Student victories in Paraguay

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By: José Carlos Lezcano / / The Dawn / October 4, 2015.- The university movement surfaced with organizational strength, political clarity and the support of a large majority of the students. Thus, it gained popular support and its mobilization spread nationwide. The student strike and the vigil at the Rectory, with the slogan “UNA, don’t be silent” (UNA: National University of Asuncion), began on Monday September 21st.

So far, the actions of the organized students, along with other sectors of the University and many groups of society that support these actions, have beheaded a great number of the corrupt principals and officers of the National University of Asuncion, who were linked to the old power structure, such as the former rector —now imprisoned— Froilán Peralta, and former Vice Rector, Andrés Amarilla. Also, the actions carried out by students have forced the resignation of Isacio Vallejos (former Dean of Engineering), Antonio Ramón Rodríguez, (former Dean of Economy), Vicente Renna (former vice Dean of Economy), Aníbal Peris (former Dean of Medicine) —along with his entire Faculty Council and some teachers—, Juan Gualberto Caballero (Former Dean of Veterinary) and Mario Insaurralde (former Vice Dean of Veterinary). They all were part of the headquarters of the University. Pablo Martinez, former rector of National University of Caaguazú and Hugo Recalde, his former Vice Rector, were also wiped out by the force of mobilization.

Student assemblies —which in some cases have already become assemblies that gather every sector of the university community, including teachers and workers—, sustain their claims for the resignation of authorities in their academic units. In the Philosophy department, the strike remains firm until Dean Maria Angelica Gonzalez presents her resignation. The assembly of the Faculty of Law demands the resignation of Dean and President of the Supreme Court, Antonio Fretes, and their mobilization remains strong.

“We call to continue and to deepen the strike measures indefinitely, as well as the permanent vigil at the National University of Asuncion, because conflict is not only here, but is spreading to more schools, more institutes and more subsidiaries of the National University. This shows that we are in time to deepen our plan to reform the University, and with the autonomy that we had all this time, we appeal to continue with measures to really clean up our University”. These were the words of student leader Arturo Cano, to the popular medium La Cigarra, in response to the useless and desperate attempts of University leadership to demobilize the protest.


Crisis of representation

The student strike is having an impact not only on corrupt authorities of the UNA, but is also attacking a problem that has been dragging along for decades: the breakdown of student leadership, which in recent times even occupied elected positions, and has been replicating the corruption scheme and the culture of privilege, by serving the political parties of the ruling classes and turning their backs on student in its most fundamental claims.

In the Faculty of Law’s, the Assembly forced the resignation of the president of the Student Center and the student representatives, the same happened in Medicine; and in Engineering and Economics  students are demanding the same thing, and so they continue adding and generating changes in the student leadership.

The process

Many speak of the state of apathy that was prevalent among the students, and they observe this great mobilization as an extraordinary phenomenon. Indeed it is, in the sense that it is a major historic event, which is not yet fully developed and still has many lessons to teach us. However, it is not an unexplainable or accidental phenomenon; in order to understand this, we need to look at the process of accumulation and political struggles that the student movement went through in recent years.

As immediate precedents of the current struggles called “UNA don’t be silent” (#UnaNoTeCalles), we must consider the following milestones, without being exhaustive in the count:

2014: UNA’s students gather in a plenary meeting under the slogan: “No more police stations in Faculties”, to denounce that summaries were being made to target certain students and teachers that were critical towards the rectorate, and announced a protest against Froilán being elected the UNA rector. They also announced the mobilization against the raise of the transport fare, a cause very close to students.

2012: The occupying of the Rectory Building as a measure to combat the imminent adoption of the Law on Higher Education (Ley de Educación Superior, LES), carried out by the Student Front for Education (Frente Estudiantil por la Educación, FEE). In addition, demonstrations against the LES and demonstrations outside the Parliament were carried out that year.

2011: Social Extension Mobilization for Education against the Law on Higher Education (LES). Also, fighting for the historical claim of disarticulation of the Social Work Institute from the Faculty of Philosophy, where an authoritarian behavior of the Dean was recorded —the same Dean whose resignation is still demanded by the students.

2008: The occupying of the Headquarters of the Catholic University of Asunción, and the occupation of the Lecture Hall against the appointment of one of the main characters of the Stroessner Dictatorship, José Antonio Moreno Ruffinelli as Dean, and the imposition of authoritarian laws.

2006: The occupying of the headquarters of the Catholic University of Asuncion, against the imposition of authoritarian statutes.

2005: the Taking of the Rectory Building by students from various faculties, against an amendment to the statute which allowed the authorities to be reelected indefinitely. This change was made without asking for the students’ input, by the University Council (the same that is today being unmasked for  corruption).

This brief summary of the university struggles over the past 10 years is intended to show that “UNA don’t be silent” is another piece in the development of a far larger movement, and it probably constitutes a short description of the renovation of this organized sector and its traditional ways. And it is important to say that this whole recent process is an organic part of the historical development of earlier student struggles.

“UNA don’t be silent” is not an aleatory event, but the product of an ongoing, systematic activity of learning from the mistakes and successes; an activity with the difficulties inherent to any effort carried out to organize a student movement and to be able to exercise their rights. And our summary only includes the most relevant cornerstones. There were also minor, more concise struggles that, ultimately, also pointed towards a structural change.

In the analysis of the protagonists of the events: “We are building the construction of a real student power, we can not delegate this in other instances. We are fed up of being ignored. Our job is to give tools to the organization and to ensure that the student movement is no longer an instrument of some external force, we seek a genuine process of unity”, said student leader Ana Portillo, of the Catholic University, which supports the UNA mobilization.

For his part, Arturo Cano adds: “If there is no basis to carry out a process, and it there is con consensus on whether to perform it, this would not be possible. Also, we did this because we feel sure that there is a leadership of men and women able to democratically and solidly drive what is taking place within the framework of this measure, and, in a wider perspective, in the change process of the University. This is organization, whether it is visible or not, it is actually contained in a process, and we were prepared for this scenario, because we know the corrupt system within this institution, and we have been denouncing  it for years. We believe this is a sustainable work”.

The trigger and causes

Corruption has been reported for a long time by the student of the Student Front for Education (FEE), as it has also been a visible reality for students.

In this context, a national newspaper began a series of publications bringing to light acts of corruption and nepotism perpetrated by the former rector, Froilan Peralta. For example, relatives appointed without merit and skills criteria, astronomical salaries, payments to professorships that did not develop any work, inquisitorial summaries to students and teachers.

Journalistic investigations were the straw that broke the camel’s back and served as a reason for  students who were suffering the consequences of a flawed educational scheme, and above all, who were experienced in struggle and organization, who had gained strength and were growing in number.

Apart from the existence of an organized base of the student sector, one of the causes behind what happened in the UNA has to do with a bid of powers, especially within the current ruling party, the National Republican Association (ANR), which, to the eyes of many students, is the reason for the series of reports that uncovered the corrupt rector in one of the leading print media with national circulation. This internal issues also explain the loss of political support for the ousted president and his entourage accomplices.

A third element —besides the organization of students and the ANR internal struggle— that created the conditions for the mobilization of “UNA don’t be silent” was the widespread weariness of the students about the precariousness of the system, while the authorities enjoyed the discretionary use of funds for education, as well as a natural rebellion against their alleged representatives, which instead of representing the genuine interests of their colleagues, were (and are) organic part of the rotten system of the University.

And in this context, there are two backgrounds elements that explain the popular adherence to these manifestations. Paraguay is going through a crippling situation of economic crisis, a deepening of poverty and a program to benefit the large foreign capital and a small number of landowners plus wealthy merchants, while 99% of the people must suffer the daily miseries.

On the other hand, a big boost to “UNA don’t be silent” demonstrations was given by the students of the National March of Public and Private Schools, who on September 18th, under the slogan of “Silence is not our language” conquered the streets in a march of over 10 thousand people, with support from teachers’ unions, organizations and groups of students, fathers and mothers.

The movement is planning to deepen the actions and the resistance at each school through the democratic exercise of student power, tracking the fiscal interventions to investigate cases of corruption and pressing Deans, corrupt officials and corrupt teachers to resign.

Thus, the University Movement, as part of the struggle of the vast majority of Paraguay to shake off the remnants of the Stroessner dictatorship and oppression system that has been delayed for decades, has erupted at the beginning of this century with renewed air, legitimacy and prospects for further progress.

Onwards! To continue harvesting victories, to join forces, change is closer, the Paraguayan people stand for the students!

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