Gerónimo Alaya on the campaign trail. Source: Facebook (Movimiento Indígena Plurinacional). Public Domain.
On April 22, Mario Abdo Benítez, known as Marito, from the Conservative Colorado Party (which has ruled the country 66 out of the last 70 years), won the presidential elections in Paraguay by a narrow margin.
He is the son of the late dictator Alfredo Stroessner’s private secretary and the co-founder (with the dictator’s grandson) of the Peace and Progress Movement. According to him, Stroessner did much for the country, although he says that he does not defend his human rights record.
Paraguay is in breach of domestic and international law – and lags behind its neighbours – in guaranteeing that the descendants of its pre-Columbian population have political representation.
On the eve of the elections this April, the square outside Congress in Asunción was covered with clapboard shacks and tarpaulins. Among them were several dozen indigenous Ava Guaraní families – forced to flee their homes in Itakyry, eastern Paraguay, by gunmen they claim were hired by Brazilian soybean farmers.
“Right now we don’t have faith in anything”, said Hugo Ramírez, as the community’s children played in the dirt nearby. “The government, the main candidates are all corrupt.”
Conquistadors sailed upriver to this landlocked South American country 500 years ago, establishing themselves among the local peoples through violence and – unusually – intermarriage. Today, roughly eight in ten of Paraguay’s seven million people speak Guaraní, many as their first language, and blend its shifting vowels with Spanish in informal conversation.
But this pronounced mestizo heritage has rarely translated into respect for Paraguay’s remaining indigenous peoples – some 120.000 people, or around 2% of the population, spread across 19 distinct ethnicities.
“They live in a precarious state,” says Oscar Ayala Amarilla, head of human rights NGO Codehupy and a former indigenous affairs official. Almost 80% are in poverty. Many lack title to their land and access to hospitals, schools and drinking water. Deforestation threatens to extinguish the way of life of Ayoreo families in voluntary isolation in the Chaco.
Oscar Ayala adds that Paraguay is also in breach of domestic and international law – and lags behind its neighbours – in guaranteeing that the descendants of its pre-Columbian population have political representation.
Countries like Bolivia and Colombia have created dedicated seats for their indigenous communities to ensure their voices are heard. But in Paraguay, he says, “an indigenous person has never sat in Congress”.
Gerónimo Ayala, 37, plans to change all this. A member of the Mbyá Guaraní people, he leads the newly-formed Plurinational Indigenous Movement of Paraguay (MPIP) and headed up its senate ticket in Paraguay’s elections on April 22. “Indigenous people need to be within the political structure”, he argues. “This is the key, this is the secret.”
A lifelong activist and a qualified architect, Ayala is direct and articulate when it comes to policies. The MPIP, fielding candidates at national and local level, aimed at building alliances after the elections to pressure the State to comply with the law and “give indigenous peoples their due”.
“We don’t identify with any ideology”, he said. “What we need is to work in harmony. We have to work to get the vote of every senator.”
The MPIP brings together 12 peoples – and included non-indigenous candidates on its roster. It pushes for more transparent spending on health and education, and for the return of ancestral land. It wants to work to tighten up and enforce lax deforestation laws, because “as the major crops advance, the green lung of Paraguay is being lost.”
The MPIP also hopes to bring Paraguayans face-to-face with their unfamiliar compatriots. “Here we are 19 different indigenous peoples, 19 different languages.
The Maká, the Aché, the Ayoreo, the Maskoy, the Nivaclé, the Angaités, Sanapanás, Pueblo Qom, Paí… But here people don’t even want to speak in Guaraní. They’d rather speak in French or English. (“I don’t have anything against English,” Ayala jokes. “I tried to learn but never finished the course.”
Paraguay’s indigenous peoples are within their rights not to support him, he explained during the campaign.
Some see more immediate benefits in aligning themselves with Paraguay’s traditional parties. And Ayala was conscious of the risks of having one senator alone – all the MPIP hoped to achieve at these elections – in a chamber notorious for its dysfunction and corruption. “We know who we’ll be faced with in there,” he said.
“The serious challenge for Ayala will be the ability to navigate a very complex political system without compromising his political promises”, said Claudia Pompa, a political analyst. “It is something that until now has been sadly unheard of in Paraguay.”
“That’s why we’re going to create a national council of indigenous peoples, to accompany us and keep us from losing this vision”, Ayala promised.
An uphill struggle
This time, though, the MPIP’s self-funded efforts – they were forced to raise money from barbecues, and did not have enough money to hire a single billboard – were not enough to propel them into Congress.
The MPIP reported – in common with the main opposition coalition, Alianza, and other smaller parties – widespread irregularities in the counting of votes.
Paraguay’s electoral court insisted that it was the responsibility of parties to field observers on every single one of some 21.000 polling stations nationwide to monitor for attempted fraud by their rivals.
Despite these disadvantages, Ayala and the MPIP secured over 25.000 votes nationwide – outstripping career politicians and securing around half the amount needed for a senate seat.
But back in November, the outgoing president, Horacio Cartes, vetoed proposals for polling stations to store ballots after totals have been added up, rather than discarding them – something which would have made verifying fraud allegations possible.
Yet despite these disadvantages, Ayala and the MPIP secured over 25.000 votes nationwide – outstripping career politicians and securing around half the amount needed for a senate seat. The MPIP hopes, with greater publicity and a longer run-up, to break through the electoral ceiling in 2023.
And the movement is already restoring faith among indigenous communities, Ayala reports, and prompting the traditional parties to offer greater space to indigenous candidates and policies within their platforms.
If the autonomous indigenous movement can overcome the obstacles to sit in Congress, “it will be a phenomenon that no-one could have ever imagined”, Ayala enthuses.