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A new order in Paraguay


The election of progressive former bishop Fernando Lugo as Paraguay’s president has unleashed a wave of optimism among the country’s poorest. The new political landscape should be conducive to the work of the Swiss Red Cross and the ICRC in the country.

The fight against corruption, agrarian reform, a halt to the invasion of transgenic soya and, of course, the eradication of poverty: the challenges awaiting the newly elected president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, are not for the fainthearted. With an area almost the size of France (400,000 square kilometres), Paraguay has primarily an agricultural economy, with nearly half of its 6.3 million inhabitants living in rural areas. Mercilessly exploited for generations, the peasants found succour only from the church and more recently from charitable organizations such as the Swiss Red Cross.

In the region of San Pedro in central Paraguay, a bishop rapidly made a name for himself as a champion of the poor. He was Fernando Lugo. At the end of 2005, with the presidential elections approaching, the coalition of opposition parties asked the bishop to be their candidate. It seemed like a losing gamble from the start. In 60 years no one had defeated the candidate of the ruling Colorado Party, a veritable electoral juggernaut. Lugo accepted the challenge, and after being let go by the church, won a comfortable victory on 20 April 2008.

The right to health

With the hopes of the poor resting on his shoulders, Lugo can count on the support of numerous charitable associations and international organizations in accomplishing his mission. In a country where 46 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and almost 60 per cent do not have access to a public health system, the Swiss Red Cross is helping local peasant organizations to set up health centres for the rural population.

One of these is Tesai Reka Paraguay, an umbrella group of 30 peasant organizations working to promote universal health care. Health centres, some of which train nurses and midwives, are being built in the remotest corners of the country.

Maria is a midwife in her fifties. She has turned a room in her house into a mini labour ward with the aid of the Swiss Red Cross. The furniture is rudimentary. Two white metal beds and a wooden table laid out with the basic tools of her trade: forceps, a syringe, sterile compresses, and that’s about it. “I have been helping women give birth for 25 years,” says Maria. “And during all those years, every single labour has gone without a hitch.”

Although Western medicine is effective, traditional medicine still has a strong hold in Paraguay. The Swiss Red Cross is also supporting a programme to conserve and develop this branch of medicine, which is based mainly on medicinal plants. For example, at San Miguel College, more than 150 students from rural families are enrolled in a six-year course, which includes the study of products of traditional medicinal plants, such as meadowsweet or maté.

The Swiss Red Cross also assists the Paraguayan Red Cross during emergencies, such as during an outbreak of dengue fever in 2007. On that occasion, emergency activities, including blood donation, the distribution of mosquito nets, the destruction of larva nests and the establishment of clinics to treat people affected by the disease, were launched in 50 communes.

Soya invasion

“We are trying to defend the small peasant farmers from the big landowners who are covering every inch of land with soya,” explains Jose Parra, coordinator of Tesai Reka Paraguay. Soya — the fatal word. “Paraguay is being taken over by soya,” says Thomas Palau, a sociologist in the capital Asunción. The area devoted to soya cultivation rose from 1 million hectares in 1997 to nearly 3 million today. The social and health consequences of this ‘soyization’ are unprecedented. Spraying herbicides from the air poisons the people who live near the soya fields. They end up leaving their plots of land, which are then bought up at rock-bottom prices by the soya farmers.

“It is not always easy to do our work. Some latifundium [large ranch] owners refuse outright to let us onto their properties,” says Volker Sitta, the Swiss Red Cross delegate for Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador. “Their employees, mostly Guarani Indians who are treated like slaves, have to come off the estates to get a check-up. Fernando Lugo has promised agrarian reform, but it will be an uphill task. The big landowners stick together and most of them have their own militias to keep out any interference.” The new president will therefore have to walk a tightrope between, on the one hand, the affluent who will do everything possible to obstruct his reforms and, on the other hand, the dispossessed who will not forgive him if the reforms are not hastened through.

Pierre Bratschi
Pierre Bratschi is a freelance journalist based in
Buenos Aires.


An information session organized by the Paraguayan Red Cross, in a school in San Pedro province, on yellow fever prevention.

Work in progress

Paraguay has been out of the media spotlight since the fall of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989, but the ICRC still has significant work to do there. Its delegates make regular visits to the country’s detention centres and act in times of crisis, such as in 2004 when 600 poverty-stricken and desperate peasants were arrested for illegally occupying land that had been left to lie fallow. “The prisons were not designed to house so many people, and the sanitary conditions were appalling,” says Michel Minnig, head of the ICRC regional delegation for South America. “We helped the authorities to improve living conditions for the inmates by installing running water and providing mattresses and medicines.” The peasants were released, but more than 3,000 remain on probation and can be reimprisoned at any moment.

To support the Paraguayan Red Cross in its goal to become a reference organization, the ICRC is helping to train its members in first aid. It is also working with the police forces to try to bring their directives in line with human rights law, as was done with the Rio de Janeiro police in Brazil. The armed forces, who according to the constitution can be called upon to intervene in the maintenance of law and order, are also an important target audience for the regional delegation. “You have to make them understand that they are not engaged in a military action aimed at destroying the enemy, but in a policing exercise in which force must only be used as a last resort,” explains Minnig.

The ICRC also acts as a ‘consultant’. The government’s decision to place prisons under the authority of the Ministry of Health prompted a full investigation into the general state of the penitentiary system, and the implementation of the resulting reforms has been carried out under the ICRC’s supervision. “Fernando Lugo’s coming to power should facilitate the ICRC’s task, even though the state of the prison system is not one of his central concerns,” says Minnig.

Cultivation of meadowsweet, a plant used in traditional medicine, at San Miguel College.


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