By Carlos Aníbal Peris Castiglioni
Ever since I began my university studies back in 2008, I’ve realized that Paraguayans greatly exalt war and authoritarianism. That makes me much like every social scientist who is dedicated to describing, analyzing and characterizing Paraguay. No matter what topic occupied our interest, the rhetoric has been the same: "the enemy," "the need for order" or "one more battle to be fought."
In this context, the current pandemichas not been the exception in how it has been treated.
I vividly recollect March 10, 2020. It was the date when the central government decreed a partial quarantine, one that included the suspension of classes and all activities involving gatherings of people, both in public and private events. A few days later, the ban was tightened: borders were closed, international flights were shut down, night curfews were imposed, and the streets and highways were restricted.
In light of this situation, my parents, two doctors who had suffered through the dark years of Stronism (1954-1989), considered the situation with an air of concern: "seeing the capital, Asunción, like this, seems like those times we lived in fear of the dictator and his cruel police,” They told me.
With the measures imposed, comparisons of the COVID-19 situation in warlike terms were increasing: "we will be morally victorious as we were in the dispute against the Triple Alliance" (Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina; 1864-1870), or "officially as with the Chaco War" (Bolivia; 1932-1935).
Joined in lockstep, on March 22, 2020, the covers of both printed and digital newspapers adhered to a single slogan that sought to encourage us in difficult times. Published on their front pageswas: "The Guarani strength will defeat the coronavirus." The message appealed to the triumphalist character of a race, one that "could never be defeated.” I was thinking at the time, and still do today, about the lack of necessity to emphasize a spurious nationalism.
As a matter of fact, “the Guarani strength” was no more than a myth. That which established the idea of “an epic people in battle” or of a people with “extreme intelligence,” who in the process of conquest went for the pacific mixing with the Spanish instead of violent resistance.
Slovenian anthropologist Branislava Susnik (1920-1996) has scientifically dismantled such a concept. The harangue of the "Guarani claw," consequently, would be an element that would strengthen xenophobia and intolerance, values so common in a country that denies fundamental rights to sexual and ethnic minorities, for example.
In addition, the attribution of hero qualities to government representatives comes to my mind. The head of the Health Department, Julio Mazzoleni, was given the moniker of "the Commander," one who in his charge would have the doctors, as "soldiers in the first line of action." Euclides Acevedo or the "Implacable," the visible head of the Ministry of the Interior, has been the one who asked the population to comply with the restrictive measures. "In the event that someone violates quarantine," he emphatically warned, "law enforcement officers will subdue the misfits."
This brings to my mind the image of my mentor in Paraguayan history, Antonio Galeano. It was during the mornings in 2005, when I was far away from studying sociology. To be honest, I was studying electronic engineering, but with his critical perspective on reality, it was him who made me change my mind regarding my future career.
Galeano spoke then of "messianism" and "Manichaeism." The passing of time for Paraguayans was an explicit sign of everything has been seen as good or bad; and, compellingly, it seems necessary to find a maximum leader to direct the nation’s plans.
In the collective imaginary, to cite a couple, Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1813-1840)or Mariscal Francisco Solano López (1862-1870)represented this notion. Today we can see that the phenomenon has taken shape in the figures of Mazzoleni, Acevedo or the President of the Republic, Mario Abdo Benítez. The president asserted that "the Paraguayan people have been known for being warriors.”
A few days ago, I observed with concern the actions of the motorized police known as LINCE. They appeared in news reports where they were shown subduing citizens who did not comply with the quarantine. The victimswere compatriots, of scarce resources, many of them living in the streets, who were forced to exercise or threatened with Taser guns or with going to jail, for not respecting the stipulated norm.
In the face of these unfortunate events, some in the media praised the officers. "It's what our country needs," they declared. On social networks, an impersonal space in which citizens express themselves, some readers longed for the order and rectitude that characterized the dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006).
As the weeks go by in Paraguay, 40 days have come and gone. The specialists predict that the peak of infections will be reached in the third week of May. While those nostalgic for heroic deeds or tyrannical times are calling for a return to those times; the nation is facing the imminent danger of a general collapse. With just over 200 intensive care beds, no unemployment protection system or high government spending, concern seems to be elsewhere, a discursive one, of pitched battle against the new epidemic.
It's 9 a.m., and as I write the final lines, I listen to the music "13 Tuyutí" by Francisco Russo in the distance. "A good song of war, of resistance, especially appropriate to raise the spirits of Paraguayans," noted the morning show presenter. I ponder, from my purview, that after the pandemic nothing will be the same, but perhaps, and unfortunately, there still will remain that warlike and repressive culture that has done so much damage to us.
Click here () to view an example of the state's recent propaganda to combat the threat of coronavirus.
Carlos Aníbal Peris Castiglioni, professor and researcher at the National University of Asunción - Paraguay. Director of the Social Sciences Department in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Paraguay. Former Director of the Rectorate’s Postgraduate Department at the National University of Asuncion (2016-2019).