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Paraguay: An unequal land

Country Profile

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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On a sultry late-summer evening in Asunción, Paraguay’s sleepy capital, a band plays a slow waltz on a stage carpeted in crimson. Behind them hangs a series of photographs, headshots of people murdered by the secret police during the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. In front, beyond a row of bathtubs – the regime’s most infamous torture device – couples dance solemnly.

Among the dancers is Asunción’s newly elected Mayor, an opposition-party politician who supports the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. His presence suggests Paraguayan democracy has come a long way since Stroessner was deposed in 1989, ending 35 years of terror.

Paraguay: smallholders forced off their land who have taken refuge in makeshift roadside huts
Smallholders forced off their land who have taken refuge in makeshift roadside huts. Photo: imageBroker / Alamy Stock Photos

Foreign investors share the positive assessment: the World Bank talks about Paraguay’s ‘extraordinary growth’, while Bloomberg says the country is ‘having its moment’ under President Horatio Cartes of the establishment Colorado Party, elected in 2013.

But Paraguay remains among Latin America’s poorest and most unequal countries. Social tensions erupted in April 2017, when protesters set the country’s Congress ablaze. The spark was Cartes’s push for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stand for re-election. But deeper resentments also fanned the flames.

Paraguay: giant otters on the Paraguay River
Giant otters on the Paraguay River. Photo: Barry Chapman / Alamy Stock Photos

Discontent cuts across the classes. At the National University of Asunción (UNA) students hold frequent strikes, protesting an endemic culture of corruption. Nearby, slums strung along the riverbank house 100,000 people; most summers, these slums flood, scattering residents across Asunción’s plazas and pavements.

Agricultural land is Paraguay’s main source of wealth: this nation of six million people is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soybeans and sixth-largest exporter of beef. Booms in both commodities are driving macroeconomic growth. But these industries are concentrated in very few hands. Measured by land distribution, Paraguay is the most unequal society in South America.

Paraguay: a Mbya-Guaraní woman in her herb garden.
A Mbya-Guaraní woman in her herb garden. Photo: Westend61GmbH / Alamy Stock Photos

Stroessner set the stage for this inequity, distributing 10 million hectares of public land among the military and political elite – the latter predominantly members of the Colorado Party. Agribusiness has since pushed up land prices at a dizzying rate. Under intense pressure, many small-scale farmers and indigenous communities have abandoned what little land they had left, moving to lives of extreme poverty in the city. Others have resisted, meeting a frequently violent response. Since 1990, 129 land activists have been assassinated.

Paraguay: a street scene on Calle Mallorquin in Encarnacion.
A street scene on Calle Mallorquin in Encarnación. Photo: Thomas Cockrem / Alamy Stock Photo

An emblematic clash took place during a land occupation near the town of Curuguaty in 2012. In circumstances that remain unclear, gunshots left 11 farmers and 6 police dead. The massacre prompted the impeachment of a left-leaning President, Fernando Lugo, elected on a platform of land reform. In a trial riddled with inconsistencies – four videos of the massacre vanished before proceedings began and the main defence witness was assassinated – 11 farmers were given jail sentences of up to 35 years. The UN’s human rights chief said he was ‘deeply troubled’ by the convictions.

Back in Asunción, the growing middle classes are winning some victories. Since student protests erupted in 2015, 200 UNA staff have been sacked and 42 imprisoned. And Cartes has backed down and will not stand for re-election in 2018.

the Panteón de los Héroes at dusk in the capital, Asunción
The Panteón de los Héroes at dusk in the capital, Asunción. Photo:  robertharding / Alamy Stock Photos

But in Paraguay’s agricultural heartlands, human rights groups document beatings, killings, death threats and torture. The dark days of dictatorship may seem distant to the Mayor and his fellow dancers in Asunción, but for the farming and indigenous communities fighting to defend their livelihoods, the memory feels a lot closer.

Fact file

Leader Horatio Cartes (since August 2013).
Economy GNI per capita $4,060 (Brazil $8,840, United States $56,810).
Monetary unit Guaraní.
Main exports Soybeans, beef, electricity, charcoal, wheat, leather. Paraguay is an export-orientated economy centred on agricultural commodities, particularly soybeans and beef, and hydropower. Commodity exports have produced a GDP boom, although low taxes and mechanized agribusiness have excluded many from the benefits. The Itaipu dam, owned 50:50 with Brazil, generates more power than any other hydroelectric plant in the world, though Paraguay sells most of its share to Brazil. Paraguay is also Latin America’s second-biggest marijuana producer, and production plays a key role in the rural economy along the Brazilian border.
People 6.7 million, with an annual growth rate of 1.8%. 36% of the population is under 18. People per square kilometre: 16.93.
Health Infant mortality rate: 17 per 1,000 live births (Brazil 14, US 6), down from 37 in 1990. HIV prevalence: 0.2%. Lifetime risk of maternal death: 1 in 270.
Environment Deforestation for agriculture is driving an environmental crisis in Paraguay’s western Chaco region, which is losing forest more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. This threatens many indigenous communities, including the last groups living in isolation anywhere in the Americas outside Amazonia. In 2017, President Cartes passed a decree weakening forest protections in the Chaco, before using it to authorize clearances on his own ranch.
Culture Mestizo people – of mixed European and indigenous descent – make up 95% of Paraguay’s population. The other 5% includes a diversity of indigenous ethnicities such as the Aché, Ayoreo and Guaraní, as well as German Mennonite communities.
Religion Freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution, but Catholicism remains a dominant cultural force, encompassing 90% of the population. Protestant 6%, other 4%.
Language After being suppressed under Stroessner, Guaraní is now an official language, alongside Spanish. 90% of the population speaks Guaraní, making Paraguay the only country in the Americas where the majority of the population speaks a single indigenous language.
Human Development Index 110 of 188, 0.693.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★★ The poorest 40% of Paraguayans still make only 12.5% of all income, while the richest 10% earn 37%. 20% live in extreme poverty, rising to 30% in rural areas. 1992 ★★
Literacy ★★★ The adult literacy rate (95.6%) is average for the region, but primary-school participation (89%) is among the lowest, especially in rural areas. 1992 ★★★
Life expectancy ★★★★ 73 years (Brazil 75, US 79). 1992 ★★★
Freedom ★★★ The constitution protects freedom of expression. But partiality and impunity plague judicial decision-making, particularly in relation to land conflict. Human rights groups have raised concerns about torture and extrajudicial execution in the north of the country, as well as the discriminatory suppression of protests by police. 1992 ★★★★
Position of women ★★ The constitution guarantees equality before the law and domestic violence legislation was passed in 2000. But women suffer from trafficking and a form of domestic servitude known as criadazgo. Abortion is illegal in nearly all cases. 1992 ★★
Sexual minorities ★★★ While homosexuality is legal, LGBT people have no protection against discrimination, and a 2017 law banned the discussion of sexual diversity in schools.
Previously reviewed March 1992
New Internationalist assessment ★★ Paraguay’s ruling Colorado Party has been in power for 60 of the past 64 years. Corruption remains rife. Cartes has promoted low taxes to attract foreign investment, at one point inviting Brazilian industrialists to ‘use and abuse’ Paraguay. Social programmes are poorly funded and 15% of children suffer from malnutrition. The next presidential elections will take place in April 2018, when the Colorados will be represented by Mario Abdo, the son of a private secretary to General Stroessner.

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