Paraguay stirs. A country that remained stable for almost thirty years under the oppressive hand of the Strossner dictatorship now finds itself stretching its fledgling legs of democracy in a fast-paced and globalized world. Since the military coup that ousted Strossner 1989, the Colorodo party (the same political party of the one-time dictator) has held on to power, albeit legitimate and democratically elected power this time around. In the last election, however, this single-party rule was finally disrupted by a multi-party oppositional coalition that installed a Catholic priest named Fernando Lugo as president. In a government still dominated by hard-line Colorado representatives, Lugo has come up against a strong conservative current. In the past few years, he has been widely criticized for failing to live up to pre-election promises and failing to achieve Liberal party aims. For the first non-Colorado party leader in almost 80 years, Lugo has been a controversial figure, but with the upcoming elections in 2013 the political tide is already starting to ebb and flow; the voice of the people, historically repressed, ignored and obfuscated under a veil of corruption and ignorance, is at last free to cast its judgement on the Paraguayan government. The messages are varied but the volume is almost always loud. Paraguay is a democracy flexing its popular muscle in a way comparable to the US in the 1960’s, that is, in a very big way.
The news keeps bringing word of civil unrest--teacher strikes, transportation strikes, worker’s strikes--in major towns around the country. Large scale protests in the capital of Asuncion and elsewhere have been planned well in advance; in the past, these events have been known to shut down major roads and cause general confusion for the ill-equipped Paraguayan police. The EPP (the Paraguayan people’s army--a small Marxist/Leninist inspired militant group operating out of the northern departments of the country) has stepped up some efforts, killing several police officers around the are of Concepcion in the past few weeks and has also threatened attacks in the capital. Several Peace Corps volunteers working in or around these areas have been placed on a stand-fast (meaning that they are not allowed to leave their host villages) and some have even been recalled to consolidation points pending further social issues.
In general, Paraguay is not a dangerous country. In the past, corruption was rampant, civil forces were weak and ineffective, and widespread poverty and isolation meant that millions of rural Paraguayans lived more-or-less off the grid. It seems that the major force offsetting an anarchic Paraguayan state (in the absence of a strong central government) was always the philosophy of Paraguayan lifestyle. People here are tranquilo, immensely thoughful and always happy. Still, there are parts of the country where foreigners should not wander (such as the Ciudad del Este--a new world haven for terrorist groups such as Hezbola), there are immense shantytowns in the major cities where people should be wary to navigate at night, and there is always the risk of the opportunistic moto thief or robber but, for the most part, people are warm, unquestionably welcoming, and willing to share everything they have, even with a complete stranger.
Sometimes it seems as if this nation exists in an almost contestant state of potentiality--the potential for large-scale social change, the potential for a proletariat uprising, the potential for economic greatness, the potential to turn the fortunes of this developing country for the betterment of all its people. For one reason or another, this potentiality has yet to be tapped. The streets are cracking slowly, the infrastructure is crumbling, garbage collects in heaps under the dictates of the wind, and a majority of the people (with the small exception of the business and shopping districts of Asuncion) remain impoverished and unacknowledged.
Whether due to corruption, exploitation, or just bad luck (likely, a combination of both), Paraguay remains confined to the third-world mold. But there is so much life here, so much natural beauty, so many wonderful people with the capacity and the motivation to make better lives for themselves and their children. This is nothing that can be imposed and certainly much more than can be delivered by armies of Peace Corps volunteers, NGO’s and development organizations. In their own way and according to their own terms, Paraguay is making a democracy for itself. It is carving out a place in this world, in this global economy and its people are rising to the occasion.
From the Heart of South America,