Rain or shine, every Thursday in Asunción, Paraguay, activists gather to protest the right-wing government of Federico Franco which came to power in a June 22 parliamentary coup against left-leaning president Fernando Lugo. These weekly protests represent a new spirit and strategy of protest in post-coup Paraguay.
The coup gave birth to new corporate agreements, repression of citizens’ rights and crackdowns on press freedoms. It also unwittingly created a new panorama of leftist social struggles and movements.
These movements for democracy have risen up against the coup government and the renewed state and corporate assaults on human rights, the environment and small farmers. Some activists are protesting politically-motivated layoffs, while others are demanding a new constitution. Beyond questioning the Franco government, these movements are putting forth a progressive agenda in the debate about what kind of country Paraguayans want, regardless of who is in power.
“What we are seeing are self-organized protests that are organized collectively,” Gabriela Schvartzman Muñoz, the spokeswoman for Movimiento Kuña Pyrenda, a socialist and feminist political movement which organizes the Thursday protests in the capital, explained in a phone interview from Asunción.
This more collectively-organized form of mobilization is a relatively new phenomenon in Paraguayan social movements, and has marked the new protests for democracy in the country.
“Before it was the president of the union that organized people for a strike, or a campesino [small farmer] leader marching ahead of a mobilization. Now we don’t see this kind of traditional leadership,” Muñoz explained. “Behind these citizens’ marches, there is no political leader, there is no leader of an organization; these are more spontaneous mobilizations.” Such protests involve “the participation of people who were invisible before, and are now protagonists.”
The resistance to the coup is dispersed around the country and typically involves small urban protests (largely in Asunción) that have utilized colorful marches, art, theater, music, and poetry as expressions of resistance. Notably, youth have led much of the organizing in this movement, and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter have played a key role in bringing people together against the coup government.
“This [urban movement] represents a fresh breeze within the weak and demobilized social sector,” Paraguayan human rights lawyer Orlando Castillo explained to me in an interview. “Paraguay is now in a very interesting period, where a new range of possibilities could strengthen social processes.”
Outside the nation’s landlocked borders, the waves of Paraguayan migrants whose numbers have skyrocketed in the last eight years are also mobilizing against Franco’s coup. Castillo said, “These people have organized to make the resistance global. Outside of the country, this is the international face against the coup.”
A Fight for Sovereignty
Nationally, the Franco government has not improved the outlook for much of the impoverished country’s working class. “The social situation has basically remained the same [since the coup]: poverty and extreme poverty affect nearly 57% of the population,” Raúl Zacarías Fernández, a sociologist and Director of the Department of Social Sciences at the Universidad Católica de Paraguay said in Revista Debate. According to the sociologist, those in the landless movement fighting for their own land “are reorganizing and preparing for occupations.”
Meanwhile, Franco has not met with a single social, urban or campesino organization since taking office. Instead, according to his official agenda, he has focused on meetings with business leaders. In the short time that he has been in office, Franco has fast-tracked controversial deals with Monsanto and the Montreal-based Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) mining company, deals which critics charge will threaten human and environmental rights, and the economic sovereignty of the nation. These moves have motivated numerous protests and debates around the country.
Speaking of the deal with RTA and Monsanto, Paraguayan economist Luis Rojas told IPS News that “It’s worrisome that a government that was not elected by popular vote is bringing in these foreign investments without any kind of control.” In the case of deals with both companies, Franco is moving ahead without studies that are typically required for such agreements.
On July 30th, the “No to Rio Tinto Alcan’s Coup” campaign was launched by ex-president Lugo, and Ricardo Canese, an engineer and leader of the Guasu Front social organization. They are seeking to prevent the company from arriving in the country, and are working on gathering 100,000 signatures against the RTA deal, which they said paved the way for the coup.
In response to the deal the Franco government recently struck with Monsanto supporting genetically-altered cotton seeds, campesino leader Jorge Galeano told the AP that the use of this seed “goes against the economy of small farmers” and will utilize agro-chemicals that only benefit large-scale production. “This is a commercial condition that violates the concept of our fight for Paraguay’s agricultural sovereignty,” Galeano said.
A number of protests and strikes have also been organized by workers and unions to denounce the Franco government’s politically-motivated firing of state employees in a wide range of agencies, ministries, hydroelectric plants and public media outlets. The workers say they are being dismissed for their support for Lugo, or their leftist political beliefs. The fact that this purging of public employees is being committed by an administration that was not democratically-elected has further incensed workers and their supporters.
Out of the Dictator’s Shadow
Much of these recent political and social changes can be traced to the shadow of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), which still hangs over the nation. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1989, many of the same politicians from the regime simply re-entered politics with new roles, Castillo said. “While the dictatorship left, the system of power remained intact.” And this power structure – feudal, repressive, elitist and conservative – continues to define Paraguayan politics today.
“What the coup has succeeded in doing is basically re-positioning the political actors, unmasking them, allowing rural and urban citizens to be able to distinguish between those who propose to change the status quo and those who want to maintain it,” Castillo explained.
Such renewed political awareness has manifested itself in various ways. According to Muñoz, the coup proved that the 1992 constitution was worthless, as it was manipulated by politicians who used it to conduct an illegitimate parliamentary coup. “And so the people say ‘No!’ We have to begin to plant another model of democracy, another model of society, and people are already talking about organizing a national constitutional assembly where we can discuss these issues.”
She said the country’s current crisis would not be solved with the presidential elections scheduled for April of 2013. The solution, according to Muñoz, would emerge when citizens can sit down to discuss their future in a constitutional assembly. “There is an urgent need now,” she said, “to develop stronger mechanisms which guarantee that the rights of the citizens are not violated… We are moving toward this, we’re discussing a new paradigm.”
Benjamin Dangl is a journalist focusing on Latin America and author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America(AK Press) and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com