Luis González Macchi: 1947—: Paraguayan Leader Biography
Dubbed an "accidental president" by one diplomat and "the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time" by a Paraguayan radio talk-show host (both characterizations were quoted in the New York Times, Paraguayan president Luis González Macchi faced a series of extraordinarily diffi-cult tasks when he ascended to his country's highest office in 1999. Although he succeeded in preserving Paraguay's nascent democratic institutions, his experiences in office demonstrated with unusual clarity that pitfalls that have awaited Latin American countries as they have struggled toward democracy and representative government. Chief among those pitfalls in Paraguay was the country's endemic corruption, vividly demonstrated in the year 2001 when it was revealed that González Macchi's presidential limousine, a symbol of any leader's office, was in fact a stolen car.
The recent political history of Paraguay, a poor, land-locked South American country largely dependent on agriculture, is dominated by the shadow of a single individual—General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled the country for 45 years beginning in 1954. One of the continent's most notorious military strongmen, Stroessner ruthlessly stamped out political opposition and infringed on human rights during his long reign. González Macchi's father Saul González was a justice and labor minister under the umbrella of Stroessner's Colorado Party, for many years the only road to advancement in Paraguayan civil society and still the country's ruling party.
Luis González Macchi, born on December 13, 1947, was a tall youth who initially seemed destined for a career as a professional basketball player. In his rare moments of free time as president, he still enjoys participating in an occasional basketball game. By the time he was 19, however, he had joined the Colorado Party. He studied labor law at the National University in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción and, then, like his father, took up a series of positions in the Stroessner government's labor and justice departments. The most significant of these was the post of president of the National Service of Professional Promotion (Servicio Nacional de Promoción Profesional), a division of the labor ministry.
In 1989 Stroessner was overthrown by a fellow military officer who represented a more moderate faction of the Colorado Party, one to which González Macchi was drawn by temperament and experience. The outlines of a democratic system took shape over the next several years in Paraguay, with a bicameral legislature of 45 senators and 80 deputies modeled to some degree on that of the United States, and González Macchi was tapped to take part in the new government. He was elected to the chamber of deputies in 1993, the same year that Juan Carlos Wasmosy became the country's first democratically elected president in a half century. In the Chamber of Deputies, González Macchi was appointed to various committees and served as the body's vice-president in 1993 and 1994.
Married to a former Miss Paraguay, Susana Galli, González Macchi enjoyed a degree of popularity that transcended the political infighting that had characterized the years since the end of Stroessner's rule. González Macchi was elected to the Paraguayan senate in 1998 and was named president of that body, putting him third in line for the country's presidency. After Wasmosy was succeeded as president of Paraguay by Raúl Cubas, a political conflagration ensued when Cubas pardoned General Lino Oviedo, who had led an unsuccessful military coup. The subsequent assassination of the country's vice-president, Luis Maria Argaña, was widely thought to be the work of Cubas and Oviedo, and soon rioting and sniper fire rocked the streets of Asunción, killing six people and injuring 200. Under international pressure and the threat of impeachment, Cubas resigned.
It was in these unpromising circumstances that González Macchi, next in line for the presidency, became Paraguay's leader. He immediately embraced Paraguay's young democratic institutions, telling the audience at his inauguration that "the democratic process has passed the hardest test of all. The people of Paraguay have triumphed!"according to cnn.com. In his first months in office, González Macchi enjoyed wide popular support. He announced plans to cut taxes, to privatize moribund state industries, and to put in place a power-sharing arrangement, the first in Paraguay in decades, between the Colorado Party and several smaller parties. Riding high, González Macchi declared his intention to serve out the rest of Cubas's term, which was slated to end in 2003.
Within a year, however, his ability to reach that goal had begun to seem questionable. In May of 2000, six tanks rolled into Asunción and fired on Paraguay's senate building, blasting a hole in its side. The coup attempt, blamed on supporters of the now-exiled Oviedo, was squashed, and González Macchi gave a televised address reassuring Paraguayans. "Rest easy, countrymen!" he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. "Public order has been restored. The destabilizing and antidemocratic forces have been disbanded, the crisis brought under control and the mutineers detained." González Macchi pushed a measure through the legislature giving him expanded security powers.
But the situation did not stabilize. "The problem for the current government," noted an Argentine journalist quoted in the World Press Review, "is that, after the success [in crushing the coup] that in theory strengthens it, now the criticisms, doubts, and suspicions are raining down." Oviedo supporters suggested that the government might have staged the coup in order to shore up its own position. One pro-Oviedo journalist wrote (quoted again in the World Press Review) that making Oviedo "'public enemy number one' is an excellent excuse for concentrating on him all [the regime's] artillery, and thus avoiding engagement in the decisions that citizens require" on financial matters. One of those was an investigation of the finances of González Macchi's friend Wasmosy, who by one estimate had embezzled a sum equal to 60 percent of Paraguay's annual gross national product.
The following months brought González Macchi more problems, although he continued to hold on to power. Oviedo, now living in Brazil, continued to angle for power by peaceful means. In August of 2000 a special vice-presidential election held to replace Argaña resulted in the election of the pro-Oviedo Julio Cesar Franco of the Authentic Liberal Radical party, leaving the government with a president and vice-president of different parties. González Macchi's popularity plummeted, and the top candidate for Colorado Party leader even criticized González Macchi in his campaign platform.
Worse still, it was revealed in April of 2001 that González Macchi's armored 1999 BMW, his official car, had been smuggled into Paraguay from Brazil after being stolen from an office of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical firm there. "The president's use of a stolen car has become the symbol of the degree to which corruption pervades things here and of the government's unwillingness to confront it," the Paraguayan academic and journalist Victor Jacinto Flecha was quoted as saying by the New York Times. The social ills Flecha described, it seemed, were well enough entrenched to drag down the fortunes of even a popular sports-hero national leader.
Baltimore Sun, June 24, 2001, p. C5.
Houston Chronicle, May 20, 2000, p. A25.
Irish Times, April 5, 1999, p. 13.
New York Times, April 8, 2001, Section 1, p. 4.
World Press Review, June 1999, p. 23; August 2000, p. 27.
Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001 (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
BBC News Online Country Profiles, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/americas/country_pro files/newsid_1222000/1222081.htm
El Mundo, Spain, http://www.el-mundo.es/1999/03/30/internacional/30N0068.html
—James M. Manheim