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Paraguayan Pits
by Michael Wagstaff

Review of The Priest of Paraguay, by Hugh O'Shaughnessy and Edgar Venerando Ruiz

The Priest of Paraguay Paraguay is the latest country in South America to shake off some of the constraints imposed by international capitalism. It follows in the wake of Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. Hugh O'Shaughnessy, an observer of Latin America for many years (he was a confrère of Salvador Allende) and Edgar Venerando Ruiz Diaz, a journalist in Paraguay, take up the story in The Priest of Paraguay.

In a sense their description of what has gone on this landlocked country outdoes any Graham Greene parody, except of course it is all true. Alfredo Stroessner, the former dictator, holds cabinet meetings in a brothel and turns a blind eye to former Nazis, ministers of all stripes rip off millions of dollars as they build two hydroelectric dams, an unfortunate Chilean critic is locked up for five years in conditions that make you shudder just to read about them. Stroessner is finally toppled after 35 years in 1989 following a shoot-out with a general, who then takes over, while El Excelentísimo is allowed to flee and lives out the rest of his life in Brazil, dying in 2006 at the age of 93.

The Latinobarometro, a social science group in Santiago, Chile, carries out a survey of attitudes each year, interviewing thousands of people in every country in Latin America except Cuba. The results are a mine of data, often deeply embarrassing for the advocates of the "market-knows-best" solutions. Paraguay comes bottom on all counts. Corruption, violence, employment, democracy. It's the pits. It is a case study of what happens when a white Spanish-speaking planter class, backed to the hilt for decades by the major imperialist power (you guessed) has its foot firmly on the neck of the indigena, the Guarani-speaking peasants. Now, thank God, at long last, things are changing. Hallelujah. The people of Paraguay have elected, been allowed to elect, Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, a "moderate social democrat".

The Priest of Paraguay is very much a snapshot of a "work in progress", in fact a work that has barely begun. It is good on the role of liberation theology and the Catholic church: the Jesuits, inspired by Pedro Las Casas, the celebrated defender of the indigenous populations in the 16th century, and today a grouping called the Verbistas, showing clearly how Lugo is standing on the shoulders of other Catholics who have gone before. It also makes clear the limited ambitions of this progressively-minded politician, who was in fact only elected because the ruling Colorado party was almost totally discredited. The book could be better: it could have provided a more grounded statistical base and the quality of the photographs is below par. But if you want to know about what's going on in this obscure South America state you'll want to read it.

–  Michael Wagstaff

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