Following a 35-year military dictatorship by Alfredo Stroessner that ended in 1989, Paraguay took steps toward democratization including the adoption of a constitution in 1992. In 1993, Colorado Party candidate Juan Carlos Wamosy became Paraguay’s first civilian president in decades in a free and fair election. Since the 1993 election, Paraguay has seen two failed coup attempts, the assassination of a vice president, a presidential impeachment, widespread accusations of corruption, and the express impeachment of President Fernando Lugo which some considered a coup. The Colorado Party has maintained almost exclusive control over the country during the past 70 years, losing power only once to Fernando Lugo of the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA) from his election in 2008 until his impeachment in 2012. In 2018, Mario Abdo Benítez of the Colorado Party was elected president of Paraguay, beating the liberal opposition alliance candidate by four percentage points.
Two recent events—the accusations of illegal wiretaps against opposition members and claims that judicial authorities have ignored serious crimes–show signs of Ozan O. Varol’s concept of stealth authoritarianism in Paraguay. According to Varol, stealth authoritarians use legal mechanisms that exist in democratic governments to conceal repressive practices and give them an appearance of legitimacy . Two of these mechanisms that are apparent in Paraguay are the use of surveillance institutions and judicial review.
During a session of the Lower House on March 3rd, Deputy Celeste Amarilla of the PLRA accused an official from the SENAD, the National Anti-Drug Secretariat, of conducting an illegal wiretap on her phone between 2015 and 2016—before she was a legislator—and later using the recordings as blackmail. She claimed that this SENAD official illegally listened to politicians’ and citizens’ conversations, then sold them to the highest bidder. The official denied the claims, calling it a “terrible injustice.” Deputy Kattya González of the Partido Encuentro Nacional described the accusations of wiretaps against members of the opposition worrying but said that it will not be solved with laws because laws cannot obligate the government to be honest about illegal wiretapping. She added that Paraguay has a police force and judiciary put into motion with a Stronista law, referring to the 35-year Stroessner dictatorship, and that the law must be modified.
According to Varol, stealth authoritarians can use surveillance institutions to gather information about opponents that can be used as blackmail to silence or discredit them. Using the investigation of drug trafficking and drug-related crimes as a source of legitimacy, SENAD can surveil Paraguayans for sensitive information and use it against them. Deputy Amarilla’s claim that a SENAD official was illegally wiretapping politicians and citizens demonstrates the potential danger of weaponized surveillance capabilities in the Paraguayan government. If Deputy Amarilla’s accusation is true, this would signify a major threat to democracy in the country.
In addition to claims of surveillance and blackmail, during an appearance before Congress on February 3rd, now-removed Interior Minister Arnaldo Guizzio accused former President Horacio Cartes of illegal activities including money laundering and drug trafficking. Attorney General Sandra Quiñonez—who Cartes appointed to the position during his term which lasted from 2013 to 2018—is accused of being complicit in the former president’s crimes by “shelving” charges against him and other politicians. The scandal, which occurred years ago, also involves “illicit enrichment and false declaration” of assets, assisted by deputies. Attorney General Sandra Quiñonez is now facing an impeachment trial for failing to fulfill her duties. These accusations that the Public Prosecutor’s Office failed to act on serious crimes come amid claims of deficient prosecution in the case of a former Paraguayan soccer official.
These claims of corruption and unequal application of the law in both cases represent a threat to democracy in the erosion of due process and the independence of the judiciary. The first case, in particular, is an example of a mechanism of stealth authoritarianism—using judicial review to bolster democratic credentials. This allows stealth authoritarians to hide anti-democratic practices and ultimately creates an opportunity to avoid accountability. Although the Attorney General is appointed by the president and thus falls under the executive branch, the Ministry of the Attorney General is considered an “auxiliary body of justice.” According to Varol, judicial review provides an appearance of a system of checks and balances that constrains an executive and serves a “legitimizing function” particularly when government corruption is common. In Paraguay, the existence of a nominally independent judiciary and Public Prosecutor’s Office implies that elected officials will be held accountable for wrongdoing. However, these recent examples indicate that the judiciary has not consistently and effectively applied the law.
Each of these currently-evolving cases—the allegations of surveillance and blackmail of an opposition politician and the accusation that the Attorney General postponed criminal charges against the former president—represent a threat to democracy on their own. Taken together, they also signify an expansion of stealth authoritarianism. This particular manifestation of democratic erosion is particularly dangerous because it can be harder to see through its veneer of legitimacy to understand it for what it truly is and to ultimately hold stealth authoritarians accountable.
 Varol, O. O. (2014). Stealth authoritarianism. Iowa L. Rev., 100, 1673.