Anybody even remotely familiar with Latin America history is aware that indigenous peoples were subject to horrific processes of dispossession, repression, racism, and extermination throughout both the colonial and the national periods. Sadly, destroying native lands and communities in the name of greed remains a major issue in the twenty-first century:
In a rare encounter between the Ayoreo tribe, Paraguay’s Environment Minister, and a Brazilian rancher responsible for the large-scale destruction of the tribe’s ancestral land, the rancher has rebuffed the Ayoreo’s plea to stop destroying their forest, the last refuge of their uncontacted relatives. [...]
Ranching company Yaguarete Pora S.A., owned by Ferraz, has been illegally clearing the Ayoreo’s forest to make way for beef destined for the European, Russian and African markets, and was recently granted an environmental license to cut down more forest, causing global outrage.
Obviously, this is horrible on any number of levels. The blatant disregard for indigenous rights and the obviously anti-indigenous attitudes of the rancher and his company deny treating indigenous peoples as equals under the law, thus dehumanizing them and reinforcing structures of anti-indigenous racism that have operated in Latin America for centuries. And this is not just a South American problem, or an indigenous problem; that the land is being cleared to provide European markets with food really does make this a global issue, providing yet another reminder of the tragic roots that can and do rest behind much of industrial food production. And while our focus regularly (and not unfairly) falls on deforestation in the Amazon, a recent study found that the highest rate of deforestation in the world is in Paraguay’s Chaco, where the Ayoreo (and others) live. What’s happening in Paraguay is in many ways an old story – outside economic powers disregarding indigenous rights and threatening indigenous peoples while also destroying the environment, all in the name of global trade. That it is an old story, yet one we still see today, is yet another sad reminder of the ways that power structures dating back to colonial times insidiously persist well into the 21st century under new guises.
A woman in Paraguay has climbed onto a wooden cross and had nails pounded through her hands, joining five men in a crucifixion protest that has already lasted 20 days.
Bus driver Juan Villalba is leading the demonstration to protest a series of layoffs of union organizers at the Vanguardia bus company serving the nation’s capital.
Villalba said his wife, Maria Concepcion Candia, joined the five others on Wednesday out of solidarity. He says eight drivers were fired after asking that for overtime pay, medical insurance and state pension contributions.
This isn’t the first time crucifixion has been used in protests in Paraguay. Landless citizens used the tactic in 2009 to bring attention to the lack of social programs for Paraguay’s landless poor, while another protest in 2004 included a man crucifying himself in protest against a government crackdown on public transit companies. The symbolism seems obvious,and it’s certainly effective at gaining attention, but sadly, the articles and stories rarely include the protesters’ own explanations of why that tactic over others, and its relative success or failure is likewise unclear. Still, given the physical disfigurement and what I can only assume must be rather severe pain, it’s a tactic I personally don’t understand, even while I don’t begrudge or belittle those who use it; only they can know if it was successful or/and worth it at the end.
While ongoing protests in Brazil have (understandably) occupied a growing amount of space in recent days, Brazilians are not the only ones making their voices heard.
In Chile, as the fight for educational reform approaches its third year, over 100,000 people took to the streets, continuing to demand educational reform. And while the linked article focuses on the tiny number of vandals in the article, what is worth taking away is that around 100,000 people gathered peacefully, continuing to insist that education in Chile (like in Brazil) receive better investment and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, Ticos throughout the country have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the government over a variety of issues, ranging from the temporary cancellation of an agreement with China to develop an oil refinery, to a recent presidential scandal regarding Laura Chinchilla’s traveling on a private jet apparently owned by a drug lord (to say nothing of the organ-trafficking ring recently uncovered and mentioned in the first link).
And in Paraguay, following up on a protest of 3,000 late last week, citizens took to the streets throughout the country last night, drawing inspiration from the demonstrations in neighboring Brazil to demand better infrastructure and public services and an end to corruption.
To be clear, these demonstrations are not mere imitations of what is going on in Brazil – the Costa Rican protests are born of the individual issues facing the Costa Rican nation, and the struggle for educational reform in Chile goes back to 2011. And even the Paraguayan protests, which demonstrators admit have been inspired in part by Brazil’s demonstrations, are based on their own internal issues and struggles particular to lived experiences in Paraguay. Nonetheless, when considered alongside Brazil, it is clear not only that people throughout the region believe demonstrations to be an appropriate and effective means of shaping politics and politicians, but that these democracies are open enough that large groups can gather to make their voices heard. Even when there is police violence (and there still is), it is not repressive enough to stifle public dissent altogether, and that is a not-insignificant thing in countries like Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile that have seen far more repressive crackdowns on smaller rallies under dictatorships in the last 50 years.
As for Brazil, the demonstrations that are now entering their third week continue to affect politics and local economies. Yesterday, the Senate passed a bill that made corruption a “serious” crime – effectively elevating it from a misdimeanor to a felony – increasing the penalties for political corruption. At the same time, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for former Federal Deputy Natan Donadon, who in 2010 was convicted of embezzlement. By upholding the conviction, the Court made Donadon the first politician to be actually sentenced to prison for corruption since Brazil’s constitution went into effect in 1988.
Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.
For those who missed it, this is a fascinating story:
The year was 1887 when two of the best-known German anti-Semites of the time put down stakes here in Paraguay’s remote jungle with 14 German families screened for their racial purity.
The team of Bernhard Förster and his wife, Elisabeth, the sister of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, had an ambitious plan: nothing less than the establishment of a colony from which an advance contingent of Aryans could forge a claim to the entire South American continent. [...]
Within two years the dream had been shattered, and today the Försterhof, where a sign that read “Over all obstacles, stand your ground” once hung on the wall, lies in ruins. The forest grows over its charred remains. Not long after founding the outpost and envisioning its mission as the “purification and rebirth of the human race,” Mr. Förster grew despondent over Nueva Germania’s progress. He swallowed a mixture of morphine and strychnine, killing himself in 1889.
Of course, as the article points out, this was far from the only case of Europeans immigrating to Paraguay to create new societies:
In hindsight, it might seem absurd for ideologues from across the seas to have hinged their dreams on impoverished Paraguay. But this landlocked nation, with territory about the size of California, has a long history of luring utopian settlements.
In 1893, a teetotaling faction of Australia’s labor movement created Nueva Australia, which survives to this day. Finnish vegetarians started Colonia Villa Alborada in the 1920s. More recently, Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church who died in 2012, bought 1.5 million acres of Paraguayan land and sent an advance group of followers to set up a “Victorious Holy Place.”
Few projects had the ambitions, however, of Nueva Germania. From the start, the Försters envisioned it as an idyllic “Naumburg on the Aguarya-umí” river, where crops would grow in abundance and Lutherans could worship in isolation away from Jewish influence, as the writer Ben Macintyre recounts in “Forgotten Fatherland,” a 1992 book on the colony and its founders.
Nor were these experiences limited to Paraguay. Millions of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Chinese, Japanese, Syrians, Lebanese, and others immigrated to South America in the late-1800s and early-1900s. Indeed, though the largest number of total immigrants ended up in the United States in this period, the hemisphere as a whole became the destination for people looking to escape political turmoil, uncertain economies, cultural repression, or those who were simply seeking a completely fresh start. Places like Novo Friburgo (literally “New Freiburg”) in Rio de Janeiro state, the Liberdade district in São Paulo, La Chinesca in Mexicali, Mexico, and elsewhere all reveal the impact of immigration to the Americas in their names, their physical spaces, and their cultures. Of course, not all of these immigrant enclaves were beneficial. Certainly, places like Forster’s Nueva Germania are a reminder of that fact. More recently, one can look at Colonia Dignidad in Chile, where in 1961 German Paul Schaefer and Pinochet-sympathizer Paul Schaefer formed a commune where he ultimately sexually abused young boys and also served as a torture site during the Pinochet regime. As the Schaefer commune and the Forster settlement remind us, immigration to the Americas is diverse and has a long history, one that can and does have its own ugly pasts.
After the institutional coup against Fernando Lugo last June, politico-economic trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay’s membership. The response was swift, and Horacio Cartes, who at the time was a potential candidate for president, called on Paraguay to maintain faith in Mercosur and to work towards having the suspension lifted. Now that Cartes has won the election, it appears that he was sincere in his comments and that he is now taking steps towards restoring Paraguay’s full participation in Mercosur. Perhaps more importantly, Mercosur members seem willing to restore relations with Paraguay. Both Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina congratulated Cartes on his victory, with Kirchner tweeting “We wait for you in Mercosur” and that Paraguay’s “place is with us in Mercosur always,” while Mujica invited Paraguay to Mercosur’s June summit in Uruguay. Of course, Brazil also has a say in the matter; Dilma Rousseff’s foreign ministry proclaimed that it would be glad to welcome back Paraguay, but only on the condition that Paraguay’s Congress approve Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur (the Paraguayan Senate’s holdup had been what initially kept Venezuela from gaining full membership). Cartes seems willing to take this step, having already spoken with legislators to try to pressure them into accepting Venezuela’s admission. And in another good sign for Paraguay, none other than Nicolás Maduro himself, Venezuela’s recently elected president, called Cartes to congratulate him and to express a desire to improve bilateral relations between Venezuela and Paraguay. Thus, it seems that, as Greg Weeks suggested, South America is willing to allow the resumption of democracy in Paraguay to heal the relations that were strained with Lugo’s removal last summer, and it appears that, barring any sudden rupture, Paraguay is well on the path to returning to normalized political and economic relations with its neighbors.
In other Cartes news, he has also finally apologized for blatantly homophobic and hateful remarks he made regarding homosexuality. While that does not mean he is any more open-minded regarding diversity, at least he had the wherewithal to acknowledge what he publicly said was offensive, hateful, and contributing to a climate of sexual discrimination and fear.
Yesterday, Paraguay held its first presidential elections since the ouster of democratically elected Fernando Lugo last year, and as expected, Horacio Cartes won with over a million votes (45.8%), defeating runner-up Liberal Party candidate Efrain Alegre, who finished with over 800,000 votes for 37% percent of the vote. Mario Ferreiro of the Avanza Pais coalition finished with just 5.9% of the vote (around 140,000 votes), while Anibal Enrique Carrillo of the Frente Guasú, the party formed out of Fernando Lugo’s old coalition, received 3.3% of the vote (nearly 80,000 votes). Nearly 3% of the ballots were turned in blank, while another 2.5% were null ballots, be it through mistaken voting or as a sign of protest against the options. That Ferreiro finished a distant third is unsurprising, but it should be remembered that he and Carrillo both still had support; indeed, the New York Times‘ Simon Romero tweeted a photo of a campaign poster yesterday that called both Cartes and Alegre “golpistas,” or coup-mongers, a reminder of the ongoing anger at the removal of Lugo last June. Such resentment over his removal, and the support Ferreiro and Carrillo received, reveals that some Paraguayans have not given up on the message of social reform and a more equal society.
Though Cartes was expected to win, the election is not without its own allegations of corruption; although over 300 international observers monitored the elections, some reports said people were selling their votes for as little as 12.50 dollars (though in other areas it was apparently going for 25 dollars), a reminder not just of political chicanery but of the very real economic inequalities and troubles that lead people to sell votes just to find some extra income. To what degree such practices took place is unclear; what is clear is that, barring any massive scandals, institutional coups, or medical emergencies, Cartes is set to be President for the next five years.
However, the prospects for Paraguayan citizens going forward are bleak. As an individual, Cartes, who had not even voted in an election prior to 2009, represents the wealthy, landed elite of Paraguay, and as a member of the Colorado Party, he represents a return to the conservative and corrupt practices that defined Paraguayan politics for the latter half of the twentieth century during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (with whom the Colorado Party was a willing accomplice) and into the twenty-first century. Though Cartes insists he will change Paraguay’s path, such a claim seems unlikely, as he has been repeatedly connected to smuggling and fraud as well as having ties to organized crime. (And it’s not like the Liberal Party that ultimately abandoned Lugo last year would have marked a significant alternative in this regard, given its recent scandal involving land and the use of government money for political alliances). Given Cartes’ victory and his background and the Liberal Party’s status as runner-up, it seems unlikely that Paraguay will see a sudden shift towards transparency or more egalitarian politics in the executive or the legislative branches.
The problems are not limited to political corruption, either. The victory of Cartes, a landed and wealthy oligarch, means Paraguay is unlikely to see any substantial socioeconomic reforms. Indeed, the outcome of yesterday’s election suggests that inequalities and unequal development will most likely continue to plague a country where, according to a CEPAL study, 56% of the population lived below the poverty line as late as 2009 and where less than two percent of the population controls over 77% of the land. And it is not as though Cartes is exactly open-minded on other social and cultural issues; the now current president-elect publicly compared homosexuals to monkeys and said he would “shoot [himself] in the testicles” if he had a gay son who wanted to marry another man.
There are other very real issues also confronting Paraguay, beyond economic inequalities and social bigotry. Perhaps most visibly, there’s the issue of Paraguay’s poorly-monitored border with Brazil, where the drug trade is highly active; indeed, in addition to being the world’s second-largest marijuana producer, Paraguay’s border is also a key region for the transportation of cocaine and other drugs to Brazil and on to Europe. And regardless of what one thinks regarding the debate of the legality/illegality of marijuana, the production and transportation in Paraguay’s border region is a major social and environmental issue. The production of marijuana transforms and shapes the environment of the Paraguayan forests and lands. And the power of organized crime shapes society at the local level in this borderland, complicating the state’s role in the region even while providing a means to rapid (if illegal) acquisition of wealth for those impoverished Paraguayans looking to improve their standards of living. Thus, the drug trade and drug production constitute their own very real social issues, and what, if anything, Cartes does about these issues will be worth watching.
Beyond the domestic outcome, the completion of an election may help Paraguay diplomatically. Greg Weeks argues that Honduras may be a model for reacceptance that could apply to Paraguay. Of course, Honduras was a regional pariah after the 2009 coup of Manuel Zelaya; yet once the country held elections to elect a new president, other countries in the region eventually renewed diplomatic and economic relations with it. That could be good news for Paraguay, a pariah as well since last year, most notably through its suspension from Mercosur. However, the issue of Cartes’ alleged ties to possible drug lords could complicate matters as Paraguay seeks re-integration into regional trade networks. Certainly, neighboring countries have yet to directly indicate whether they are willing to once again accept Paraguay, and Cartes’ social stances and dubious background could be a hindrance. Nonetheless, based on recent historical events in Honduras (and at least one cryptic tweet from Argentine president Cristina Kirchner), it seems more likely that the region will eventually move on and Paraguay will become reincorporated more directly. And even if South America is slow to respond, Paraguay can count on one country for aid: the US. Paraguay is the only country in Latin America to see an increase in bilateral aid from the US even while the US slashes aid to other countries in the region.
That said, what happens to Paraguay internationally is a geopolitical question with no clear answer yet. From a domestic standpoint, however, it is hard to see how the election of Cartes will lead to a marked improvement in the daily lived experiences of most Paraguayans socially, economically, or politically.