Paraguay's youth mobilize against their president

Paraguay’s ongoing crisis over rushed plans to change the constitution – which last week saw congress go up in flames – is thrusting students and young people onto the front lines of political activism.

Young people made up the bulk of the crowds which braved tear gas and rubber bullets to protest a congressional back-room vote which could see Horacio Cartes, of the rightwing Colorado party, stay in power for another five years from 2018.

Medical students gave first aid to the wounded and were themselves caught in the crossfire.

Rodrigo Quintana, a 25-year-old Liberal party member, died after he was shot in the back by police in the party headquarters on 31 March, galvanising widespread anger against the government’s conduct.

Student associations have gathered to condemn police violence and protest against Cartes’s attempt to use a constitutional amendment to change the rules on term limits – something which, the constitution stipulates requires an elected constituent assembly.

“The number of people surprised us,” said Rodrigo Ayala, law society president at the Universidad Católica (UCA). “Many people’s parents wouldn’t let them go because they thought it would be risking their lives – so they lied and said they were going shopping,” he added.

Students have since helped organise a petition drive, held candlelight vigils and convened walkouts. Secondary school pupils have joined in: Salesian college students staged a mass die-in, while others marched along rural roadsides in the rain.

This emerging leadership role reflects a population where nearly 50% of people are under 25, but it also fills a vacuum left by major parties.

Most of the Colorado party is behind Cartes’s drive to pass re-election. So is the leftwing Frente Guasú coalition, which hopes the move will enable former leftwing president Fernando Lugo – who was ousted in 2014 – to contest next year’s election.

Liberal leader, Efraín Alegre, told the Guardian that last week’s events amounted to a “coup d’etat”. But the Liberal party itself is divided, and many resent its role in and after Lugo’s controversial ouster in 2012.

“Many people don’t want to go to a demonstration when there’s a political presence,” said Ayala. “I think students have an opportunity here, to say – this isn’t party politics, this is a national issue.”

Today’s students grew up after the end of Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship in 1989, but they have recent experience in battling abuses of power.

After Stroessner’s fall, so-called “garage universities” proliferated – substandard private institutions which charge hefty fees for rubber-stamp diplomas. “Every three or four blocks around town, there’s a private university,” said Patricia Batán, a UCA communications student. “Some of them are actually garages.”

Public universities, meanwhile, were still dominated by Stroessner’s Colorado party.

Politically appointed professors made access to grants – and even good marks – conditional on political affiliation, bribes or sexual favours. “You were persecuted for thinking differently to the party,” said Maccarena Chilavert, a law student. University authorities gave family members and lovers bogus positions with lavish expense accounts and multiple salaries.

Simmering anger erupted in September 2015 with the student occupation of the National University of Asunción, UNA. “For those three or four weeks, we established a parallel republic,” said Cristina Mendoza, a philosophy student. “There was a volunteer security patrol, a canteen, a health post and workshops.” Businesses and campesinos donated food and supplies.

The uprising led to some reforms, the sacking of over 200 university staff and criminal sentences against 42 officials. It also fuelled a trend towards democratisation and political independence among Paraguay’s student societies.

Yet only 6% of Paraguay’s population – one of the most unequal in the Americas – has a university education, something which limits students’ ability to speak to and for the nation.

They are also divided among themselves. The Frente Estudiantil por la Educación (FEE) an umbrella group, has warned students against being used by self-interested politicians and media elites.

Some have suggested that the amendment – however unconstitutional – is the left’s best chance of returning to power via Lugo. Others seek to put Paraguay’s current constitutional crisis in the context of Lugo’s overthrow in 2012.

“It’s important to deepen this sterile anti-amendment debate,” said Sandino Flecha, an agrarian sciences student.

But such caveats may give Cartes room to change the constitution and win again in 2018. But even if Cartes gets his way, students plan to build on last week’s outrage. “Anger only lasts for a day,” said Clara Berendsen, a politics student. “Anger needs to be organised.”