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Paraguay’s ‘Indignados’ Win a Round Against Congress

The “toilet paper roll” protest in the Plaza de Armas, which kicked off Paraguay’s “indignados” movement. Credit: Natalia Ruíz Díaz/IPS

ASUNCION, Nov 29 2013 (IPS) - A few hours before a human chain was to surround the Paraguayan Congress on Thursday, Senator Víctor Bogado, accused of fraud and misuse of public funds, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

On Nov. 15, an earlier vote in which 23 of the 45 members of the Senate voted for the ruling Colorado Party lawmaker to keep his immunity triggered the first social media-organised protest against corruption, which ultimately ended up forcing Congress to hold a second vote and reverse the decision.

Under pouring rain, dozens of protesters gathered in front of Congress in the Plaza de Armas Thursday evening to celebrate the first victory of the demonstrations, instead of forming a human chain in protest.

And while the number of demonstrators was smaller than in the previous protests in the plaza because of the torrential rains, the police presence was heavy, with hundreds of officers and anti-riot water cannons. At times there were more police than demonstrators in the downpour.

Natalia Paola Rodríguez, a 35-year-old lawyer and university professor, arrived late “because the torrent almost swept my car away.” But she told IPS she needed to be there “to share the excitement; what we did is really important” for this country of 6.6 million people – the second-poorest country in South America after Bolivia, and one of the most unequal.

The #15Npy movement's five-point programme of demands:

1. A ceiling of 10 minimum salaries for high-level political positions.

2. Loss of office, prosecution and punishment for authorities in the three branches of government found guilty of influence peddling and nepotism.

3. Transparent access to public information.

4. An end to the closed party-list voting system, which gives corrupt politicians access to public office.

5. No public transit fare hikes.

Hugo Galeano, a 23-year-old student, also defied the weather, “because the celebration had to be here.”

“Public pressure twisted the arm of one of the branches of government,” a euphoric Galeano told IPS. “This isn’t over, this will become an ongoing thing,” he added, before walking off, chanting along with the rest of the protesters.

Topo Topone R. is the alias used on the social networks by lawyer Alejandro Recalde, one of the people behind Paraguay’s protest movement, which has labelled itself #15Npy, along the lines of Spain’s 15 May (15M) movement of “indignados” or angry protesters.

The movement debuted in the Nov. 15 demonstration in the Plaza de Armas, when hundreds of protesters lobbed toilet paper rolls at the legislature, to “clean up” Congress. The protest, which got heavy media coverage, was followed by others.

Topo, 40, explained to IPS that the aim of the movement is to become a kind of citizen oversight mechanism to keep an eye on the authorities, through constant demonstrations and public participation.

“We will be wherever citizens feel alone because there is no organisation or political party fighting for their demands, until the corrupt political class, which uses the people instead of serving them, is eliminated,” he said.

A taxi driver who did not want to give his name told IPS that “we got tired of the abuses,” before pointing out that “my colleagues contributed a lot to this triumph.” Taxi drivers were the first to refuse to provide service to the 23 senators who defended Bogado in the first vote in Congress. The boycott was then joined by restaurants and other businesses in Asunción.

#15Npy is a movement organised over the social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as political blogs, one of them created by Topo himself shortly after left-wing president Fernando Lugo was removed from office in June 2012 through a controversial impeachment trial.

José Carlos Rodríguez, a sociologist and political analyst, said the term “popular uprising” was not fitting in this case.

“Paraguay’s ‘indignados’ are an expression of a new middle class, which has moral grievances. They are different from the movements that have emerged in the Arab countries and in Brazil. In the Arab countries, the focus was the dictatorships, and in Brazil the protesters were demanding rights,” he told IPS.

But like the waves of demonstrations in North Africa, Spain or Brazil, the movement in Paraguay has been organised through the social media.

A precedent for #15Npy was the “after office revolucionario” (after-office revolutionary) protests held during the Lugo administration (2008-2012) to back the president’s veto of a scandalous increase in the electoral court’s budget, which had been approved by Congress, dominated by the right-wing Colorado Party and other opposition forces.

Public pressure forced the legislature to backtrack at that time too, and it cancelled the budget hike. That led to the emergence of the new contemptuous slang terms “senarratas” and “dipuchorros”, which mix up the terms “senator”, “deputy”, “rat” and “thief”.

Rodríguez believes the protests will continue. “The people are going to go for more,” he said, adding that the Bogado case is only the tip of an iceberg of impunity enjoyed by the political leadership, which Paraguayans are fed up with.

Politics in Paraguay has historically been infamous for the high levels of corruption, impunity, nepotism and perks. And in the eyes of the citizens, Congress is the biggest culprit.

A broad range of people are participating in #15Npy – from office workers and students to artists, civil servants, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and ordinary people.

Some come from a background of activism in trade unions, social organisations or even political parties. But the great majority form part of the anonymous public, which up to now had been more resigned than participative in the face of realities such as living in one of the most unequal and corrupt countries in South America.

There are no leaders in the movement, only people who serve as reference points in different groups that communicate through Facebook and Twitter. On the networks they have already made it clear that Bogado’s loss of immunity will not bring the protests to a halt.

The next one will be a mid-December march on the courthouse, the seat of justice, “one of the branches of the state where corruption flourishes, and which provides citizens with anything but justice,” Topo said.

Both he and the demonstrators in the plaza stressed that President Horacio Cartes, a business tycoon in office since August, “should also take note” of the protests.

“Either he stops the repression of campesinos [small farmers] and only thinking about privatising and addresses the people’s demands, or we will go after him,” the taxi driver said.

“We are going to work at the grassroots level and go after the three branches of government; our agenda isn’t marked by anyone,” said Professor Rodríguez, who is very active in #15Npy.

Rodríguez the political scientist said these movements “produce a change in consciousness, but they do not directly bring about transformations.” In the case of Paraguay, the analyst said the support that the demonstrations received from the press and sectors of the business community played a key role.

In the Plaza de Armas Thursday evening, the protesters called for the resignation of the 23 senators who defended Bogado. The political scientist said “demands are always maximalist, you have to call for things even if you won’t get them, but basically the big victory is that Congress has changed, and it’s not going to be the same from here on out.”

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