Over 1000 Paraguayans are protesting at the country’s biggest university – the National University of Asunción (Universidad Nacional de Asunción, or UNA) – to demand an end to corruption at the state’s most important higher education institution.
Students have been occupying the Rector’s office at the UNA campus in Asunción since September, and have led several marches through the capital’s streets, as well as several sporadic and spontaneous protests at public events attend by Education Minister Enrique Riera, and outside the home of the institution’s top officials.
The departure of Peralta and other managerial figures triggered a reform of the statutes of Paraguay’s principal university which, according to students, has a corrupt system inherited from the military dictatorship of President Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), which has never been successfully cleaned up.
This year’s protests came to a head when a group of teachers and high-ranking civil servants began the revision of the UNA statutes without consulting the students.
The undergraduates are demanding that their teachers should not be allowed to take decisions affecting the revision of the statues and are calling for more transparency and participation in the process.
During a march in mid-September, Riera came out of his ministry building to talk to the demonstrators. The response was dozens of water bottles raining down on his head and that of his bodyguards.
The atmosphere is still tense, and dates back a long time. University and secondary school students have been calling on top education officials for over a year to increase the education budget, which is well below the regional average.
Hours before the acrimonious meeting with students, Riera had warned in a press conference that “students who leave the examination hall will get zero marks and tutors who join the demonstration will have their salaries docked for not teaching their class.”
One of the current protest’s student leaders, Felipe Domínguez, told the press that day that “the minister’s threats were not to the protestors liking”, adding “we are only asking for what is right and fair: a better budget”.
Riera later stated: “He came out to talk to them because he wanted to show that violence doesn’t solve anything, but these young people are very worried, they are rebellious”.
Investment in education falling
Paraguay spends 3.9 per cent of its GDP on education, and the amount is falling every year. Meanwhile, the regional average is 5.2 per cent and steadily rising, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The students are demanding US$50 million (about €45 million) more for the ministry’s general budget in 2017.
The World Economic Forum considers Paraguay the country with the worst education in the world, out of a total of 140 states. It has handed the country this shameful accolade for two years running, emphasising the poor quality of primary education, which undermines any effort to improve secondary and university education.
“The problem has several consequences: very weak education, only a minority have any real career options, a lack of universal access... only specific public policy can help overcome this chaotic situation,” Mario Paz Castaing, a public policy expert, teacher and former senator, told Equal Times.
Minister Riera took office last May but there have been no improvements since then. The student demonstrations forced Marta Lafuente out of office. She was a traditional technocrat who during her time in charge of the Ministry of Education tried to straighten out an institution that was used to being “the lost fund of the partisan mafia that made up the country’s principal political formations, the governing Colorado Party and the opposition Liberal Party,” recalls Castaing.
The university students accuse several lecturers of not working their full hours, of having overlapping schedules or holding positions in other public institutions at the same time, and collecting two or more state salaries, which is prohibited by law.
The students are angry that the current Rector of the UNA, Abel Bernal, receives a salary of US$6000 (€5,500) a month according to a video broadcast by the demonstrators.
Furthermore, UNA Vice-Chancellor Héctor Rojas, earns US$7,400 a month, but doesn’t go to work, according to the students. Protestors consider these salaries scandalous, bearing in mind that the average wage in Paraguay is less than US$300 a month (€270), or 1.8 million guaranis.
The UNA students are maintaining their occupation of the Rector’s office and have announced that they will not end their protest until a new meeting that takes on board their demands concerning the reform of the university, is called.
President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay has so far avoided commenting on the matter, but in August, at the beginning of the protest, speaking on National Youth Day in Paraguay, he said that young people were his government’s “real commitment”. The country’s rulers, he added, are responsible for “creating a better future” for the younger generation.