Been a long time, eh. So much has happened around the world in the last three months, let’s just jump right into it. In an attempt to catch up where I left off, I’ll be jumping around a bit. In today’s catch-up session (pt. 1) we’ll look at the new leaders of Cuba, Cyprus, Italy, and Paraguay.
The most major thing to come out of February was Cuba’s long-awaited formal transfer of power, as perennial “acting president” Raul Castro officially become full president and Fidel Castro officially became a run-of-the-mill retired eccentric.
Cuba’s a Communist prison-state, as we all know, and the hereditary succession of dictatorship through the Castro family is clearly a grossly undemocratic act consistent with that country’s generally tyrannical system of government. But still, it’s interesting to observe the constitutional formalities the country went through to pretend like this act of unabashed primogeniture was really some grand gesture of a glorious people’s democracy.
The way the Republic of Cuba works on paper is like this. There is a legislature called the “National Assembly of People’s Power” which is elected by the citizens once every five years. The assembly in turn elects, from amongst its members, the President of Cuba and his cabinet. For the last several decades, Castro has always been re-elected to the National Assembly, and re-elected as president immediately afterwards, along with all the other assorted Castro family members and octogenarians who make up the Cuban cabinet. Indeed, everyone is always reelected to everything in Cuba, because there is only one legal political party and all members of the National Assembly always run unopposed.
This year, however, Castro shocked the world by announcing that he would not run for reelection to the National Assembly, a gesture which would in turn mean he could no longer be appointed to another term as president-for-life. So Cuba’s January election came and went without Fidel’s participation, so then on the “new” legislature’s first sitting on February 24 the People’s Power chamber unanimously chose good old Raul Castro to be the nation’s new caudillo.
Despite being the younger Castro brother, Raul is still 76, and thus his presidency will be like a fast-forward version of Fidel’s that more or less skips right to the end, with the death predictions and constant speculation as to “what comes next.” If Raul dies, what would literally come next would be Jose Machado, the man Raul chose to be his vice president. He’s 77. I’m not sure how many people would have to die before Cuba got a leader who doesn’t predate the Great Depression.
The Republic of Cyprus got a new president in February, too. Demetris Christofias is his name.
Cyprus is a member of the European Union, yet this has always been a bit awkward since the country is still kind of embroiled in a bit of a low-level civil war it never really got around to resolving.
The Island nation has been controlled by most of history’s great empires over the years, mot recently the British, who took it from the Ottomans in 1878 and ran it until 1960. As a result of its previous colonization by both the Greeks and the Turks, Cyprus’ less-than-a-million population is problematically segregated into Greek and Turkish camps, with the latter group being the minority. The Greeks always figured that the Cyprus island should join up with the rest of the Greek archipelago, but of course the Turks hate this idea.
The compromise solution, reached just after the British granted independence, was for the island to be neither Turkish nor Greek, but just Cypriot. So the island’s elites got together and formed a unity government and made an archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church named Makarios III their first president. But Archbishop-President-the-Third was soon seen as a bit of a wimp by his fellow Greeks, especially the various macho generals who were running Greece at the time. In 1974 the Greek junta successfully orchestrated a coup that deposed President III in the hopes that this would finally end the silly business about unity governments and get Cyprus united with Greece the way God intended. But the coup actually achieved the opposite affect when Turkey proceeded to invade the island five days later, in order to protect their people from the crazy new government that had just been installed.
As the 1970’s stumbled on all attempts at unity fell apart, and Turkey set up their own stupid little rebel government on the half of the island they had seized during the invasion. Cyprus now claims to be two countries, a Turkish Republic and a Greek Republic, though it may be relevant to note that the only country that recognizes the independence of the Turkish Republic is Turkey, whose neutral judgment in the matter is somewhat questionable.
For most of the 80’s and 90’s the two halves of the island didn’t have much to do with each other, except perhaps issuing press releases describing how illegal the other one was. But then in the early 2000’s both Turkey proper and the Greek part of Cyprus decided they wanted to join the EU, and the Europeans proceeded to put a lot of pressure on all involved parties to finally resolve the weirdness of the Island’s situation once and for all.
Greek Cyprus was in fact able to persuade its way into the EU in ’04, and since then the ball’s been in their court to prove they can bring the Turkish rebels back into a single Cypriot unity government for the entire island. They elected a pro-unity government in 2003, but they guy who led it, President Tassos Papadopoulos, ended up being a bit of a disappointment. He managed to negotiate a new constitution with the Turks and the UN, but then told his people to vote against it when it came to a nation-wide referendum after he decided it was actually a pretty bad deal, in retrospect.
So Papadopoulos failed at his attempt, and on Feburary 17 of this year the Greek Cypriot voters threw him out and elected a new pro-unity leader, Demetris Christofias. Mr. Christofias s the leader of the Cypriot Commmunist Party, and as such is much more of a “can’t we all just get along?” type than Mr. Papadopoulos, who was a fairly unapologetic Greek-rights-first hardliner. Since being sworn in, President Christofias has already had significant chats with the leaders of the Turkish rebel government, and pledges full-fledged negotiations to hammer out the specifics of unity within three months. Best of luck to him. It would be nice if we could tally up at least one victory to a Communist government.
So things have stabilized in Italy quite a bit as of late.
To quickly summarize recent Italian political history, there is this flamboyant right-wing millionaire named Silvio Berlusconi. He was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, and lead a remarkably long-lived and stable government, at least by Italian standards. But then in 2006 he was thrown out and this other guy, a lefty named Romano Prodi, was elected in his place. But Prodi was a much weaker leader than Berlusconi, and after little more than a year in a half in office and two resignations, he finally resigned from politics earlier this year. In traditional parliamentary fashion, following his resignation an election was held in early April, and now Berlusconi is back in.
The stereotype is that Italian politics are comically unstable, and that their crazy parliaments feature way too many petty, feuding parties and are thus chronically unable to get anything done. And that’s true, to some extent, as I’ve discussed before. Certainly the foreign media never tires of dredging up the dull statistic of how there have been “60 governments in Italy since World War II” (though these numbers generally use the most liberal definition of “government” possible; using similar logic it could be argued that the Bill Clinton presidency constituted about four different American governments during his eight-year reign). But the trend has been changing a lot lately, largely due to Mr. Prodi and Mr. Berlusconi’s ability to craft large coalition parties to replace all the smaller, more ideologically pure ones. Following their leadership, Italian voters have been getting a lot more pragmatic, throwing support towards the center-right and center-left, and eschewing the radical fringes of either side. The country is now governed by something effectively resembling a three-party system, where as for much of the post-war period it’s been closer to a 12-party one.
Ironically, despite the alienation of the fringe, the new Berlusconi government could actually end up being one of Italy’s most ideological. The basic reason is that in any country where there are fewer parties it’s easier for one party to win a majority of seats—rather than merely a plurality—simply because there are fewer competitors. And this is exactly what Italy’s new conservative party was able to do, winning 344 of 630 seats to the liberal party’s 174 and the centrist party’s 132. So unlike past conservative leaders, who have presided over weak minority governments and had to cut pragmatic deals with their opponents, Prime Minister Berlusconi can afford to simply say “screw you” to the left and basically govern any which way he pleases, since he doesn’t need to lobby for their votes of support to get key legislation passed. It’s good news for political efficiency and good news for the right-wing reformists, but for Italy’s significant leftist community who basically view Berlusconi as an unstable lunatic poised to be the next Mussolini it may take some getting used to.
Paraguay is a fun country, but the people who live there probably don’t think so. They tend to have a lot of bad luck, politically speaking, and of all the countries in South America it’s probably the one that has enjoyed the least stability since embracing democratic rule in the late 80’s.
I’ll summarize the history of Paraguay quickly, just because it’s a darkly amusing story.
The country became independent from Spain in 1813, and initially their post-indepdnence constitution vested all executive authority in a two-man tribunal with rotating chairmanship. This was supposed to prevent the abuse of power, you see. That lasted about a year, then one of the members, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez, got tired of it and just proclaimed himself “Perpetual Supreme Dictator” (yes, this was the actual title) and proceded to rule the country unopposed for the next three decades. In power, Rodriguez was basically the Pol Pot of his time, and led a nightmarish Orwellian police state in which attempting to leave the country was punishable by death, and entering the country was punishable by life imprisonment in Paraguay.
He eventually died, thankfully, and the country went back to the two-man rule system. This time it lasted for three years before one of the guys proclaimed himself President-for-Life and ruled for 18 straight years. After that guy died his son took over. Junior, for his part, apparently thought it would be fun to go to war with Brazil, Argentina, and Urugauy simulatniously. Yeah, not so much. That war ended up killing an astonishing 95% of Paraguay’s male population, transforming it overnight into a tiny nation of mostly women. Thankfully most of the government (including the president) were also killed.
While the country slowly repopulated, a new dictatorship emerged under the rotating leaderships of two oligarchical political parties, the Liberals, who ran the show from 1880 to 1904, and the oddly named Colorado Republican Party, who were in charge from 1904 to 1940. Despite their lengths of rule, neither party had strong leadership, and in this era the average presidential term was about two years. It was in this period that Paraguay established its proudest political tradition—infighting.
There was a civil war between the two parties in the mid-1940s, and by 1947 the Colorado gang had emerged the victors. In 1954 a general named Alfredo Stroessner who was allied with the Colorado Party decided that he didn’t like the direction his party was taking so he overthrew the president and promised to return to the principles that had made the Colorado Party so great in the first place, whatever those were.
General Stroessner ended up being one of the longest-serving dictators in the history of the world, and ruled for 35 years. By 1989 he was 76 and fairly feeble, so another general from the Colorado party overthrew him. (But Stroessner still hung around for a long time. He lived to be 93 and only died in 2006).
Democratic rule was officially restored shortly after Stroessner was deposed, and you’d think the Colorado Party would have something of an unpopular reputation by now, but no, the Paraguayan voters kept electing it back to power anyway. Infighting was mostly to blame. The party switched leaders so often it was really more like multiple parties in one, and you never really knew what it was going to stand for from one day to the next, other than staying in power. It was a lot like the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th Century. Or the Canadian Liberals.
The post-Stroessner presidents were a colorful lot to say the least:
Andres Rodriguez (1989-1993); General who overthrew Stroessner, formally elected to power four months later. In 1993 Congress thought he was hanging around too long for someone who was supposed to be a “transitional” leader so they changed the constitution saying he could never run for president again, nor could any of his relatives. To take the edge off, they also made him senator-for-life, but he only lived for three more years so it wasn’t really that great of a deal.
Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993-1998); first civilian president, approved laws banning the military from ever again getting invoved in politics. He had a weird and complicated relationship with the head of the army who was always trying to either overthrow him, or wrestle control of the Colorado party from him.
Raul Cubas (1998-1999); Wasmosy’s vice president, elected to replace him after his one-term ended. Despite being vice president, Cubas never liked Wasmosy and sympathized with the head of the army’s attempts to overthrow him. So when the general was found guilty of treason, he pardoned him. But Mr. Cubas’s vice president didn’t like that, and started calling for the president’s impeachment. The vice president was in turn murdered, and the suspicious timing of the killing forced Cubas into an early retirement.
Gonzalez Macchi (1999-2003); Speaker of Senate, assumed the presidency after Cubas fled. Hopes that he would provide a clean break from the past were qucikyl dashed once evidence began to circulate that he was engaged in all manner of corrupt doings, however. He survived a vote of impeachment in 2003, only to be face federal charges when he left office legally a few months later. He is currently serving a six year prison term for fraud and embezzlement.
Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008); from the reformist wing of the Colorado Party, he pledged to fix everything and end all the corruption. He didn’t.
And now, following the elections of April 20, Paraguay has an all-new president, Mr. Fernando Lugo. He’s a fairly remarkable fellow. For one thing, for the first time in 60 years, the president is not a member of the Colorado Party, but rather the Authentic Radical Party, a leftist coalition of labor unions and Indians that Mr. Lugo only threw together eight months ago. Lugo himself is a former Catholic bishop schooled in the ways of so-called “liberation theology,” which basically argues that Christ was the original Marxist and that socialism doesn’t have to be an atheist movement. So in other words, he’s one more notch in an ever-growing tally of leftist leaders in Latin America. Actually, at this point I think Columbia is the only right-wing regime left.
There’s going to be a lot of pressure on President Lugo to fix everything, because as a lefty outsider he is without the sort of original sin that has tainted every other Paraguayan leader ever. God only knows who the voters will turn to should he fail…