June 25, 2020
by Julien Demelenne, doctoral student in Political Science at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (CESPRA).
Aside from this blog, the world isn't talking much about the situation in Paraguay.
Not because it doesn't deserve it, for it has been one of the countries in the region that has handled the health crisis the best, but, among other things and paraphrasing Augusto Roa Bastos, for being an "island surrounded by lands". Literally a Mediterranean country, with few exchanges with the rest of the world, its situation has become advantageous during the pandemic, and this despite the lowest investment in health and a significant border with Brazil, one of the countries the most hit by the health crisis. What has always been dubbed as latecomer (Paraguay's late involvement in globalization) has become one of its main allies in the fight against the pandemic.
Paraguay's silent absence in the media, economic and academic mapping is one of the structural reasons that explains the slow spread of the Covid-19 epidemic on its territory. To this day, there are only 1 296 confirmed cases for 7 millions inhabitants and only 12 deaths and 9 current hospitalizations. Of course, other structural elements are also part of the success in containing the pandemic: a large rural population (+ 40%) and a fairly dispersed urbanization process centered around gardens in which large appartment buildings are rather recent. The social network is family centered, often situated in some well defined territorial communities.
If these structural elements are taken into account in understanding the situation, it's also the case for political decisions. Paraguay's government was the first one in the South American region to stop social activities and order border closings. After only three cases coming from other countries, it declared a strict quarantine, with military and police controls, all measures strongly approved by the population. Presented as the "Ship's captain", the Minister of Health Julio Mazzoleni went from being a discreet minister to the government's most popular personality. These last few months, his tweets, in which he announced in a concise and direct manner the number of new cases, were the most followed. Good results followed, and so intensive care beds, previously believed would become snowed under, were emptying out because of a decrease in motor vehicle accidents.
On top of the minister's successful management, there was political support from President Marion Abdo Benítez who, with his slogan "you can always save the economy, but not human life" , was able to resist the pressure coming from the economic sector. Without a doubt, the pandemic has allowed us to understand how important political decisions, taken early, can slow down its spread. The health policies came with an economic recovery plan, centered around a set of loans for small, medium and large businesses via the Banco Nacional de Fomento; and a social aid program, "Pytyvõ", for the disadvantaged sectors. So far, the secured debt to cope with the pandemic is around 2.4 billion dollars.
Ironically, the economic response to the virus gives the government and the party in power an opportunity to push even further its conservative agenda by using the pressure coming from the citizens. The president, coming from a campaign where no government employee "could make more money than the president" (+/- $5000) had wanted to start cleaning up governmental benefits and unnecessary expenses. For several weeks, it seemed like all of the issues in Paraguayan politics could be fixed, using the threat of a virus that could arise at any moment as an antidote. In a country where the tax revenue is less than 10%, some sectors wanted to use the opportunity to begin the debate on the need for a tax reform, needed to finance social policies, but they were blocked by the conservative alliance between the political power and the economic power. This last one continues to be one of the main supporters of the Colorado parti governance. It has maintained power (except for a brief period between 2008-2013) since the 1947 coup that made for the longest dictatureship in the region (Alfredo Stroessner's from 1954 to 1989).
FAILURE OF THE CORRUPTION EPIDEMIC
Paraguay successfully showed how it could control a global pandemic while proving its inability to control one of the most deeply rooted local epidemics: corruption. Several public institutions were condemned for profiting from the pandemic to enrich the political leaders' families, close friends of the president. The Minister of Health didn't escape unscathed either. So, two of his suppliers sold him outpriced Chinese products that did not meet the technical requirements, provoking a strong indignation on social media and forcing the government to create an oversight committee for calls for bids, presided by the minister in charge of anti-drug policies, a former anti-corruption prosecutor, Arnaldo Guzzio.
This deeply rooted corruption within the departments is threatening the stability of the government. The president Mario Abdo's popularity increased during the health crisis, but he must have realized that the work done came at a high cost because it involved confronting his entourage and the favoritism that enabled him to get to the top. "Marito", as he is called by the population, has to juggle between the citizens' indignation, who no longer want to accept corruption and a political class who is unwilling to give up a well established system of favoritism. It's all the more complicated by the fact that Abdo, son of the personal aide to the dictator Stroessner, cannot appear to be a political outsider.
THE COST OF SUCCESS: THE SACRIFICES OF THE MIGRANTS
The type of health control that was put in place is based on the closing of borders and the set-up of housing units (managed essentially by the army) to welcome Paraguayan migrants coming back from foreign countries. The hospitals are empty, but these units are jam-packed and are infectious clusters. Out of the 1 296 coronavirus positive cases identified as of today, close to 900 have been identified, mainly among those coming back from Brazil. Human rights groups condemned the vulnerable situation of these migrants who must camp 5 to 6 days on the Friendship Bridge (that connects Brazil and Paraguay) without being able to enter national territory, in unsanitary conditions. Doubts arise as to the origin of the spread: is it really people who were infected in the foreign country or rather during their long odyssey home?
Yet again, the "well-being" of the country rests on these neglected sectors of the population, who left their country because of lack of work and who have to come back because they lost the job. It's at the border that we can observe the most difficult sights of this pandemic. The solidarity that comes from suffering from the same situation colored by distrust of a virus that could be carried by any one of them. Paraguayan teenagers, coming from Brazil, victims of sexual trafficking, were abandonned on the bridge by their kidnappers that didn't know what to do with them because of lack of clients. Others, unable to suffer the wait, tried to secretly cross the river with a small boat. Having capsized, a 49 year old man who had just lost his job in Argentina drowned without being able to go back to his native town. These stories are told bit by bit and are often kept quiet. They reflect the sacrifice of a minority of emigrant workers, sacrificed in the name of homeland security.
TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION
Sometimes Paraguayan reality seems to be stranger than the stories that have come from the pens of Latin-American magical realism writers. A few days before the start of the quarantine, a senator of a pro-life mouvement, back from an evangelical meeting in Peru and defying the health measures, participated in a Senate session, exposing the whole Paraguayan political leaders to the virus. She believed that her faith and her status as a legislator protected her from sickness. She wound up testing positive to Covid 19 and it was discovered that she financed her religious trip with Senate money. She tried to defend herself by questionning the results of the Ministry of Health, carrying out herself a false test. It is rather ironique to see a "defender of life" putting a whole Paraguayan political group in danger...
Because of this, the Congress building had to be closed and since, the senators continue their sessions via Zoom. Several days later, not far from the capital, the central department governor was arrested and accused after being caught having a karaoke lunch with his collaborators. According to the governor, it was only a meeting that ended with a simple "peña" for the birthday of one of his advisors. Politicians are not the only protagonists in these stories. In several areas of the country, weddings were followed by legal procedures, after a guest was unable to resist the temptation of publishing the event on social media, in so doing displaying the breaches to the quarantine. One small town went so far as to organize a beauty contest: the choice of Miss Curuguaty ended with an indictment for the mayor's wife, a prosecutor and 13 other people. Social media has become a public courthouse in which citizens are shocked and demand, using images as proof, legal action.
These last few days, the end of the quarantine is slowly being felt, with the start of phase 3 of reopening. After several months of closure, the public markets reopened with new health measures. As can be seen in the pictures, the population used its creativity to respect the strict health measures imposed by the government. In large companies, the sanitary measures are posted in Spanish at the entrance of the store. In order to respect the spontaneous bilingualism of the country, the security agents have to repeat the instructions in Guaraní, so everyone is informed. As in other countries, and perhaps with less resources, Paraguay was not ready for this pandemic. With a lot of creativity, solidarity, errors and sacrifices, the country showed the complexity of managing this health crisis. With its lights and shadows, it has become a safer country than other "more developped" countries to stay in during the global pandemic.
 "La economía siempre se puede recuperar, pero la vida humana no".
Julien Demelenne is a doctoral student affiliated with the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques Raymond Aron (CESPRA), at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), a Carlos Antonio López (BECAL) scholarship student, with a degree from the Université Fédérale de l’intégration latino-américaine (UNILA), Brazil.