ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguay is preparing to hold a constitutional referendum Sunday on whether citizens living in Argentina, Spain, the U.S. and elsewhere outside the country can vote.
Paraguay consistently loses many citizens because decades of dictatorship and poverty have closed off opportunities at home. An estimated 1.5 million Paraguayans fled into exile during the 1954-1989 regime of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, and the flow has remained strong under democracy due to economic reasons.
A recent census in Argentina found more than 500,000 Paraguayans living there. Migrant associations say 90,000 live in Spain and 30,000 in the United States, many in the New York City area.
Fernando Lugo, Paraguay’s outsider-bishop turned president, has urged voters to approve the constitutional amendment. He held a lengthy meeting in Paraguay’s Senate with representatives of migrant groups on Tuesday that was transmitted over government radio, and they too urged their countrymen to vote “yes.”
The proposal gives few details on how expatriate voting would be carried out and even if most of the 3 million registered voters approve Sunday’s measure, it would still require approval by Congress, which has shown little interest in facilitating voting by Paraguayans in exile.
Most of the migrant representatives who met Lugo this week said they would not vote for the Colorado Party, which backed Stroessner and which still controls most of Paraguay’s public institutions. It has blocked nearly every move by Lugo, whose promises to end hunger and corruption swept him into the presidency in 2008.
Some legal experts also have argued that a nationwide constitutional assembly would be required, at a prohibitive cost of $10 million for a government perennially short on revenues.
While voting is obligatory in Paraguay, election officials have already announced that there will be no penalties for failing to vote this time because lawmakers failed to issue the necessary regulations.
Pollsters haven’t even tried to forecast the results. The usual political machinery that surrounds elections, with parties handing out goodies and transporting supporters to the polls, is absent this time.
Before Vice President Francisco Franco left on a trade mission to Asia, he said he hopes that citizens “vote massively for ‘yes.'”
“I’ll be outside the country and I can’t vote because the law doesn’t allow me to. So, thousands of our compatriots hope to be able to do this in the future,” Franco said.