Thursday, 22 March 2007

Marzo Paraguayo

For five days in March of 1999 the citizens of Asuncion occupied the Plaza outside the Capitol building here to defend against the plotters of a military coup. They occupied the plaza in the face of sniper fire, mounted police, and the threat of tanks.
The protesters fought pitched battles with police and supporters of the coup plotters. They used ball bearings to cause the mounted police to slip and fall, they used fireworks, pretty in the sky, dangerous at close range, they blocked the street with a burning truck, then pushed it with a tractor down Av. 14th de Mayo to stop the advance of the Olviedistas.
It sounds like a mix of Prague Spring and the forest moon of Endor, but this is real, and they won.
To an American the question “would you risk your life to defend Democracy?” is like the question “would you risk your life to defend t-shirts?” While the first is more common (being used by some of our more unscrupulous politicians to defend some of our more unscrupulous wars) they both fall on American ears they same way. Democracy is such a part of our life that the idea that we would actually have to defend it is unthinkable. We go to work, we hang out with our friends, and we exercise our First Amendment freedoms in the same way. Democracy is so deeply ingrained in us we don’t even notice it.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Where Paraguay's government goes to work

Paraguay’s Capitol is startlingly ugly, but unimposing, much like Paraguay’s congress. A foreigner walking through the streets of down town Asuncion might notice it for its outlandish architecture, but would probably think nothing more of it; there are no soldiers guarding it, the few desultory plantings are poorly maintained, and its location is out of the way.
(This is a stark contrast to the Presidential Palace, which looks like the home of a Bond villain. The romantic, tropical architecture combined with the fact the place is surrounded by surly, poorly uniformed guys with guns makes it very easy to imagine Scaramanga holding court inside. The truth, unfortunately, is not that far off).
The building faces the river; so, as walking along the river is completely out of the question (get to that in a minute), the dominant image of the Capitol is the side. Of course, to say ‘dominant’ would imply that this side image is somehow imposing or interesting, which would be a lie. There is a double glass door that faces a small park that is alternately over run with children in dirty clothes or protesters.
In one corner of the park is a statue of Mariscal Lopez looking over the river dumped on top of a uninspiring rectangular block. Two large cannons that were used in the War of the Triple Alliance are also part of this monument, but they face the opposite way from Mariscal, aimed directly at the Capitol.
Between the park and the river the land slopes away so dramatically that it is only from the edge of the park closest to the river that one can see the intervening land. And it’s quite a shock. Nestled between the symbol of Paraguay’s legislative branch and its historic main artery of commerce is a barrio of complete abject poverty. Temporary buildings of corrugated iron huddle together and lean on each other; free-range chickens peck in the dirt. As my friend and I walked along the side of the Legislative Palace that faced the river, we encountered what was supposed to be the front. The effect of the large steps and gold lettering was somewhat marred by the fact that two piglets were rutting in the dust at the foot of the entrance. It was here we got jacked. There was no one around, not one senator nor policeman.
I bought a new watch the other day. It’s a fake Tommy Hilfiger, and when I hold it upside down the face looks like the Paraguayan flag.