberal Party’s youth branch, had been shot dead. The details surrounding the incident are dubious, if not damning. Quintana was shot and killed in a violent police raid on the Liberal Party’s Youth Branch political headquarters. Security footage shows Quintana running away from the police.  After absorbing the deadly shot, an officer now identified as agent Gustavo Florentin approached and stepped on his body. Florentin has since been fired, along with the interior minister and Paraguay’s police commander, Crispulo Sotelo. While these dismissals direct blame towards the police for an inability to protect Congress and the public, the truth is this action by President Cartes was more preventative than altruistic. The calculated move precludes the possible violent reaction from an already agitated opposition but the risk of repeated violence endures until negotiations surrounding the amendment begin and until transparent government investigation of the police raid lifts the perception of impunity.

paraguay protest
Protestors peaceful after a previous night’s clashes left Congress in flames. Photo credit:

A Vote Against Confidence

The Colorado party will likely argue that the vote was an inadvertent procedural violation of legislative etiquette. The opposition, along with the neighbors and trade partners, will view the covert legislative action as a power grab and a sure indicator that a corrupt polity is leading the small land-locked country backward in already uncertain economic times. A procedural violation can be dealt with within the democratic process, but a substantive and willful disregard for democratic governance spells a disastrous outcome.

To understand the level of risk being taken and the importance of the upcoming events, one needs only to look at who responds and what is said. Immediately after the violence, President Cartes downplayed the events in a letter to the people of Paraguay. In the third paragraph he writes: “Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic…we must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquility and general well-being of the Paraguayan people.” His cavalier statement was met with disdain by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which quickly issued a pointed cautionary statement calling on political leaders “to avoid inciting violence and seek dialogue.” Although innocuous at first glance, the OHCHR statement avoids addressing the protestors or their actions and instead directly engages political leaders for “inciting violence”.

Paraguay protest
President Horacio Cartes tweeted this photo of a letter drafted in response to the protests of 31 March.

The Paraguayan Congress remains shut down while fire inspectors assess the damage. With a populace fighting widespread corruption of government officials, broken promises for rebuilt infrastructure, and frustration over lack of progress, even Asuncion’s own mayoral race was lost to the opposition party. Pope Francis of neighboring Argentina has called for immediate dialogue between opposing parties and President Cartes has heeded the advice, recommending to the lower house (presumably pro-amendment) to delay until the factions could discuss a way forward for the initiative. Opposition leader Efrain Alegre objected, pending a comprehensive investigation into the events surrounding Quintana’s death. The bipartisan call to delay the vote, originally scheduled for April 4th, further obscures the path forward and and tensions continue to rise. Further delay could unravel an uneasy peace maintained since Cartes assumed the Presidency in 2013.

Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of withdrawing the proposal and annulling the clandestine senate vote, there is still a chance that diplomacy and influence from neighboring countries could prevail. Since President Cartes’ election, Paraguay has experienced a surge in economic growth, making it one of South America’s fastest growing economies. This glimmer of hope would lead one to believe that the Colorado party should abandon the measure and seek a strong replacement for Cartes in 2018, restoring peace and trust in a nation still racked with fear of a return to despotism. The unfortunate truth is that the prospect of political gain and notoriety is alluring, and the risk to the political certainty of the country is high. The most promising course of action towards maintaining peace would be for Cartes to go against the majority, adhere to the current constitution, and eliminate himself as a candidate in the next election. This also appears the most unlikely scenario, as it would put an end to the right-wing preeminence that the Coloradan majority has enjoyed for decades.

Point of Inflection

In the absence of immediate and powerful diplomatic intervention or reversal by Congress, Paraguay faces a crossroads in which violence and freedom could become interdependent. The lower house will, if allowed to vote, pass the measure and send the constitutional amendment to the President for approval. If the recent violence following the initial vote is any clue to how the opposition will react, the ensuing fear and anger will undoubtedly thrust this tiny nation into a state of complete chaos. The ingredients exist for a violent implosion: a new police commander, a new interior minister, complete right-wing control without term limits, and a populace that has tasted freedom and democracy even if only for a brief period of time.

The upcoming weeks are crucial for determining the future prospect of peace and economic growth, both for Paraguay and for greater Latin America. Absent any legislative reversal on the initiative, the nation is on a collision course. The tragic and too-familiar possibility of a counter-revolutionary dictator rising from the ashes is greater now than at any point since Stroessner’s final days in 1989.

Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a U.S. Air Force F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently a master’s student in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.

A New Weapon in the South Atlantic

In 1982, a continuing dispute over a few small, sparsely populated islands in the South Atlantic became the catalyst for a brief war between Argentina and the United Kingdom, resulting in a decisive British victory.  Paying tribute to the long and complicated history of these islands, Museo Las Malvinas (Malvinas Museum) is located on the grounds of the former Naval Officer Mechanic School and is now one of the newest and most prized museums in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Since its opening, the museum watchtower has maintained vigil over the main highway running through Buenos Aires, proudly displaying the word “Sovereignty”, and reminding commuters of Argentina’s enduring ambition to govern these otherwise undistinguished islands in the South Atlantic.

According to the March 2016 United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), the Falklands/Malvinas lie within Argentina’s maritime borders. Thirty-four years after fighting to keep the islands, the British see this as a new threat to their continuing sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters. Learning from past mistakes, Argentina has introduced a new weapon in the struggle over the South Atlantic –not a machine of war, but a potentially more terrifying and effective tool: lawyers.

Argentina's claimed territory around the islands. UNCLCS acknowledged that the islands are within Argentina's EEZ in March 2016. Photo Credit:
Argentina’s claimed maritime territory in the South Atlantic.                                                                           Photo Credit:


The struggle for sovereignty of the islands is nearly two centuries old. English Captain John Strong discovered the islands in 1690 and the first British settlement followed in 1766. For decades  British control of the islands waxed and waned during multiple international wars, no easy feat as the Falklands/Malvinas are located a daunting 7,939 miles from London and a mere 415 miles east of the Argentine city of Rio Gallegos. Finally in 1833, after several disputes with the fledgling Argentine Confederation, the British solidified control and have maintained their hold on the islands despite the expense of supporting the territory over such a vast distance. With only 2932 English residents, the Falklands/Malvinas are one of the most expensive foreign territories per capita in the world.

The pursuit of sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas was a costly decision for Argentina’s military dictatorship. In 1982, daily strikes by labor unions and anti-government supporters were a result of the loss of confidence in the leadership of Lt. General Leopoldo Galtieri who had assumed command of the junta after a 1976 coup that deposed President Isabel Perón. Unemployment rates were skyrocketing, and the inflation rate ballooned to more than 600 percent.  In an effort to distract the population from the collapsing economy and to restore national pride and support for the government, Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas on 2 April 1982.

The initial days of fighting saw great success for the Argentine military. The first 4,000 soldiers arriving on the islands met minimal resistance and quickly took control, raising their flag over the captial city, Port Stanley. Their victory ignited strong nationalism, pride, and support for the military by ordinary Argentines that flooded the streets of every city in the country. The military government fostered this sentiment by publishing propaganda and positive reports promoting the success of their military. Triumphant claims —“Estamos Ganando” (We Are Winning) graced the covers of newspapers and magazines nationwide.

Across the Atlantic, the British government rapidly prepared a response force to take back the islands. Less than three weeks after the initial invasion, the UK launched a counterattack with more than 120 ships, 160 aircraft, and multiple Special Air Service (SAS) and commando units. The British quickly gained the initiative, and by 14 June 1982 the 3-month war was over. In the end, a little more than two months of combat resulted in the deaths of 648 Argentine, 255 British service members, and three civilians. Most of the Argentine casualties –and the fighting spirit of the Argentine Navy– lay at the bottom of the Atlantic with the ARA Belgrano, sunk by a British torpedo.  The islands have remained securely in Britain’s hands ever since.

Black Gold

A few months after the war, the international community legitimized the British presence in the South Atlantic. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea established the limits of the continental shelf and solidified British rights to the water and resources surrounding the Falklands/Malvinas. In 1998, after tentative discoveries 20 years earlier, the British began drilling the first offshore oil wells, discovering large reserves in the area with two fields, Sea Lion and Isobel Elaine, thought to hold half a billion barrels of recoverable oil each. These, and many other repositories around the islands, have the potential to make the tiny population there one of the richest communities per capita in the world.

The discovery of oil intensified debate on both sides of the Atlantic but the situation on the ground remains quite complex. Though a majority of Argentines believe that the Falklands/Malvinas belong to Argentina, multiple referenda reveal the actual residents of the islands want to remain under the British crown. Citing concerns about stability and security, the British maintain a substantial military presence that includes strike aircraft, warships, and more than 1,300 service members. The Argentine government sees the presence of such a large and active military force as a threat and has argued this point continuously and unsuccessfully to the international community.

UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina's maritime borders. Photo Credit :
UNCLCS decision of March 2016 includes the islands within Argentina’s maritime borders. Photo Credit :

Changing the Game

In 2015, Argentina began to use a different approach that avoids direct confrontation with Britain. Filing a petition with the United Nations, the Argentine leadership decided to pursue international arbitration to prove the islands reside within the maritime territory of Argentina. In March 2016, after more than nine months of debate, the CLCS extended the maritime territory of Argentina by 35%. By doing so, the UN acknowledged Argentina’s claims that the Falklands/Malvinas lie within its maritime territory.

Victorious on the battlefield and secure on the basic question of governance of the islands, Britain now faces an unusual challenge to its supremacy in the South Atlantic –an internationally-arbitrated legal battle over resources. Historically committed to international cooperation and the rule of law, the UK would face significant challenges should it choose to ignore the UN, especially as doing so would set a precedent for other states looking to circumvent international arbitration.

Argentina may not yet have achieved the lofty goal of “Sovereignty” as displayed atop the watchtower at the Las Malvinas Museum, but it has found traction in pursuing a legal resolution to the territorial dispute. Now more than ever, the Falklands/Malvinas are an economically and strategically significant territory for the UK, and it is unlikely Britain will let the islands go easily. However, after nearly two centuries of struggle, the balance of power relationship in the South Atlantic may finally shift to favor Argentina thanks to a new tactic that neutralizes the otherwise superior power of the British. Perhaps the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

Jon NielsenCPT Jonathan Nielsen is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer with combat experience in multiple countries in the Middle East and extensive multinational training experience. He is currently attending the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense,  or the Olmsted Foundation.

Let’s Change: Argentine Voters Speak

In the first run-off election in the history of Argentina, the people’s voice demonstrated a drastic change for the future of Argentina and potentially the international community.

On 9 August 2015, all seemed certain that Frente Para La Victoria (FPV) candidate Daniel Scioli was destined to continue the current 12-year reign of the Peronist Party in Argentina. However, after the presidential primary elections were held the assurance that Argentina would continue marching under the same political party rapidly disintegrated with every passing day. As the days and months grew nearer to the presidential elections on 25 October 2015, the voice of the Argentine voters echoed one unified idea: change. The people of Argentina rallied behind a new hope and a new image of an improved future. The face of that future rested in the ideas, initiatives, and spirit of one man that led not only a young political party, but a significant social movement. That man was Mauricio Macri.

Top: Presidential Elections, 9 August 2015 Bottom: Presidential Elections, 25 October 2015
Top: Presidential Elections, 9 August 2015
Bottom: Presidential Elections, 25 October 2015

A Rising Opposition

Macri was the face of the political opposition, “Cambiemos,” (Lets Change) and rightfully so as he started the party just eight years ago when he ran for and was elected mayor of the City of Buenos Aires. Many would describe Macri as a well-connected businessman whose party was considered by so many as having a long shot to win the elections and lacking the political influence to govern the country. However, with every passing election in 2015, “Cambiemos” demonstrated the power of a socially connected and driven movement.

First, Horacio Larreta maintained the influence of the Cambiemos party within the city of Buenos Aires when he was elected mayor on 19 July 2015. A few months later during the primary elections, Maria Vidal defeated Anibel Fernandez (FPV) to claim the governorship of the Province of Buenos Aires. So as the first national run-off election approached on 22 November 2015, the strength and the support for the Cambiemos movement should not have come as a surprise to the FPV Party. However, even with the energy behind the Cambiemos Party and Macri’s continual climb, he was substantially aided by three significant flaws made by Scioli, the FPV Party, and the current government.

The Lead up to the Election

The first of those errors occurred immediately following the primary elections in August 2015 when the Province of Buenos Aires suffered a significant natural disaster. In the two weeks that followed the primary elections, the Province of Buenos Aires received more than 14 inches of rain causing water levels in some areas to raise more than 30 inches and forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents. The storm was one of the worst in history. As the storms started, then Governor of Buenos Aires, Daniel Scioli, departed for Italy to receive treatment on his prosthetic arm while leaving little to no plan to resolve the dire situation. So as Scioli remained in Italy, the floods continued to worsen and Macri remained as the strongest voice of support to aid those in need and provide a plan to assist with the situation.

The second event that continued to deflate Scioli’s campaign occurred on 5 October 2015 during the first-ever presidential debate. The debate consisted of all Presidential candidates except Scioli who elected not to participate. In the events leading up to the debate, Scioli stated that nothing good comes from a debate. A portion of that comment proved to be true, but the reality was that nothing good came for Scioli. As Scioli watched from a distance, the other five candidates used the forum to promote their ideas and highlight the flaws of the current frontrunner, Scioli, resulting in a significant drop in polls for Scioli the following week.

Results of the run-off election showed Macri defeated Scioli and signaled a change in Argentine Politics.
Results of the run-off election showed Macri defeated Scioli and signaled a change in Argentine Politics.

The third and most powerful of the issues that led to Scioli’s defeat was his relationship, or better said, lack of relationship, with the FPV Party and the current President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. With every passing day after the primary elections, Scioli attempted to separate himself from the criticisms of the Kirchner government in order to obtain more of the votes needed to achieve 45% of the popular vote and avoid a runoff election. However, in doing so, he continued to lose the confidence and support of his party, so much so that President Kirchner would not publicly endorse her support for him as a candidate, an endorsement she did with many other FPV candidates. Furthermore, a week before the runoff election, President Kirchner affirmed that if Scioli was to lose, his decline was not a fault of her or the FPV Party, but that of the actions of Scioli. And as predicted by many, Scioli was defeated. Scioli started as a candidate who presented a grand idea for the future of Argentina, but ultimately lacked the plan, conformity, and energy to continue the reign of the FPV party.

Daniel Scioli’s collapse was fast and essentially unstoppable after the first initial polls in July when he garnered close to 50% of the vote with more than 10 presidential candidates. However, at the end of November when there were only two candidates, he was unable to achieve 50% of the vote to secure the presidency. Thus, Scioli fell to Macri in the runoff election by close to 4% of the popular.

The future of change now rests with President Macri.
The future of change now rests with President Macri.

Moving Forward

The defeat of the FPV Party and the victory of the Cambiemos Party signal a new future in the domestic and international relations of Argentina. As President Macri donned the presidential sash and grabbed hold of the presidential scepter, he takes office with grand ideas to improve the international relations of Argentina most notably with the United States and European leaders. Furthermore, President Macri vows to improve the security situation surrounding the increased drug trade in Argentina as well as improve critical infrastructure along major routes throughout the country. Lastly, among many issues that Macri strives to improve, he looks to take strong and swift action to improve the rapidly devaluating peso that has plagued the people of Argentina for the past two years.

Many of Macri’s right-wing ideas demonstrate a significant shift in the mentality and actions of the future government of Argentina. The question that remains is whether that shift will provide that “change” that Argentines voted for during the country’s first runoff election. Nevertheless, one can expect to see a different domestic and international Argentina in the years to come.

CPT Jonathan Nielsen is a U.S. Army Infantry Officer with combat experience in multiple countries in the Middle East and extensive multinational training experience with various NATO partners.  He is currently attending the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.