Aldo Vera, from the Party of the Movement toward Socialism (P-MAS), has taken it upon himself to show me around Asuncion. That’s his role in the party, international and press relations, and he’s good at it: smart, quick and well-informed not only about Paraguayan politics, but also the nuances of the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, where he lived for a year and a half, and most other processes taking place on the continent. He’s cadre, defying any stereotype of what that might mean, and in that sense he is like many others of the P-MAS: smart, independent and young.
P-MAS is one of Latin America’s newest Socialist parties — it’s barely two years old, and the average age of its members is 25 — but it has already hit the radar screen of those following the political processes of Latin America. “Conociendo al P-MAS,” a book of interviews with founding members of the party, was published earlier this year in Paraguay, edited by Marta Harnecker and Federico Fuentes of the Francisco Miranda Center of Venezuela. More importantly, P-MAS has become a force to be reckoned with on the political stage of Paraguay. Party militants there have been hard at work, particularly in the cities, building support at the base.
If much of the socialism of the twentieth century was characterized by ideological splits, doctrinaire, internecine struggles, P-MAS hopes the “socialism of the twenty-first century” in Paraguay will be characterized by left unity in diversity with flexible, pluralistic ideologies formed out of practical experience, in the spirit of Karl Marx himself. And so it’s no surprise that members of P-MAS have in common an impatience with dogmatic, “black and white” thinking which has too often characterized segments of the left – not to mention the right. P-MAS seems to dance where angels fear to tread; it’s a party that takes risks even when it urges people to use caution.
Evidence for this latter is posted in the enormous party dining hall. Three posters in a window tell the story of a recent struggle led by the gays and lesbians of the party. One poster shows two men holding hands and, in Spanish, “I’m Happy! I’m Gay!” in large letters. Beneath, in smaller type, the explanation: “To be gay is normal; To be gay is a blessing; To be gay is natural; To be gay is to love and be free. If you’re gay, be happy!”
This was part of the gay and lesbian members’ recent campaign, called “Paragay: Campaign against Homophobia in Paraguay.” Beneath that poster is another, with multicolored condoms and the heading “They’re also arms against Capital” and the other poster with multicolored condoms reads “Taking care of yourself is also Revolutionary.”
“That was intense,” Aldo says as he notices me taking a photo of the posters. “Here in Paraguay, one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, people told us we were crazy to take that on. But we did because we thought we had to and it turned out great.”
More “reasonable” people have advised P-MAS to do all sorts of things they didn’t do, and they were also mostly wrong. For example, in the last election the older “wiser” left told P-MAS to tone down the socialist language as they entered the final laps of the electoral process. Aldo says that Tekojoja, the organization that became the party platform for Fernando Lugo to win the presidency, began to push aside other smaller parties of the Alianza Patriotica por el Cambio in the final sprint to the finish line and one way that it did that was by insisting that P-MAS turn down the volume. But Aldo maintains that they were wrong, especially in telling P-MAS to tone down the socialist rhetoric. “Like left parties often do here in Latin America, especially here in Paraguay, they tried to compete with the right by outspending them. One of those left parties spent two million dollars and got only 10,000 votes. We spent one tenth of that and came out with nearly 20,000 votes.” And, Aldo points out, that’s more than double what P-MAS got two years before in previous elections when they received 8,000 votes. “That proves,” he concludes, “that people like the language of the left. They agree with it. They want it.”
The socialist discourse isn’t the only criticism made of P-MAS. Ironically, they’ve also been accused of being too cozy with the right wing and receiving financing from US government agencies, in particular, USAID. These rumors are mostly raised by political parties in decline who see the P-MAS’s youthful energy and agressive work in the communities as a threat to their own power base. In an interview, one member of the Paraguayan Communist Party, who preferred to remain anonymous, made the accusation that P-MAS was funded by the CIA, but could offer no evidence nor refer to credible sources for his information. “I’ve heard that. That’s the rumor,” was all he could say, shrugging his shoulders.
In “Conociendo al P-MAS” Marta Harnecker raises the question of USAID funding with party members who acknowledge that the NGO out of which P-MAS emerged, Casa de Juventud (CJ, Youth House), like most NGOs in Paraguay, received some funding from USAID and a multitude of other international governmental and aid organizations. But in its earlier formation as the Revolutionary Socialist Nucleus (NRS), P-MAS separated from CJ and while P-MAS has maintained friendly relations with CJ and other NGOs funded by USAID and other international agencies, the party refuses such funding. P-MAS is funded by a combination of sales of its literature, t-shirts and such, contributions from its militant members, including elected officials who donate portions of their salaries, and money received from the electoral commission of the Paraguayan government, which disburses funds to all political parties that meet the minimal percentage of popular support to qualify.
Still others have criticized the class origins of members of P-MAS, saying its youthful members are “kids from the middle class who know nothing of poverty” (in the words of one angry member of an opposing political party in the Frente Social y Popular).
Juan de Dios laughs when he hears this criticism. He lives in the Republicano zone of the city, in the area known as “Bañado Sur” (“Bathed South”) so named for the fact that this low lying zone of the city has traditionally become a floodplain with the spring rains.
Juan’s house, like most houses in the flatlands around the dump, is home-made, but certainly a step up from the shacks made of cardboard and other recycled materials in which the dump workers live. Juan’s house is made chiefly of brick and mud with veins of gray cement in critical areas. Still, it’s by no standards “middle-class”: There’s no indoor plumbing and the open sewer runs along the street beside his house. As he shows me around the small, two-bedroom house in some stage of construction, he asks, “Does this look like the house of a petit-bourgeoisie?”
Walking up the alleyways near his house we have to zig-zag around the sewer stream and it’s only luck that today he’s upwind from the dump, visible from his house. Juan points to other houses in his neighborhood of “Bañado Sur” where other party members live before we take a walk to the dump to talk with the workers.
As we walk from the dump to Juan’s house where we’ll have lunch, we pass open pools of brown water Juan reminisces about the nearby lake which he describes as having been “crystalline” years ago when he was growing up. “People used to fish there and go swimming. It was a beautiful lake.”
It still is a beautiful lake, with ducks and cows wading in the water to graze on some of the plants rising out of the lake. But it’s no longer “crystalline” and certainly not a place where anyone would want to go swimming.
I ask if dengue has been a problem in the neighborhood and Juan chuckles. “No, that’s one advantage of all the pollution. Dengue mosquitos only breed in clean water. The water here is too polluted for them to grow in.”
Juan calls the workers on his cell phone as we approach the dump, an enormous mesa in a fenced area with a guard at the gate. “They’ve fenced in the dump since the city privatized it. We used to be able to go right up into the dump before it was privatized,” Juan explains. “Now they don’t let us in. We have to call the workers to meet outside the dump.”
In recent years the enormous garbage dump, located five or six blocks from Juan’s house, has been seen as a blessing: it has acted as a dike and prevented the flooding at the same time that it has also provided some 850 workers with employment, sifting through the dump in search of recyclable materials that they can sell. Juan de Dios is the general coordinator of the P-MAS in the neighborhood and he’s been “accompanying” the recyclers who, even while unionized, work in conditions their counterparts in Argentina call “inhuman.”
Now even that work is in danger since the dump has been privatized, leading to even more precarious conditions for the workers. The new company has argued that the dump is full and for the past month has been sending its trucks to dump at clandestine locations around the city. More than a third of the workers have quit going to work, preferring to stay home in their shacks, pieced together by lumber, sheetmetal, fiberglass and even cardboard rescued from the dump. Now the situation for all the workers has gone from “inhuman” to desperate. As Juan talks to the workers in a strange mix of Guaraní and Spanish, one of the workers describes his situation.
“He says his daughter asked him for money so she can buy lunch at school today. But he has four children and he hasn’t been able to give them anything for several days now,” Juan translates for me. The man’s brow is furrowed with worry as he continues the conversation in Guaraní and he and Juan discuss what options are available to the workers. If the situation doesn’t improve, the two or more thousands people, the recyclers and their families, will face starvation. Juan, as part of his mission of “accompanying” the workers in their struggle, will attend the meeting of the city council the following day to find out why the garbage trucks have stopped going to the dump.
Juan’s work with the recyclers is one of dozens of community projects in which the P-MAS works. As Aldo explains, “Most other parties only make the rounds in the neighborhoods once every four years, at election time. We live here in the neighborhoods and believe we have to maintain a constant presence to build a new society.” Thanks to this presence, Aldo said, P-MAS has grown exponentially while other parties have declined.
Back in the center of Asuncion, Aldo takes me to visit an important landmark in the development of the P-MAS, the Casa de Juventud (CJ), where Camilo Soares and others began to organize the party. It continues to serve as a youth center with its own radio station, Radio Rebelde, and it also is home to the Germinal Labor Studies Center. While P-MAS ended formal relations with the Casa over five years ago, they remain organizations working in close collaboration.
In the entryway of the CJ is a bronze plaque dedicated to General Stroessner in 1982. Beneath that plaque is a poster for the current educational campaign, “Campaign Against Oblivion and Silence.” Around the poster are images of the disappeared and tortured political prisoners of the Stroessner regime. A young woman who meets us in the hallway explains that this is a campaign the Casa is bringing into the schools all around the country.
“You have to understand that 70% of Paraguay is under thirty. Most of the country doesn’t even remember Stroessner. And if they ask their parents, their parents often won’t talk about it.”
Unlike other countries that participated in Plan Condor from the 1960s on, like Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, where those responsible for crimes against humanity are now being tried, Paraguay has done nothing toward bringing the torturers and murderers to justice. “They continue in power. Many of those who designed the program are still in the government to this day, in positions of authority.”
Officially, 4,000 were disappeared, but Aldo says that number is far from accurate.
“When they disappeared someone, they often disappeared their whole family. In fact they sometimes disappeared whole communities. There are towns where everyone was disappeared, and no witnesses remain.”
The Campaign against Oblivion and Silence is a small step toward keeping alive the issue of the disappeared, but it is at least a step. As Aldo shows me around the Casa he continues talking about the dictatorship.
“People think that the dictatorship ended in 1989 when a coup drove Stroessner from power but that isn’t the case. The Colorado Party, Stroessner’s party, remained in power…”
“Until last month,” I said, finishing his statement, and referring to the August 15th inauguration of Fernando Lugo as president, who brought the more than six decade long rule of the military and the Colorado party to an end.
Aldo nodded. “Yes, the dictatorship remained in power in the executive until last week. But it still remains in power in the legislative and judicial branches.”
In this context, Lugo’s supporters realize that they’re racing against the clock. The P-MAS continues its work, building support for the new government in the poorest neighborhoods of the cities of Paraguay. Given recent events in the country, especially Lugo’s Sept. 2 revelations of a coup plot against him, the new president could do worse than to take a cue from the P-MAS as he picks his way through the minefields of Paraguayan society. He could up the ante, turn up the rhetoric and back his words up with clear actions aimed at getting the country back into the hands of his people. With soy and cattle oligarchies, organized crime and a suspicious U.S. government prepared to join forces against any change, this new priest-turned-president may also need a miracle or two along the way if he decides to take a turn to the left — but he’ll be able to count on the P-MAS to watch his back.