The political developments that have occurred in Paraguay since March 5th deserve the attention of all working class organizations in South America and the world. The outbreak of struggle across the country displays what is currently the highest level of resistance against capitalist governments’ criminal COVID-19 polices.
By Daniel Sugasti, translated to English by Carlos Jara
All of the problems that have outraged the people of Paraguay existed before the pandemic, and the people show no sign of giving up the streets following the first round of concessions from President Mario Abdo Benítez’s Colorado Party government. The pandemic did not create these problems, but the compounded effects of the health and economic crisis have exacerbated the problems to the point that they are no longer tolerable.
During the first months of the pandemic, Paraguay was held up as a model example of virus containment policies. The government implemented harsh isolation measures, including curfews and border closings. These restrictions on movement went into effect in the context of a country whose population is disproportionately young (58% are under 30 years old) and rural (38% live in rural areas).
Nonetheless, the slowdown in COVID-19 infections went hand in hand with a frightening aggravation of the social crisis. The official unemployment rate hit 8.2% in 2020, and the unemployment rate for women reached 11.5%. The rate of female participation in the workforce dropped from 54.3% in mid-2019 to 47.9% one year later. Approximately 707,000 people, 19% of the available workforce, experienced “inconveniences in their ability to access work”; this figure includes the unemployed, underemployed, and those suspended from their work. Without much in the way of welfare programs or financial aid (a stimulus package distributed the equivalent of $77 to 300,000 families), the ensuing economic paralysis wreaked havoc in a job market characterized by a high degree of informal employment (70%).
Despite it all, by July 8, 2020, only 20 people had died of COVID-19 in Paraguay. But that situation changed as a result of a push to “reopen” the economy starting in June, which saw the lessening of anti-pandemic isolation policies. Today, the pandemic situation has gone completely out of control. 599 active cases as of February 14th soon became 2,125 by March 9th. The number of deaths has reached 3,387. These numbers, of course, do not include cases that have not been documented by the government.
This has led to a predictable tragedy: the collapse of the already precarious public health system. According to data from 2018, 73% of the population in Paraguay has no medical coverage. In the rural areas, that figure rises to 86%. In other words, poor people, who live off of the informal economy, have been left entirely on their own.
For a population of over 7 million people, Paraguay has only 636 beds for intensive care. Even then, there is insufficient medicine and medical personnel to staff the existing beds. Only 200 doctors in the country are specialized in providing intensive care. The country has run out of crucial drugs for intubated patients, such as atracurium and midazolam. The Ministry of Health did not purchase any more of these drugs during 2020. The first attempt was made on March 5th, following the outbreak of pitched battle in the streets of Asunción. But prices have risen considerably since the beginning of the pandemic. A bottle of atracurium that in 2019 would have cost $1.4 now costs approximately $10.7. Aggravating the situation is speculation by pharmaceutical companies, which prefer to sell to the more profitable private sector. As a result, the public health system was able to purchase only a single shipment of medicine from a single company, Bioethic Pharma.
First and foremost, this is the result of policies that have deliberately destroyed the public health system. Paraguay invests only 3% of its GDP in healthcare, only half of the 6% GDP recommend by the WHO. But the situation becomes even more scandalous when we take into account that one year ago, it was widely publicized that the government had taken out a loan of $1.6 billion specifically for the purchase of medical supplies. The question that is now rightfully echoing through the streets is “where is the money?!”
The collapse of the medical system has meant that the full cost of healthcare has fallen on the families of sick patients. Leading up to the outbreak of protests, we saw heartbreaking scenes of doctors, nurses, and relatives of patients begging for medicine and basic supplies that have become unattainably expensive. Desperation grew, and with it, anger. Daily humiliations further stirred the pot. Many families were left ravaged and financially ruined. For example, a patient may need as many as 40 bottles of atracurium per day, costing roughly $705. The minimum wage, which in practice serves as a “maximum wage” but which nonetheless is a useful reference here, is $336/month. In poor neighborhoods, people have organized raffles, cookouts, potlucks and more in order to try to help alleviate affected families’ situations. Many, lacking a way out, have gone as far as to pawn their cellphones. Even more extreme cases have been reported, such as people resorting to prostitution in front of the hospitals, or the story of a woman who sold her house to cover the medical expenses of her son, who tragically passed away despite it all.
As these cruel and tragic events have played out across the country, the much-needed medications have popped on illegal black markets at obscene prices. Packages stamped by government ministries and clearly labeled “not for sale” are being sold by pharmacies near medical centers.
This is what has led to the outbreak of popular fury that we are now seeing: hunger, unemployment, medical collapse, and brazen corruption. The people know that this is the fault of Abdo Benítez’s government and are demanding answers.
While acknowledging that the collapse of the hospital system is what set off the protests, we should consider as well the situation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, which is the only way out of our current health crisis. Allocating resources to intubated patients is critical, but the virus will not be dealt with until at least 70% of the population has been vaccinated. When it comes to vaccine availability, Paraguay is the country that is farthest behind in its region. As of March 5th, the country had 4,000 doses available. Hoping to contain the protests, the president obtained a shipment of 20,000 more doses from Chile. As a patient needs 2 vaccines in order to be properly immunized, this means that Paraguay’s vaccine stock will serve to cover only 12,000 people, not enough to even vaccinate the all of the country’s healthcare workers.
Julio Borba, who became Minister of Health following his predecessor Mazzoleni’s resignation, announced that he intends to “speed up” the arrival of 36,000 more doses from the WHO by the end of March. That is the extent of the efforts to aid the situation. The situation is grave: at this rate, Paraguay will successfully vaccinate 70% of its population by July 2158.
As the Workers’ Party of Paraguay has said: “This isn’t a campaign to fight COVID-19, this is a farce, a laughable attempt at political marketing.”
The only alternative that can change the bleak outlook is a sustained mobilization of the working class.
Only by organizing towards direct action will we be able to pressure the cartel of murderers that govern Paraguay. There is no middle ground: it’s us or them.
Mobilizations need to continue until we bring down Mario Abdo Benítez’s government. At the same time, we also need to defeat ex-president Horacio Cartes’s schemes to retake power, and the vested interests of the various factions of the Liberal Party (PLRA), who hope to take advantage of the popular unrest in order to increase their power within the government.
With this in mind, it is important that our public outrage is not only focused on Abdo Benítez, but also on Cartes the business magnate. This perspective is embodied in the slogan “ANR no more!”. It is clear that our understanding of the current situation cannot be reduced to the misdeeds of the current government, and that we need to broaden the protests’ horizon.
The National Republican Association (ANR-Partido Colorado) has governed Paraguay since 1947, with the sole exception of four years during the presidency of Fernando Lugo from 2008 to 2012. Over the course of the 70 years since the ANR first took power, it has become a powerful institution, a party-state that has influence over all spheres of life. The ANR was the party of Paraguay’s last dictatorship under General Alfredo Stroessner (1954–1989), a horrible period during which he the ANR party fused with the state and the military. In 1973, Stroessner signed the Treaty of Itaipu, which entertains the possibility of an invasion against Paraguay and hands over control of Paraguay’s energy grid to the Brazilian bourgeoisie. In 2019, Mario Abdo Benítez renegotiated the terms of the treaty with Brazil, providing significant concessions to Bolsonaro. There was mass outrage as people poured into the streets, nearly costing Abdo Benítez the presidency. He hung on to his post thanks to two reasons. First, Bolsonaro called off the deal in order to preserve his regional ally and detained Dario Messer, a banker responsible for laundering money for Cartes, a clear sign to Cartes of what could happen if he failed to make peace with Abdo Benítez. Following this development, Cartes’s faction within the Colorado Party withdrew its impeachment proceedings against Abdo Benítez, thus christening a pact of impunity between two wings of the same corrupt institution.
To the working class, the ANR is a slavedriver’s whip, a holdover from the dictatorship. Its fall from power would be a democratic victory in and of itself, a massive stride forward for the people of Paraguay.
Horacio Cartes’s faction deserves special attention as well. Cartes is the most powerful businessman in the country, with connections to organized crime as well. Decades ago, he was investigated internationally for all sorts of criminal activities. Right now, despite nominally leading an internal opposition faction against Abdo Benítez inside their party, the ex-president supports Abdo Benítez by holding off on calling for impeachment, as his faction’s support would be necessary in order to reach the necessary 53 votes for impeachment in the Chamber of Deputies. In this sense, it could be said that Abdo Benítez is Cartes’s pawn, with Cartes biding his time to gain influence in the president’s cabinet and all sorts of additional privileges. The people know that at the end of the day, Abdo Benítez holds the seat of the presidency, but Cartes holds the power. Consequently, Cartes is also in the protesters’ crosshairs.
But a broad section of the protesters goes even further. The war cry that echoes around Asunción is the same that was heard during the Argentinian revolution of 2001: “Everyone needs to go, don’t let anyone stay!”. This faction, in principal, is progressive because it expresses a profound renunciation of all of the traditional bourgeois parties and politicians. It displays an eager appetite for political change.
Protests are organized daily. Precarious young people who are left without hope for their futures and who are tired of constant humiliation have taken to the streets to shout “protest every day until the politicians leave!” The protests need to take up the key immediate demand of the social movement: “Down with Mario Abdo Benítez’s government! Neither Abdo Benítez nor Cartes nor Llano, down with all of the capitalist options!”
In order to continue the mobilization, we need to establish spaces for united action that can function democratically. There is an urgent need to discuss the goals of the movement across all of its factions in order to prevent the dissipation of our forces. Only by organizing can we keep up the pressure and beat back repression, which will also mean the development of self-defense tactics against the repression. And, most importantly, it is necessary to discuss an emergency economic/social/health program, which goes beyond the dissolution of the government and marches on to accomplish structural changes in Paraguay.
Regarding the health crisis, there is an urgent need to expropriate and nationalize all of the hospitals and healthcare service providers. Healthcare should not be a commodity. Such actions are necessary in order to centralize all of our resources (beds, supplies, medicines, trained personnel) and launch a unified plan to combat COVID-19.
We need to raise the demand of vaccines for everyone. In order to accomplish this, the movement needs to call for the violation of international patents, which are controlled by imperialist biotech companies, in order to be able to produce and distribute vaccines according to human need, not the profit-seeking whims of billionaires.
This is all just beginning. Most likely, we can expect the pandemic to worsen in the coming weeks. The country has been put on “red alert”, which means that 99% of the available intensive care beds are occupied. Now more than ever, we need to confront the government, take it down, and go on the offensive against the interests of the private sector.
As the Workers’ Party, we have been participating in the protests shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, and we propose that it is necessary to discuss an emergency program that identifies a socialist path out of the crisis that the rich and powerful have left us in. The catastrophe caused by the government’s policies in the face of the pandemic reiterates, now more than ever before, that the options that lie before us are socialism or barbarism.
 As of March 5th, four government ministers have resigned, and the government has promised some additional measures for obtaining vaccines.
 See https://www.abc.com.py/edicion-impresa/suplementos/economico/2020/11/01/destacan-rapida-incorporacion-de-politicas-publicas-en-paraguay-frente-al-covid-19/
 At the end of 2020, there were 294,697 unemployed, 301,488 underemployed, and 111,162 otherwise unable to work according to an official survey. See https://www.abc.com.py/nacionales/2020/11/13/desempleo-subio-a-82-y-afecto-a-295000-personas-en-el-tercer-trimestre-del-ano/
 In June 2020, Paraguay had only 2 deaths per million people, the lowest in South America
 See: < https://www.abc.com.py/nacionales/2021/03/09/se-confirman-otros-2125-casos-de-covid-19-y-17-muertes/>
 Data from Johns Hopkins University, March 11th, 2021
 See: < https://www.abc.com.py/edicion-impresa/economia/2019/12/03/solo-el-27-de-la-poblacion-accede-a-un-seguro-medico/>.
 See: < https://www.abc.com.py/nacionales/2021/03/09/salud-no-previo-compra-de-atracurio-y-ya-pago-hasta-g-70000-por-unidad/>.
 See: < https://www.hoy.com.py/nacionales/asegurados-de-ips-deben-comprar-medicamentos-vendidos-en-el-mercado-negro>.
 See: https://litci.org/es/carta-abierta-de-un-paraguayo-a-la-clase-trabajadora-brasilena-sobre-itaipu/