Chavez 'plan' alarms Paraguay
Controversy erupts as a paper surfaces purportedly detailing the Venezuelan leader's directives to envoys to boost his nation's sway.
ASUNCION, PARAGUAY -- A reported plan by leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to bolster his influence in Paraguay has sparked a heated debate about alleged foreign "infiltration" in the affairs of this small South American nation.
The Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color last week revealed the existence of a 21-page document purportedly detailing Chavez's directives, labeling it "a plan of infiltration."
Although the text calls on Venezuelan diplomats to advance Chavez's strategies and pet projects, none of the directives appears illegal or even subversive. There is no suggestion of direct Venezuelan interference in politics in Paraguay, where the center-right Colorado Party has had a stranglehold on power for decades.
The plan directs Venezuelan envoys to seek out social, political and military leaders in Paraguay to further Chavez's idiosyncratic "Bolivarian" vision of a unified, left-leaning continent allied against Washington.
The Venezuelan Embassy has neither confirmed nor denied the authenticity of the plan, which carries the heading of Venezuela's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is titled "Annual Operating Plan 2007."
That the disclosure has caused an uproar in this tropical capital underscores the region's extreme sensitivity to Chavez's aggressive use of Venezuela's oil riches to export "21st century socialism."
Critics have labeled Venezuelan embassies across Latin America bastions of chavista outreach and propaganda.
Chavez "has a continental project -- he has said so and he has demonstrated it in his practices," said Benjamin Fernandez Bogado, a political analyst here. "The historical memory in Paraguay is fragile, and the economic necessities make it very receptive to a leader who is demagogical and populist."
Paraguay, an impoverished, landlocked nation of 6 million, has maintained a fragile democracy since the 1989 ouster of military strongman Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years and whose staunch opposition to communism made him a U.S. ally during the Cold War.
Leftist activists here allege that the ruling elite leaked the plan in an effort to discredit the surging presidential candidacy of Fernando Lugo, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest dubbed the "Bishop of the Poor."
Lugo, standard-bearer of a left-center opposition coalition, is seeking to end the Colorado Party's 60-year rule in elections scheduled for next April.
Opponents have tried to tie the outspoken cleric to Chavez, a link the candidate has denied. "We're not going to copy Chavez's recipe or anyone else's," Lugo told journalists here after the publication of the purported Venezuelan plan. "We're going to do things the Paraguayan way."
Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, a U.S. ally, said Chavez had no influence on Paraguayan politics.
The U.S. ambassador here, James C. Cason, told reporters that "it's known by everyone" that Chavez seeks influence in Paraguay.
"Now we're going to see what is the reaction here of the citizenry, and if they believe this is normal or abnormal," Cason was quoted in ABC Color, Paraguay's largest-circulation newspaper.
Paraguay shares a long border with Bolivia, whose leftist government is a close ally of Venezuela and a major recipient of economic and military aid from Chavez.
The reported Venezuelan plan is a mix of "objectives," "operations" and "actions," all designed to bolster Venezuela's sway.
The document backs offering scholarships to low-income Paraguayan students, sponsoring "the presence of Venezuelan culture in Paraguay," subsidizing healthcare for the needy and reaching out to various groups: indigenous communities, farmers, businesspeople and representatives of social organizations, among others.
Venezuelan diplomats are directed to seek support for their nation's bid for full membership in the South American trade bloc known as Mercosur. Such a bid requires approval from Paraguay and other member nations.
Several proposals reflect well-known Chavez priorities, such as a suggestion for "strategic alliances" between private television stations here and the pro-Chavez Venezuelan state network, Television del Sur, or Telesur, which is broadcast by cable and satellite across the region.
Representatives of Venezuela's state oil company are urged to meet with their Paraguayan counterparts.
The plan also calls for the promotion of Chavez initiatives such as the Public Bank of the South, a plan for a regional development institution to rival U.S.-backed lending organizations such as the World Bank. Also recommended is promotion of the so-called Gasoduct of the South, Chavez's ambitious idea for a gas pipeline stretching from Venezuela to Argentina.
Special correspondent Amarilla reported from Asuncion and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.