Paraguay, this island surrounded by land and far from the mundane noise that we hear little about, shows signs of having had enough. In the streets and on the networks, the simple and forceful expression of rejection “let them go” is repeated. As the second or third wave – we’ve lost count – of the pandemic hits this small country that seemed to be managing the health crisis reasonably, people are faced with a lack of drugs, equipment to treat patients and to a scandalous delay in vaccines for the population. The indignation turned into demonstrations under the label of “hartazgo” (fed up).
The Paraguayans had accepted the sacrifices demanded during the first wave. They respected the restrictions and the quarantine and, in return, lost their jobs or their income. They organized housework to give time and space to virtual or distance lessons, with digital connectivity that highlighted the gaps between rich and poor. In the meantime, the government obtained a loan to prepare the health infrastructure for the resumption of activities. This has been accompanied by subsidies and transfers, deferred debt payments and other measures to mitigate the effects. In poorer neighborhoods, however, walls were scratched and lines formed outside popular food distribution kitchens.
However, as the months went by, cases of corruption started to surface. Overpriced beds and masks, manipulated offers, missing drugs that later appeared on the private market. Cases directly linked to the health crisis, but also linked to unnecessary expenses, such as a luxuriously decorated and expensive pedestrian bridge. Paraguay, which had surprised by its behavior in the face of the pandemic, has again become Paraguay of disillusion and mischief and has ended up arousing the suspicion of the population, despite the good intentions of the government.
A weakened president
This time, the outrage is directed against an extremely weakened president. Mario Abdo Benitez was already on the verge of indictment in 2019 for a bad negotiation with Brazil on the clauses of the agreements on the binational dam Itaipu. But faced with this multidimensional crisis, the president does not seem to understand the complexity of the challenges and takes refuge in absurd protocols, cutting ribbons and inaugurating events. A president subjected to ill-conceived scenarios.
This weakness accentuated its dependence on the unity of the ruling party – Partido Colorado – to bypass impeachment attempts in parliament. The Colorado party has a majority in Congress to curb such attempts, but that depends on the support of former President Horacio Cartes’s faction and whether it does not embrace the demand for political judgment. On the other hand, as the president weakens, his ability to summon “the best and the brightest” to take key cabinet positions in order to maintain a strong government diminishes.
The opposition’s attempt to impeach is a reaction to the devastating and inaccurate slogan “let them quit”. However, the communication vessels between the leaders of the indignant political parties and the opposition are inconsistent. It is not clear whether this “they are leaving” includes the entire political class or only the party in power. Anger is everywhere and against the “political class”. Therefore, a political judgment would only remove pieces of the line of succession and require new elections to end up electing new members of a rejected political class. This contradictory situation is a consequence of the scenario created by the outrage itself. It remains to be seen how this evolves.
A new generation
The rejection of corruption and inefficiency is, of course, more than legitimate, but what is curious is that the voices of indignation express the surprise of the facts. This is probably an indication that a new generation is speaking. A generation that realizes a reality that has eroded the foundations of the state and society for decades and that advances in the fight against corruption and the demand for efficiency to seek structural reforms that transform the country .
To give a few examples, in 2019 just over a quarter of the population had health insurance and 71.3% of Paraguayans used a public health system with huge gaps. The low average number of years of schooling of the population goes hand in hand with the low quality of education, which translates into poor results in terms of learning outcomes. Paraguay’s social spending per capita was $ 422 in 2017, well below that of its neighbors ($ 2,160 in Chile, $ 1,900 in Uruguay, $ 1,300 in Argentina, $ 1,300 in Brazil). Health spending is well below the WHO-PAHO recommendation, and the IMF has pointed out that the tax system is one of the most regressive in the region.
In other words, there are deep and systemic elements linked to a development model that prioritizes a less inclusive political economy and that goes hand in hand with corruption and inefficiency. This factor has not yet had a strong impact within the indignant movement, but it will probably do so when they find political articulation, with public policy proposals.
Time will tell if the voice of outrage can be unveiled to underscore the desired change. It is hoped that the protests will mark a new turning point with the ability to shift the plates of the country’s political culture. But for now, that’s only a hope.
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