While the parliamentary vote that overthrew President Fernando Lugo on 22 June 2012 dealt a severe blow to the hopes of Paraguay’s social movements, it was by no means the end of organisation from below.
In Asunción you can’t get much lower than the bañados. These are the flood plain of the river Paraguay, liable to flooding and with next to no infrastructure. Nevertheless they are home to communities, originally immigrants from the provinces, but now asunceños in their own right.
A taxi-driver who had taken me to a meeting in Asunción’s historic centre the day before had warned me not to venture down the river bank. I was liable to run into ne’er-do-wells, drug addicts and other undesirables. Stay up top, was the message. So it was ironic that the following day my Oxfam driver was taking me precisely down this slippery slope into undesirable neighbourhood, for a typical spy novel rendez-vous at a pharmacy with Pái Oliva, an 83-year old Jesuit who works with these communities. Oxfam though it was better for their driver to take me – probably no taxi would have ventured down the hill.
Pái Oliva met us and directed us to an educational project he runs nearby. After a few minutes conversation, he announced that we were going on a demonstration, in fact two demonstrations. Led by a group of mothers, the community was protesting against police ill-treatment – ‘torture’ in their words – of their children if they were arrested for using drugs. With few opportunities for education or employment, young people in the bañados are easy prey to petty drug-traffickers.
Our demonstration started at police post 24, with chanting, and street theatre illustrating police violence, performed and applauded with gusto. A protest was handed into the station commander.
We then scaled the bank of the river to reach ‘proper’ Asunción, where the community was due to hand in a protest to the ministry of the interior. For an hour or so the community of Bañados Sur took possession of part of the centre of the capital. The demonstration, as the photos show, was very much a community – even a family – affair. The confidence and creativity the demonstrators displayed were an encouraging sign that some Paraguayans at the bottom are not prepared to let those at the top have it all their own way.