During the month of March, protesters in Paraguay have demanded that President Mario Abdo Benítez resign or be removed from office due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On March 17, legislators rejected a motion for impeachment of Benítez and Vice President Hugo Velázquez. A heavy police presence dispersed protesters gathered around Congress.
Protesters point to numerous corruption scandals, questionable implementation of emergency funds, and a severe lack of hospital beds, medical supplies, and vaccines as evidence of the government’s mismanagement. An explosion of cases of the coronavirus is overwhelming the country’s health system, leading to Paraguay’s most difficult moment of the pandemic to date.
Beyond the pandemic’s immediate health and social impacts, protesters are highlighting that the right-wing Colorado Party (ANR) has been in power almost uninterrupted for more than 70 years, including the 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. They say this continuous rule has resulted in deep inequalities, endemic corruption, and inefficient institutions.
Young people are playing an important role in the protests, indicating that the generation born after 1989, when Stroessner was overthrown, may have the capacity to create deep change in Paraguay and throw off the heavy weight that the dictatorship still exerts on many areas of society and politics.
From Pandemic Success Story to Protest Movements
In the first months of the worldwide health crisis the Paraguayan government was widely praised for taking strong containment measures that allowed the country to maintain some of the lowest levels of Covid-19 infection and deaths in Latin America. In May 2020, Abdo Benítez spoke before the World Health Organization of the successes in his country.
However, Paraguayans now express anger and frustration that $1.6 billion of emergency funds acquired by the government to finance crisis management has not led to satisfactory conditions in the extremely weak health system. Of $500 million allocated to the Ministry of Health, only $67 million has been spent on medicine and medical supplies. As of December 31, the Ministry of Health had still not defined how it would use $89 million of the funds.
Dr. Esperanza Martínez, opposition senator for the Frente Guasú party and former health minister, said that corruption and incompetence have plagued the roll-out of the funds.
“This undermined the government’s credibility and produced discontent in a population that had been in their homes for three or four months, hoping that these resources would be used to improve the health system,” said Martínez.
Abdo Benítez stoked public anger during a February visit to a hospital in the city of Villarrica. Reporters told him that a man had been publicly pleading for medicine for his dying brother. “I’m not a doctor here, I don’t know what supplies there are,” the president laughed in response.
The seven-day average for new cases rose from 1,113 at the start of March to 1,844 on March 20. As of March 20, there have been 190,000 cases and 3,662 deaths in Paraguay since the beginning of the pandemic.
“There was no medicine or supplies left. People started to go from hospital to hospital, to run solidarity campaigns and raffles, sell their possessions, take out loans, sell their car, their house, whatever they had,” said Martínez.
Cinthia Martínez, a teaching assistant, has taken her mother to hospital several times since the beginning of the pandemic. “It’s extremely sad and exasperating to be in a public hospital when your relative is receiving treatment,” she said. “They never have anything; saline solution is the only thing that they can consistently give you and not ask you to buy yourself.”
The government’s ineffective Covid-19 vaccination program has also come under fire. When protests began on March 5, only 4,000 doses had been secured.
Beyond the health system, huge sectors of the population have faced increased economic hardship during the pandemic. The 65 percent of the population that works in the informal economy was left with limited access to income during months of total lockdown and restrictions on movement. While state support programs were set up to provide support to vulnerable families, payments were low and infrequent, and many families fell further into poverty.
Many poor Paraguayans have survived by relying on community-run soup kitchens, ollas populares, that the state only moved to assist with funding in August following a long struggle from community members and social organizations.
“People aren’t going to forget what has happened during the pandemic. The government took out enormous loans and used that money in a mean-spirited way," said Vivi Valdez, a journalist who has closely covered the protests. “Why did they have to treat people like that? Why didn’t they do it in a kinder way?”
Valdez said that the Paraguayan middle classes have also endured an enormous economic impact, sparking anger in a sector of the population that usually does not engage in protests.
On March 5, with public frustration mounting and a request from the Senate for his resignation, health minister Julio Mazzoleni resigned just hours before the demonstration.
The Third Paraguayan March
On the evening of March 5, thousands of people, many draped in Paraguayan flags and carrying placards, gathered outside the congress building in central Asunción.
The protest had been widely promoted over the preceding days on social media under #YoEstoyParaElMarzoParaguayo2021 (I’m in for the Paraguayan March 2021). This hashtag references important protests in Paraguayan history that have taken place in the month of March: the “Paraguayan March” in 1999 and the “Second Paraguayan March” in 2017.
Protesters built on demonstrations earlier that week by members of the Paraguayan Nurses Association. Medical staff denounced an extreme lack of medicine and equipment in hospitals and that ICU beds had reached capacity.
“That first night I felt enormous joy when we saw so many people on the street,” said Vivian Genes, General Secretary of the Paraguayan Association of Student Representatives. “We’d been saying for so long that the country was sitting quietly on its laurels while the government killed us and robbed us of our future without people taking to the streets on a large scale.”
While some public protests had been seen earlier in the pandemic, notably under the banner of #bastadecorrupcion (no more corruption), March 5 was the first large demonstration. The participation of different social classes in the protest pointed to a broad disapproval of Abdo Benítez’s administration in Paraguayan society.
“The presence of the middle class is notable,” said Esperanza Martínez, “It is the most conservative class and least supportive of the social situations when students and campesinos protest. Today, the make-up of these protests is heartening.”
However, the excitement of the first night of protest soon transformed into violence. Following provocations from a small number of those in the crowd, police opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas on protesters. Participants were forced to flee the scene. Eight protesters and 12 police officers were reported injured as street battles played out. A protester was also killed in circumstances reported as not directly related to the protest.
Genes said that during the protests she witnessed police using violence. “The riot police went in and began to kick the youths who were already on the floor and took them to the police station. I saw it all,” she said, “The force they’re using to repress the protesters is totally brutal.”
Arnaldo Giuzzio, Interior Minister, defended the police’s actions on March 5 on local news network Telefuturo: “It’s a shame that young people have gone too far and destroyed what was a civic celebration.”
The Inter American Commission on Human Rights had previously expressed concern at the police’s displays of force. The Senate has moved to request a report from the Executive and Ministry of the Interior on the use of rubber bullets.
This is not the first time that Abdo Benítez’s government has acted to repress protest during the pandemic. Anti-corruption protesters and people who protested the killing of two young girls by Paraguayan security forces were also prosecuted under Covid-19 health protocols. In the early days of the pandemic, the police used physical force and humiliating punishments against those found on the streets during the country’s strict lockdown.
In response to the first day of protest on March 5, Abdo Benítez replaced his cabinet’s ministers of education, women’s affairs, and civil affairs. “I believe in dialogue, not in confrontation, and I am committed to listening to everyone,” he said in his only public message since the beginning of the protests, which was a pre-recorded speech.
Many protesters rejected this early attempt at pacification, stating that demonstrations would continue until both Abdo Benítez and Vice President Hugo Velázquez leave office, either through resignation or impeachment, triggering new elections.
The administration has not set a strong precedent for living up to promises of change. Following the #bastadecorrupcion protests last year, sparked by perceptions of rampant corruption in pandemic management, the government promised to implement reforms. However, to date, this has had marginal results.
The government has taken steps to address issues in the health system since the protests began, spending on medicines and seeming to prioritize the procurement of vaccines. However, Valdez said that these purchases may well represent panic-induced, temporary measures by the Abdo Benitez administration.
Congress’s lower house rejected the motion to impeach both the President and Vice President. But many say that former President Horacio Cartes held the keys to the leaders’ fate.
Cartes, businessman and one of Paraguay’s richest people, who has been linked to smuggling and money laundering, is no longer an elected public representative. But he controls a large faction of legislators within the ruling Colorado Party. His Honor Colorado group, which has often been at loggerheads with Abdo Benítez’s Añetete faction of the same party, provided the votes in Congress that stopped impeachment moving forward.
Cartes has already acted to save Abdo Benítez once from impeachment. In 2019 the current president faced a political crisis over the revelation of a secret energy deal with Brazil over the Itaipú Dam, which is jointly owned by the two countries. Vice President Velázquez was also implicated in the scandal. As Abdo Benítez faced public outcry and impeachment loomed, Cartes and his faction said they would not support the process.
It is widely considered that Cartes used this opportunity in 2019 to strike a deal, which is the subject of much speculation, with Abdo Benítez that gave him much greater control of the country’s political institutions. He is now often cited as being the true holder of political power in Paraguay.
“Cartes doesn’t want to get rid of Mario Abdo and allow a popular government to take shape,” said Valdez, “He wants Mario Abdo to be his puppet and to do everything necessary to make sure that he, Cartes, is okay.”
With the route of impeachment blocked, Valdez fears the country is exposed to an escalating problem. This has been made evident by several furious demonstrations outside Cartes’s Asunción home and, subsequently, by the scenes that unfolded on March 17 after impeachment was rejected.
“What’s clear is that there is no constitutional path to relieve citizens’ anger and I think that is going to produce even more tension,” Valdez said.
No More Colorados
Vice President Velázquez has insisted that the majority of the population still supports the Abdo Benítez administration.
Nonetheless, many protesters have not just made their rejection of the current administration clear, they have also shown fierce opposition to the Colorado Party itself.
Except for the between 2008 and 2013, the Colorado Party has held power in Paraguay almost continually for over 70 years. During the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner there were widespread violations of human rights and a fierce persecution of political opposition as part of the U.S.-sponsored Operation Condor, which saw South American military dictatorships cooperate to repress dissent.
The ghosts of the dictatorship still hang over the country's economic, social, and political spheres. Abdo Benítez is the son of Stroessner’s private secretary. In its decades of rule, the Colorado Party has overseen the development of multiple chronic problems in Paraguay, which the pandemic has only intensified.
The country has some of the lowest spending on health per capita in Latin America according to the World Health Organization. Economist Verónica Serafini recommends doubling spending on health over the next five years—a $1 billion increase.
Even though Paraguay’s economy has grown rapidly in recent decades due to a commodities boom, it has the second-lowest level of tax collection in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Only 13.8 percent of Paraguay’s GDP is gathered as tax by the state, in comparison to an average of 22.8 percent for the region. Wealth is concentrated in a small sector of the population and kept far from the public services such as health and education that desperately need higher investment.
According to the World Bank, land ownership–the gateway to the country’s main industries of cattle ranching and soy growing–is the most unequal in the world.
Opposition actors have frequently accused the Colorados of corruption, appropriation of public resources, unfair electoral practices, and nepotism. Paraguay is ranked 137 out of 179 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
Many of the recent protests have taken place at the headquarters of the Colorado Party in Asunción. #ANRnuncamás (ANR never again) has trended frequently on Twitter. Paraguayans appear to not just be fed up with Abdo Benítez, but with the party that has dominated Paraguay’s political landscape for the best part of a century.
The political deals between Abdo Benítez and Cartes that have twice saved the current president from impeachment have produced a feeling that Paraguay has been taken hostage by the internal politics of the Colorado Party.
However, Esperanza Martínez, who herself was an anti-dictatorship activist during the Stroessner era, said that the high participation of youth in the protests was a sign that the times could be changing in Paraguay.
“I think that the new generations are key, those that didn’t live through the dictatorship years as my generation did.” she said. “The dictatorship was very efficient at, in a way, putting society to sleep and there is a culture of accepting the state of affairs as a type of normality in society–but this is evidently changing.”
Student leader Genes agreed, emphasizing that experience gained in student protests in recent years has been key.
“We young people have already got organized through our experiences last year,” she said, “Older people have gone through a period of dictatorship in which the fear of going out onto the street is still large. In contrast, today’s young people don’t want anything more to do with this administration.”
Need for Unification
Even though impeachment is no longer a possibility, the protests continue. Moving forward, Valdez stated that the demonstrators have taken firm steps to advance towards a clearer organizational structure and solidify the direction of the movement.
“Everyone is getting organized,” she said. “The task at hand is to see how to unify people.”
Now, sectors of the campesino movement–perhaps the most consistently vocal sector of Paraguayan society–have committed to joining the ongoing protests.
Regardless of the outcome of the current demonstrations, there is an evident widespread belief that the show of sustained mass resistance to the government has been an important step forward for Paraguayans.
“One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but it can be a sign that it is on the way and I think these protests give us hope. They are signs of summers to come in Paraguay,” said Martínez.
William Costa is a freelance journalist based in Asunción, Paraguay. He concentrates on human rights, environment, and politics. He is on Twitter at @will_j_costa.