By: Gustavo Setrini / Source: Rebelion.org / The Dawn News / October 18, 2016
College students are making history in Paraguay with what has been named the “Student Spring”. Over the last weeks, they have made one of the biggest mobilizations in the history of the country to demand democratic reforms in the charter of the National University of Asunción (UNA). If students conquer their goal, it will be the first time in the modern history of the country that a social movement causes a significant nation-wide reform. The success that the students had in sparking massive protests and gathering support from society reveals important changes in Paraguayan politics and holds a potential to elicit even deeper changes.
Protests began at the end of August and united the 12 Faculties of the UNA in a single strike and a series of occupations that paralyzed campuses.
Students demand four basic reforms of the University’s charter:
- The end of the absolute majority that the teachers have in the Universitary Assembly, which is made up of representatives of three groups: teachers, students and alumni of the 12 faculties.
- That representatives of the government can only be reelected once
- That the reelection for decision-making posts in the university is forbidden
- That an independent electoral commission is created to regulate university elections.
Due to the pressure of students, the Universitary Assembly held a meeting in September 29 to debate and vote on the reforms. Like in the two previous meetings held in the two previous months, the Assembly refused to pass the reforms, which sparked new protests from the students. Now, in October, the conflict has polarized as university authorities and ally education authorities are holding elections for representatives for the University Assembly. Students and teachers have boycotted these elections and said they are potentially illegal and illegitimate in the current context of crisis. The anti-democratic ways of the elections —such as not disclosing the electoral schedule and the lack of a period to present and challenge candidacies— have blocked participation and democratic competition, and have allowed the authorities to handpick candidates according to their interests. Students demand that the elections are suspended until the reforms to the statute are approved and they have achieved the suspension of elections in the Faculties of Agriculture, Engineering and Medicine by demanding an annulment to the Electoral Court.
A conflictive year at the National University of Asunción
A year ago, students unveiled a network of corruption at the highest levels of authority in the University. During an occupation of the deanery of the university, they discovered documents that proved serious acts of corruption and nepotism by the Dean of the University, Froilán Peralta, who had included several of his family-members and friends of his former secretary in the payroll.
As a result of a long and eventful struggle, 74 administratives and 232 professors, deans and vice deans quit their jobs and 42 university authorities were judicially charged.
Students also revealed that several members of the Red Party took part of the corruption scheme and were receiving salaries or handing out positions to their acquaintances, while they silenced denounces through threats and marginalization.
They also discovered files filled with reports on the activities and social network accounts of dissident students, which constitutes an act of ideological persecution that reminds of the 35-year-long dictatorship in Paraguay.
Students also denounced that some teachers demanded bribes in exchange for better grades and cases of sexual abuse. Another issue is the strong dogmatism of the curricula, which is conservative and doesn’t allow dissidence.
The occupation and the current protests began on August 24, when the Universitary Assembly refused to vote for the reforms proposed by the Special Commission for the Reform of the UNA Statute after eight months of negotiations. This commission was formed by students, teachers and deans with the goal of making a draft of the new statutes.
Resurgence of Authoritarianism in Paraguay
The tightening of the authoritarian grip on the UNA and the massive student resistance are representative of the growing political tensions in Paraguay. The student protest is part of a series of conflicts that emerged after a decade of convulsive political changes.
The short-lived presidency of Fernando Lugo (2008-2012) changed the political scenario with a veer to the left. This elicited a conservative reaction that overthrew him with a coup and after they seized power again, they began to promote neoliberalism. This late blooming of neoliberalism is exceptional in the continent, since the rest of Latin America is used to it since the 90s.
The neoliberal agenda includes making deals between the state and private sectors, privatization of state faculties such as public transport, healthcare, communications, etc, and liberalization of the economy, weakening the borders with the rest of the world. Ironically, in the case of Paraguay, this discourse has justified a drastic increase of the public debt and the expansion of the economic model based on agribusiness exportation. Meanwhile, nothing has been made to eliminate the persistent inequality between rural and urban areas nor to stop the growth of the new urban poverty.
These policies sparked general strikes over the last 15 years, promoted by unions against privatization, and constant peasant mobilizations against big agribusiness in the interior of the country. In late September, citizens filled the central squares of Asuncion to protest against a bill that triplicated the bonus of Senators, while healthcare and education lack funding to properly function.
The state tries to control the reaction of the people through an increment in the brutality of repression and an increase in the funding allocated to the Joint Task Forces.
The Promise of the Student Movement
Several generations of students have fought to democratize the UNA. But this generation has achieved historical changes —a clear sign of a change in the times and of a potential gust of fresh air in the leadership of political and social movements. The current generation of college students is the first that was born after the end of the dictatorship, in 1989.
After them, there’s a generation of high school students which is even more courageous. After a public school building collapsed in May this year, students occupied a school in the capital and demanded the Minister of Education to provide a solution to the disastrous state of school infrastructure and of the inadequate levels of funding. All across the country, students adhered to the protests, occupied 130 schools for two weeks and forced the Minister to resign.
We trust and hope that this generation of Paraguayans will bring many more changes to the country.