Paraguay: In the Midst of a Political Crisis, Social Unrest, and a Health Catastrophe

Paraguay has woken up. Thousands of its citizens, most of them young, have taken to the streets of the capital Asunción for six consecutive days with a common demand: President Mario Abdo and his cabinet must resign. “may they all go,” reads one graffiti on a wall in front of the headquarters of the conservative ruling Colorado Party. The pandemic revealed the cracks in the Paraguayan political system and its leaders are now at a breaking point.

The people are tired of the mismanagement of the health crisis, the lack of medicines to assist the ill, the slow vaccination distribution process, and the systematic corruption scandals that surround the establishment. “Resign Marito,” “Thieves to jail,” “Elections now,” insisted a chorus of thousands of students, workers, and health professionals gathered in front of the Congress headquarters.

Tensions reached their highest point on March 5, as police forces cracked down on demonstrators by firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at them. At least 20 people were injured amid the clashes.

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“I have had to govern in an unprecedented context, amid a pandemic. We all make mistakes,” Abdo said on Tuesday, the same day that health authorities reported a historic peak in COVID-19 cases and declared a national red alert.

On March 10, Paraguay registered 2,125 new infections and 324 people hospitalized in intensive care units (ICU), the highest numbers recorded since the start of the pandemic in the country exactly one year ago. It is also well known that Paraguay has one of Latin America’s lowest percentage of vaccinated people.

“It was a national disgrace that the arrival of 4,500 doses of Russian Sputnik V vaccine was announced as an achievement. The memes did not stop,” Paraguayan journalist Esteban Caballero reported saying that the number of vaccines was enough to immunize only 2,000 people.

After the social outbreak, Abdo quickly changed three ministers, including Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni, to “contribute to dialogue and social peace.” However, the demonstrators were not satisfied with the readjustments considering them insufficient.

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The protests are a reflection of a “deep dissatisfaction with the scourges that have been corroding the political system for years: corruption and inefficiency. Although demonstrators don’t have a clear ideological framework, they are urging the administration to fulfill its duty and asking for a total change of leadership,” Caballero added.

The people are also demanding the president to be accountable for the use of a $1.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The loan was to be used to generate resources for the pandemic. However, it never reached its destination. Demonstrators also urged him to clear up corruption scandals related to the overpricing of hospital supplies.

La Izquierda Diario described Abdo as a clone of Brazil’s extreme right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. The Paraguayan leader downplayed the pandemic’s impact while failing to invest in PCR testing and in his country´s health infrastructure. Moreover, he did not secure enough vaccine purchases, and now these are already in short supply in part due to hoarding by more powerful countries.

Drug shortages now force COVID-19 patients and their families to purchase medicines in the informal market at exorbitant prices.

According to official data, the public health system has only 304 intensive care unit (ICU) beds available. In private hospitals, there are another 202 ICU beds, but they cost $5,000 per day for patients without health insurance.

Other statistics are also troubling. Paraguay, which has over 7 million inhabitants, “is the country with the lowest social spending in Latin America, after Guatemala and the Dominican Republic,” according to analyst Fatima Rodriguez.

The pandemic has also aggravated hunger and unemployment in the country. “Last year, the government canceled economic aid to the people in the days of greatest uncertainty,” Rodriguez added.

Experts agree Abdo was a weak and highly criticized president long before the recent corruption allegations and political and social crisis. The leader, who is the son of the former private secretary of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), proposed paying tribute to his father when he died back in 2006. Political scientist Constantin Groll noted that the idea provoked anger in the country, which has not forgotten the human rights violations, tortures, and persecutions committed during the regime.

“The problems that are now being criticized in Paraguay already existed before the pandemic. The Abdo Administration did not offer remedy to the major deficiencies in the country’s healthcare system and his erratic behavior now has consequences. Everything points to the fact that Abdo, whose government is due to end in 2023, does not have much time left in power,” Groll commented.

 

 

Featured image: File photo

(Resumen Latinoamericano) by Alejandra Garcia

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