Sunday, July 5, 2009

Vida y Historia


Another glorious week in Paraguay for me. I´m only just now starting to hear rumbles of complaints among the group, but the only issues I´ve had, I managed to work out with some humor. I was starting to resent being treated like a little kid by my family, but I made a big joke about how they confuse me for a 3 yr old since my Spanish sounds like a 3yr old. We laughed and the next night (very begrudgingly and with bemused smiles the whole time like they were watching a little kid pretending to be a grown-up) let me cook for myself. And my response when my mom literally tried to stir my food for me ("Soy una audulta") is a little joke with us now. Also, I started Guraní classes this week, I reached the necessary level for Spanish, and finally learned how to pronounce that stupid Guaraní Y - make the U sound while smiling). So everything is all good.

On Friday we took a fieldtrip to Asunción and got a tortuously long and boring tour of INCOOP, which is a co-op of co-ops. I was a little shocked at the level of professionalism here, or I should say lack thereof. We were forbidden to wear jeans there because we were told it was extremely professional, one of the chuchiest places in Paraguay. Then while our tourguide was taking us to every single room on all seven floors, a fat guy offered me a volunteer position with him since I´m "muy linda" - in front of his bosses and a tourgroup! (Try that in the US without a lawsuit - I dare you). Luckily I´d tuned out three floors before so I didn´t respond and our trainer backed us all out diplomatically. Also, Ronnell told me that all the female workers were giving me dirty looks when I turned my back. Great. Let´s hope I never have to actually get anything done at INCOOP.
After that, it was off to the embassy for the 4th of July party. We got to meet lots of other volunteers and just hang out in America for a few hours. At one point this guy and girl came up to me all excitedly and said, "We heard you couldn´t have gluten. We can´t either!" We took a picture together. We may start a club.
Actually, the most interesting part of the week was the saturday morning history lesson, which really gave some good insight into the current Paraguayan attitudes and views. I´ll sum it up here a little for you.

Their first president, when Spain granted them independence in 1811, was Dr. Francia (El Supremo), who hated the Spanish and the entire elite class. He killed off a lot of elite, nationalized all the land, controlled all resources, and closed the borders (this is when apio´i started). He was also the Great Señor of the poor because he gave them land, donated his own salary to the national treasury, eliminated private wealth, and created a Paraguay with no hunger, theft, or begging (in Guaraní it´s called mboriau riñguata, which means "poor full"). He also completely eliminated higher education so he could be the smartest person in the country, and some people called him a wizard. (He tried to resign from the original cabinet because they wouldn´t give him enough power but they invited him back because no one else knew how to do anything. He came back and took over as dictator.) So basically he created a system where, on the hierarchy of needs, all physical needs were met and absolutely no mental or spiritual needs - keep everyone dumb and content. He ruled for 29 yrs when they were really just forming their own post-colonial identity.

After that, Paraguay was actually doing really well. By 1864 they had a railroad, ironworks, a Navy, a telegraph, factories, export industries, a big budget and no outside debt. Every Paraguayan I´ve met also said they had tons of gold and ate from golden plates on golden tables, but there´s no proof of that whatsoever. Then Brazil and Uruguay were having a little tiff over a river, Paraguay got involved to protect Uruguay, but then Uruguay´s government was usurped and the new government sided with Brazil. This made General Solano Lopez lead Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. He was since rewritten in the history books by Stroessner as a hero (Paraguayans will tell you he died clutching the flag, yelling "I die for my country", but the truth is that he led them in an unwinnable war, was certifiably crazy, killed off a lot of his own, already small, army, including his own brothers, on suspicion of treachery, and was shot in the back as he was running away). When the war ended in 1870, Paraguay had lost 300,000 of its population, and had a 1 to 5 man to woman ratio (this was possibly the start of the machismo and why cheating in relationships is so accepted and prevalent here). They also became dependent on foreign capital for the first time in order to pay their war debt. So just as they were getting on their feet as a country, they lost a lot of territory and were pretty crushed as a populace.

A few generations later in 1932, when they were again starting to really get going, along comes Bolivia. Bolivia had just lost its coastline to Chile, so it decided it was going to take the Chaco from Paraguay (oil had recently been discovered there). Paraguay defended itself and would have easily won the war except that it signed a treaty that gave Bolivia rights to part of the Chaco (the oil turned out to be nothing, but since then, natural gas has been discovered there...on the Bolivian side). The Liberals, who were in power at the time, lost a lot of respect (which later set the stage for the 54 yr long Colorado takeover). The 47,000 people that died were another big blow for the country, AGAIN.

This was followed by political chaos for 19 years, including a civil war between the 2 parties, and then along comes Stroessner. See if the description of this reign reminds you of the book 1984 and/or the Bush administration as much as it does me. He promised Peace, Well-Being, and Work. He had rigged elections every 5 years, so really he was President for Life. He declared Martial Law citing a communist threat (and was a US ally until Carter). Over 35% of the budget went to the military. He was Head of State, of the Colorado Party, and of the Military. He controlled all resources and info. His entire presidency was in a declared State of Emergency, so fear controlled everyone. All state jobs were for party members only and everything was done through favors and favoritism. Everything was a personal gift from him, their generous leader. There could be no meeting between 3 or more people without a monitor. There were spies everywhere and citizens were rewarded for turning in others on suspicion of government betrayal. People, including children, would DISAPPEAR AT RANDOM. Sometimes they were tortured and would return home but never speak of it. Sometimes they never returned. Because of this, the crime rate was extremely low. I´ve heard from many people that they felt safer under Stroessner than now. He ruled until 1989, when his son-in-law usurped him and he fled to Brazil.

Since then, the Colorado Party was still in charge, all with direct or indirect ties to Stroessner, and Paraguay was ranked 2nd in the world for corruption. Then the Colorados had some internal disagreements and split up, just as the Liberals were getting together to form an "Allianza Politica" and managed to gain power with the current President, Lugo in 2008. His was the first campaign with an actual political platform (there´s technically no ideological difference at all between the 2 parties). He promised transparency in the government, helping the poor, and fixing the Itaipu situation (Paraguay is getting screwed with royalties from the dam under the deal Stroessner arranged). So far, all I´ve heard about Lugo is about the illegitimate kids he sired while he was an archbishop, but we´ll see if he follows through on his promises.

SO, all this has led to the views that a lot of current Paraguayans seem to have, at least where we live, including that excelling makes one a target, so mediocrity is promoted and creativity is nonexistent. School is just copying stuff directly and regurgitating it so no one learns to think critically or question. People shut their eyes and ignore problems or wait patiently for something outside themselves to fix it. There is a general distrust of everyone outside the family and hesitation to be part of a group.

It´s an exciting time right now because these things are changing. There are farmers protesting land situations and Co-operatives forming all over the place. Anyway, none of those traits are necessarily bad. They´re self-preserving, and anyone else raised in this situation would be the same way. It´s something for us to work through in our work here, and I feel like I definitely have a better understanding of it now. Of course I´m learning more and more all the time...


  1. Yay. Thank you so much for the history lesson and always being so damn interesting. I. Love. This. Blog. And you, so be safe.

  2. i love how part of your vocab now is chuchi, like its normal for our american friends... : )



Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.