Paraguay hosted the 49th Summit of MercoSur from December 17-21, and President Horacio Cartes said on Tuesday that it was a very productive meeting. “I perceived a better atmosphere than when we began governing in 2013,” he stated. That may be true for Paraguay’s foreign relations, but it is certainly not for its domestic affairs, given that two crises embarrassed the government just as it was in the global spotlight.
On Monday, workers across Paraguay began a two-day general strike against the right-wing Cartes regime. Labor organizers called for a 25% across-the-board wage increase, lowering the cost of public transportation, pension reforms, rehiring of fired public-sector employees, greater spending on education and health, and a relaxation of heavy restrictions on freedom of association.
It’s no surprise that disaffected workers time a strike shortly before or during a big international conference for additional publicity and leverage (for example, see Blouin News’ coverage of a strike in Panama before the country hosted the 7th Summit of the Americas in April). But the protesters also called for Cartes to resign, and thus the president was able to dismiss the strike as a “political protest,” noting that there are always calls for his resignation. Likewise, on Wednesday, Labor Minister Guillermo Sosa pointed to low turnout and said that workers made a mistake by striking at this “very inopportune” time of year.
Meanwhile, heavy flooding of the Paraguay river this month had forced 72,500 residents of the capital Asuncion to flee their homes as of Tuesday. According to SEN, the emergency management agency, additional flood evacuees could bring the total up to 100,000. Most of those affected come from the Bañados, two poor neighborhoods on the banks of the river.
So last week Cartes decreed a state of emergency in Asuncion and in seven provinces affected by the flooding. And while some 66,000 displaced people are living in approximately 100 areas provided by the government throughout the city (the rest are staying at relatives’ homes), they are hardly getting royal treatment — SEN is distributing plywood and zinc sheeting for the evacuees to build their own shacks, like in shantytowns.
To add insult to injury, people protesting the government’s tepid response to the flooding last weekend were met with riot police firing rubber bullets and water cannons. This was a national embarrassment, but it may have spurred the government to step up its game. For example, on Tuesday a SEN official said the agency is now organizing soup kitchens for flood evacuees who need food.
These domestic crises are not one-off events. Labor organizers are already talking about another strike in March. And flooding of the Paraguay river last year displaced 85,000 people, so this could be a recurring headache in the years to come. (The cresting of the Paraguay River normally occurs once every 10 years, but in the last two years it has risen above its critical point of 18 feet on three occasions.)
Now that Cartes is done playing the gracious host to foreign leaders, these domestic problems cannot be relegated to the back burner anymore.