Rage spreads in Paraguay as virus surges, exposing corruption

By Santi Carneri and Daniel Politi

For nearly a year, Paraguay was a leader in keeping the pandemic at bay, and despite its persistent troubles, the country remained fairly calm. Not any more.

Paraguay’s coronavirus infection rate has soared, becoming one of the worst in the Americas, and its already shaky health system has been stretched to the breaking point. In the past few days, demonstrators by the thousands have filled streets, demanding the ouster of President Mario Abdo Benítez, and in a few instances there have been bloody clashes with the police.

For many Paraguayans, corruption and elite entitlement that were once just unpleasant facts of life have become intolerable during the pandemic. There is a shortage of basic drugs that doctors and nurses blame on graft; nonemergency surgery has been suspended because of a shortfall in medical supplies, and there are few vaccines to be had.

The crisis has spilled into the streets with a level of rage the county’s leaders have not faced in years. Daily protests started this month with medical workers, who were quickly joined by other frustrated people. Most have been peaceful, but in some cases security forces have met the demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons.

“There are so many deaths and it is all the fault of the thieves who run our corrupt institutions,” said Sergio Duarte, who joined a demonstration outside of Congress recently in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital and largest city.

The unrest in Paraguay is a snapshot of the massive challenges that Latin America faces as the virus continues to take a heavy toll, while governments struggle to provide adequate health care and acquire enough vaccines.

The virus has sickened and killed Latin Americans in disproportionate numbers. The region has just over 8% of the world’s population, and about one-quarter of its confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Paraguay’s official case and death rates remain well below the peaks suffered by much of the world, including the United States, but they are getting worse — the number of daily new infections has doubled in less than a month, to the highest level yet — even as many other countries improve.

“We’re here because we’re tired,” said Rosa Bogarín, one of thousands of protesters in Asunción. “We need free vaccines for everybody, medicine, education and a way out of this situation.”

Anger over the pace of vaccine rollout has hit many countries, aggravated in some places by the powerful and well-connected jumping the line and getting early access early access to shots.

In Paraguay, there has barely been a line to jump. A nation of 7 million people, until recently it had received only 4,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine before Chile donated a shipment of 20,000 doses made by China’s Sinovac.

The pandemic recession has worsened poverty, inequality and food insecurity in Latin America, as it has around the world, compounding frustrations over the handling of the virus.

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean recently estimated that 209 million people in the region were living in poverty at the end of 2020, an increase of 22 million from a year earlier.

The crisis has fed long-standing frustrations with the wealthy and political leaders who do not feel bound by the same rules as others, said Alejandro Catterberg, a political analyst and pollster who runs Poliarquía, a Buenos Aires-based consultancy.

“In Latin America there is a general social structure in which the powerful have certain privileges and the political class has a self-imposed status as being different from the average citizen,” he said.

In Paraguay, the basis of the current crisis, including corruption, poverty and a weak health care system, “was exacerbated by the pandemic” but existed much earlier, said Verónica Serafini Geoghegan, an economist at the Center for the Analysis and Dissemination of the Paraguayan Economy, a nongovernmental organization.

Abdo ousted his health minister, Julio Mazzoleni, and three other members of his Cabinet this month, but it did not quell the demonstrations. Mazzoleni followed in the footsteps of his counterparts in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, all forced out over the handling of the pandemic.

Paraguay was applauded, along with nearby Uruguay, for taking swift and decisive actions that kept their coronavirus outbreaks modest during the early months of the pandemic. But contagion began surging late last year, pushing intensive care units to the brink.

Opposition leaders have encouraged the demonstrations against Abdo, a conservative leader who has two years left in his term. The president has asked all his ministers to draft resignation letters and told demonstrators that he understood their frustration.

“I’m a man of dialogue and not of confrontation,” Abdo said.

Many demonstrators say they intend to remain on the street until the government falls.

Popular chants have included “Elections now!” and “Marito must resign,” a reference to the president’s nickname.

Paraguay’s foreign minister, Euclides Acevedo, said the government is scrambling to get the vaccines it has ordered from suppliers delivered, as the health ministry declared a heightened state of alert.

“Paraguay is determined to obtain vaccines from anywhere, by any means,” he said Tuesday in an interview. “Here everyone needs to get vaccinated, and for free, that’s the government’s intention.”

But many young demonstrators say they have waited long enough for decent governance.

“We won’t stop until Marito resigns,” protester Melisa Riveros said.

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