In case you haven’t heard of it at all, thousands of paraguayan university students have led demonstrations for the past week demanding quality education and an end to corruption.
Claims of influence trafficking, nepotism, corruption and destruction of evidence and a whole network of accomplices have tainted the legacy of Chancellor Froilan Peralta. Froilan is now the former head of the National University of Asuncion UNA, thanks to the pressure created by the student movement. After a long, hollywood-esque stand-off between Froilan and the students he finally gave in, clearing the way for his Vicechancellor and at least two Heads of Schools (Economy and Engineering) to also resign. There is quite a tangible feeling of more resignations to come as documents evidencing corrupt practices continue to appear and pressure continues from the student movement.
These corrupt practices seemed up until a normalized component of everyday life in paraguayan society. It is, in and of itself, a sample of a much larger legacy from the not-so-distant military dictatorship; Stroessner’s dictatorship imposed inflexible, verticalist and authoritarian institutional models within which corruption run rampant.
This authoritarian and corrupt model is one that the UNA and many other public institutions strive to maintain after more than 25 years of democracy. To challenge the structure of the UNA is to alter the very fabric of Paraguay’s politics.
In order to better understand how this movement came to be, I recommend you go over this comprehensive piece by Eliana Ugarte which summarizes the events that led to the rise of the movement. Furthermore this article by local newspaper La Nacion would be a good addition to the information provided by Ms. Ugarte. While some of the comments suggested it needed a bit of polishing — and it could certainly use a tweak or two both in style and content, — I find it plenty good as a starting point.
I also recommend you to complete your quick introduction (?) to the topic by reading these pieces by France 24 and The Argentina Independent, which are more focused on the first days of the demonstrations but still contain valuable information (such as the specific demands of the movement). I also found this Op-Ed piece by Peter Tase which contains a narrative of the events in chronogical order. There is also a piece published by Celina Recalde on a WordPress blog, but this one is a rather brief read. Last but not least, I would also recommend all of you take a look at this outstanding timeline created by the @PYnotecalles Digital Team, which is only available in Spanish for now.
There is an expression in guarani — an indigenous language spoken by over tree quarters of paraguayan population — that can accurately describe my feelings in the wake of last week’s events: chemopirî. This translates roughly as “goosebumps” but is much, so much more than that; it is a feeling so intense that your skin oozes with excitement.
It is pure joy. It is hope.
The reason for this feeling is that the paraguayan university students’ movement has organized itself to stand up for their rights and in doing so, it has shaken and continues to shake the old, corrupted structure of the UNA from its foundations, imprinting itself in Paraguayan history. The students are movilizing by the thousands and have garnered an unprecedent amount of support social media with the hashtags #UNAnotecalles and #PYnotecalles, which stand for “UNA, don’t be quiet” and “Paraguay, don’t be quiet”
The students have turned public higher education upside down all the while maintaining an exemplary behavior. Students have assigned themselves a myriad of roles that go from patroling to cooking, cleaning, and handling donations, among others. They have peacefully taken over the university grounds, keeping organized at all times and rotating permanent patrols to make sure all evidence is safe — which is particularly important when considering that there have been a number of succesful attempts to steal, burn or even eat (yes, eat) documents that could be used as evidence in the investigations.
Isn’t it a pleasant irony that the students are the ones teaching us a lesson? They are giving us a lecture on the true power of organized protest. They are proof that the paraguayan spirit has not remained inmune to a global trend of social protests. They demonstrate that we are capable of change! Talk about subverting traditional pedagogical and political roles.
As paraguayan, I am profoundly impressed by this movement because it means that we are finally overcoming our fears. What a great victory, the one in which we are no longer afraid of the shadows from the past! The grandparents and parents of these students are the ones who suffered forced disappearence and torture under the Operation Condor. Their parents and even some of their older siblings are the ones who witnessed and died during the Marzo Paraguayo in 1999. The reality of State terrorism is seemingly distant, yet incredibly close to these students.
This youth is the child of a still fragile democracy; an idealistic summer child who dreams of true change and defiantly dares to make it a reality.
This is the youth to whom Pope Francis appealed during his visit last July, when he called all to “make lío, but an organized one” — an expression that denotes Bergoglio’s native language, as the word lío is a difficult one to translate. The closest thing would be to say “go get in trouble” or “go make a mess,” which effectively reads as the Pope calling the young generations to take action. Needless to say, in a country of over 90% Catholics and over 75% of people younger than 40, it should not come as a surprise that such an appeal was taken very seriously.
While it is true that the university students are turning the corrupted practices of the national university inside out through peaceful means, this does not mean in any way that the demonstrations are passive. The indignation is real; their chants are euphoric, their passion is palpable. In their frustration they reflect the plight of the paraguayan people, who has lived for so long opressed under the weight of a very recent past of violent repressions and an unshakeable of powerlessness.
The students are tired of corruption, tired of inequality, tired of the lack of opportunities and tired of being denied a better future — and they are actively taking action to change their reality.
It is fundamental to recognize their unwavering determination. These students are determined to cleanse the university, and they will remain organized for as long as it takes to intervene all structures within the UNA. They will keep the vigil for as long as it takes to gather all evidence. They will continue to patrol in order to protect all documentation. They will be very observant and will participat in the penal processes that have been opened, so as to ensure transparency and imparciality.
Moreover, the students are fully aware that one or two resignations are not the ultimate goal but rather the beginning of a new era of accountability from the State of Paraguay to its citizens.
The UNA has been the first, but everybody agrees it should not be the last institution to be put under the scrutiny of the #UNAnotecalles movement; the Paraguayan September is just the start. As a viral flier reads, for the movement to truly attain their goal of a better Paraguay, it would need to adress corruption at each of the following institutions: the UNA, which is already marked down; the Social Security offices; the Ministry of Public Works and Communications; the Ministry of Health; the Ministry of Education; and finally, the Senate.
La UNA no se calló: the UNA did not remain quiet.
Neither will Paraguay.