By Gustavo Setrini, a Paraguayan political scientist and Assistant Professor of Food Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, Culture and Human Development and a Faculty Affiliate of the NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
University students are making history in Paraguay in what is being dubbed La Primavera Estudiantil (the Student Spring). Over the last weeks, they have mobilized one of the largest protest movements in the country’s history, demanding democratic reforms to the governance statutes of the National University of Asunción (UNA). Should they succeed, it will arguably mark the first time in the country’s modern history that major national reforms result from social movement pressure. The success that student protesters have had in mobilizing massive support and sympathy both reveals important changes in Paraguayan politics and has potential to transform it further still.
Over the last weeks, protests have attracted upward of 10,000 students and unified the university’s 12 schools in a strike and a campus sit-in that has paralyzed the university. Students have pledged to lift the strike only when university leaders accept four basic reforms to university governance: the elimination of the absolute majority currently held by professors in the university governing assembly that is composed of elected representatives of the professors, students, and alumni from each of the 12 faculties; term limits for elected university leadership positions; a ban on the “personal appointees” (“cargos de confianza”) of university leaders running for and occupying elected voting positions in the university governing bodies; and the creation of an independent electoral commission to regulate university elections.
In response to student mobilizations, the university assembly has called a meeting today to debate and vote on the proposed changes to the university statutes. On two earlier occasions in the last two months, the assembly met and voted down the students’ proposals, provoking further mobilization from the students.
A Year of Conflict at the National University of Asunción
The occupation and protests began in early August, when the university assembly refused to vote on the statute reforms proposed by working group of student and faculty leaders. This working group was appointed by university leadership to draft new statutes in order to end a similar wave of protests that erupted a year ago as student activists exposed a massive corruption scandal among the university’s top leadership. Students occupied university offices and recovered documentation showing that the university president, Froilan Peralta, had engaged in graft and nepotism, assigning multiple salaries to the family and friends of his former secretaries.
A series of bizarre scenes unfolded during the occupation. University administrators, disguised in bed sheets, attempted to enter the offices and steal documents; one secretary, apprehended and detained by students in a car at the campus gates began to eat the paper documents she had removed in order to eliminate their evidence. Public prosecutors investigated the scene and documented the evidence with great delays and only under the scrutiny and pressure of student protestors. A crisis of leadership ensued after Froilan was arrested and 12 other university administrators were charged with corruption, ending when new university leaders were chosen and agreed to hold ongoing negotiations with student leaders. In all, last years’ protests provoked the resignation of 74 administrative employees and 232 professors, deans, and vice deans and the indictment of 42 university officials.
Although provoked by outrage over corruption, the student protests have brought to light how the lack of accountability of university leaders and professors permits them to perpetrate broader political and personal abuses with impunity. Traditionally, university leaders have distributed lucrative salaries and positions among Colorado Party members and personal connections, using the threat of dismissal and marginalization to quiet politically dissenting voices. Faculty leaders recruit activists from among the students that are in danger of failing, offering to help them out with their grades if they become active in student government in support the faculties’ official positions and work to marginalize reformist and radical students.
Under these circumstances, politically privileged professors are free to abuse their power in the classroom. In addition to stealing resources that are budgeted to expand and improve academic programs, university leaders hire and protect unqualified and unmotivated researchers and instructors, that lack degrees, training, and experience in their subject matters, produce low and low quality research output, and do not show up for class. Explicit gender bias and sexual harassment are widespread in the classroom, and students have now raised accusations that a group of male professors in the medical school has systematically coerced sexual favors from their female students. Law school students have reported that professors have called them the day for final exams, demanding steep payments if students wish to receive a passing grade.
During last years’ occupation, students discovered that administrators had been keeping dossiers on dissident student leaders, collecting information about their social media posts and activities—a practice all too reminiscent of the extensive domestic intelligence apparatus that was used to quash political opposition and dissent through targeted harassment, arrests, torture, and forced disappearance during the country’s 40-year dictatorship. Two weeks ago, the public prosecutor offered arrest warrants for four student leaders, accusing them of “abducting” the members of the University Governing Assembly, after thousands of student protesters had surrounded the building where university leadership was meeting to discuss reforms to the university statutes. The charges were dismissed, but the tactic is a common one utilized by the prosecutors to intimidate social movement leaders and demobilize their followers.
University leaders also exercise Ideological censorship, particularly in the social science programs that are housed in the law school—an institution that is deeply tied to the authoritarian tradition of the Colorado Party. This is a direct legacy of the dictatorship, which did not permit political science to be taught as a discipline in Paraguay in order to limit the introduction of critical, dissident political thought. The university has offered majors in political science and sociology only since 2003, and the curriculum, faculty hiring decisions, and administration has remained subordinate to a law school that is unsympathetic to the development of critical social sciences. As a result, these disciplines, crucial not only for informed political debate, but for improved public administration remain severely underdeveloped in Paraguay.
The Broader Context of Resurgent Authoritarianism in Paraguay
The resurgent partisan and authoritarian control of the university and the massive student resistance are emblematic of rising tensions about Paraguay’s political future. The student strike is only one of a broader set of conflicts that have come on the heels of a decade of convulsive political change. In 2008, 60 years of one-party rule ended when former bishop, Fernando Lugo, came to power with a coalition of convenience composed of the Liberal Party—a traditional opposition party dominated by landed and oligarchic interests—with leftwing and progressive parties advocating the expansion of social rights and land reform. During this brief democratic opening, former representatives of civil society came to occupy the portions state and to use it to push forward a series of reforms, including a major expansion of public health services, limited civil service reforms, and the renegotiation of payments Paraguay receives from the Brazilian government for electricity generated at the Itaipu Binational Dam.
These changes began to loosen the grip of the Colorado Party on the state resources and executive power through which it had maintained its political monopoly. On the other hand, the Colorados and their oligarchic counterparts in the Liberal Party retained overwhelming control of the legislature, blocking avenues for legislative change and protecting it as a stronghold of corruption and clientelism. In 2012, just as the legislature had become the target of Paraguay’s first broad-based urban social protest movements, Colorado and Liberal-Party legislators took advantage of the fallout from a violent land conflict in the district of Curuguaty to impeach President Lugo in a two-day trial. Dubbed an ‘institutional coup’ by international observers, the overtly political motivations behind Lugo’s impeachment foreshadowed the politics of President Dilma Roussef’s recent impeachment in Brazil.
The impeachment shattered the coalition that had brought Lugo to power, breaking the nascent protest movement into partisan factions, discrediting the liberal party after a few brief months of usurping executive office, and paving the way for the Colorado Party to regain the Presidency in the 2013 elections. Since then, the direction of Paraguayan society and the character of the state has been in dispute. The Colorado Party is split between a traditional authoritarian faction that has remained strong in the legislature and a new neoliberal, croni-capitalist faction led by President Horacio Cartes, which has provided the Party with the financial resources necessary to regain power. Meanwhile, the opposition has remained divided between an electorally weak left and the ideologically conservative Liberal Party.
In this context, Paraguay has seen a late arrival of the kinds of neoliberal policy proposals that other Latin American countries experimented with in the 1990s, such as public-private partnerships, privatization, and international financial liberalization, while also continuing to rely primarily on an agro-export model of economic growth. While the economy has been among the most resilient in Latin America, it has done little to address deeply entrenched rural inequality or to stem the growth of new urban poverty and inequality. The political and economic dislocations of recent years have left Paraguayans materially insecure, acutely mistrusting and resentful of the political establishment, and in search of an outlet for their political discontent. This government has witnessed the first two general strikes in over fifteen years, staged by organized labor in opposition of public-private partnerships law, as well as continual mobilization in the countryside to resist the dispossession of campesino communities by agribusiness.
At the same time, Paraguay has witnessed a resurgence of the authoritarian practices by which the Colorado Party controlled civil society during the dictatorship. The criminalization of social protest, specifically the conviction, arrest, and imprisonment of peasant leaders figures prominently among these practices. The most explicit example was the recent conviction of 11 campesinos for crimes of homicide, criminal conspiracy, and trespassing in connection to the death of nine policemen at Curuguaty. During the yearlong trial, prosecutors provided no direct evidence to convict the accused campesinos of murder, but relied instead on rhetoric that equates peasant organizations with political subversiveness and terrorism to sentence the group of leaders to between five and ten years of prison. Furthermore, no investigation was ever carried out and no charges have been brought in connection with the shooting of 11 campesinos that also occured when a heavily armed contingent of 300 policemen evicted 60 campesino men, women, and children from land they were living on. Moreover, property titles clearly invalidate the charges of trespassing, because they show that the land in question belonged to the State, rather than Campos Morombí, the private ranching company claiming ownership. While the trail was a farcical miscarriage of justice, it sends a clear message that the state is willing to violate due process and employ the full force of its punitive power to protect landed and agribusiness interest from the resistance of organized peasants. Human rights and peasant organizations currently maintain a permanent vigil outside the Paraguayan Supreme Court calling for the annulment of the trial.
The Promise of the Student Movement
The struggle to democratize the UNA has been waged by successive generations of students. Taking up this legacy, the current student protests have already reached an unprecedented scale and achieved historic victories, serving also as a clear signal generational change and the potential for the renewal of political and social movement leadership. This generation of university students is the first that was born after the end of the dictatorship (1989) and the adoption of a democratic constitution (1991). They have grown up enjoying greater civil and political freedoms and greater access to information about the outside world than earlier generations. Student leaders have also come to political age at a time when, in contrast to Paraguay’s democratic regression, most of Latin America was in the midst of a political turn to the left, a resurgence of social movements, and an expansion of social rights. As their heightened expectations collide with persistent authoritarianism in the institutions that shape their lives, they have been more willing than any earlier generation to mount massive and sustained resistance.
They are followed by a generation of high school students that are bolder still. After a public school building collapsed in May of this year, students occupied a high school in the capital demanding that the minister of education resign to take responsibility for the disastrous state of public school infrastructure and inadequate levels of investment. Students joined them spontaneously across the entire country, occupying a total of 130 high schools for more than two weeks until they successfully forced the Minister of Education’s resignation. These students have gained an understanding early in their lives of their exclusion from the privileges enjoyed by a political elite, along with a sense of collective agency in demanding their rights to public goods from the state. As it becomes politically active, this generation has potential to usher in a new era in social movement politics in Paraguay.
Currently, students are tied together by their common frustrations of a mediocre university led by an entrenched and self-interested elite. Beyond that, however, students likely entered this movement with vastly different aspirations for themselves, disparate visions of the kind of university and society they’d like to see, and conflicting views of the political controversies roiling the country. But the scenes from the current mobilizations offer hope that it will serve as a formative experience for this generation and give rise to collective identities rooted in a new democratic ethos. In each faculty, students reached decisions about joining the strike and adopting negotiating positions at general assemblies through open debate and direct voting, permitting the mass of students to hold their own leaders accountable. In Paraguay, where authoritarian leadership is common even in progressive social movements, this experience offers students profound lessons about the efficacy and legitimacy of democratic organizing.
Over the last weeks, the campus has also served as a school of creative expression, organizing, communication, and the crafting of public narrative. While formal classes were suspended, students organized workshops on research methodology, lectures on the history of the student movement, art installations, poetry readings, sporting events, bon fires, and music concerts in the name of the reform. Their marches have brought thousands to the streets and roused the support of professors, parents, public media figures, and even private companies. Whether the students succeed in achieving their desired reforms at this juncture, they have already begun to craft a new, more hopeful public narrative about the possibilities for change in Paraguay, the urgent need for democracy, and the imperative for collective social action. The real promise of the student movement lies in the lasting ties of solidarity, the sense of collective political agency, and the practical experience with democratic mass movement organizing that it has generated. These are crucial assets for the future of social movement politics in Paraguay.