The Society

The Society

FOR MOST OF ITS HISTORY, a series of dichotomies characterized Paraguayan society. A contrast existed between rural and urban Paraguay and, even more pointedly, between Asunción--where economic, social, and political trends originated--and the rest of Paraguay. In rural Paraguay a divide existed between those holding legal title to land, usually the owners of large estates dedicated to commercial farming, and the mass of peasant squatters growing crops largely for their families' subsistence. Similarly, there was a gulf between the elite--educated, prosperous, city-based and - bred--and the country's poor, whether rural or urban. Finally, although most Paraguayans retained their fluency in Guaraní and this indigenous language continued to play a vital role in public life, there was a continuum of fluency in Spanish that paralleled (and reflected) the social hierarchy. These dichotomies not only continued into the 1980s but were exacerbated by the extensive, dramatic changes that had occurred in Paraguayan society since the 1960s.

Paraguayans of all classes viewed family and kin as the center of the social universe. Anyone not related through blood or marriage was regarded with reserve, if not distrust. People expected to be able to call upon extended kin for assistance as necessary and counted on them for unswerving loyalty. Godparents (whether or not they were kin) were important as well in strengthening social links within the web of kinship.

Migration was a perennial fact of life: peasants changed plots; men worked on plantations, factories, and river boats; women migrated to cities and towns to find employment in domestic service. Since the mid-nineteenth century there also had been a large contingent of emigré Paraguayans in Argentina.

In the early 1970s, Paraguay's eastern border region--long underpopulated and undeveloped--replaced neighboring Argentina as the major destination of most Paraguayan migrants. Historically, land in the region had been held in immense plantations; the inhabitants were largely tropical forest Indians and mestizo peasant squatters. Beginning in the late 1960s, however, government land reform projects settled as many as 250,000 rural Paraguayans in agricultural colonies in this area. Many others bypassed the government entirely and settled in the region on their own.

Improvements in transportation and the construction of massive hydroelectric projects brought more far-reaching changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Economic growth drew tens of thousands of migrants--immigrants from neighboring Brazil as well as Paraguayan nationals--into the eastern border region. Their sheer numbers transformed the east from a sleepy hinterland into a maelstrom of change. In the process, both Indians and traditional small farmers were dispossessed of their lands and their traditional livelihood. As the construction projects were completed in the early 1980s, the region saw increased rural unrest as the peasants who had temporarily held jobs in construction found that there were no unclaimed agricultural lands for them to occupy.

The pace of urbanization--modest by world and Latin American standards--quickened during the boom years. Economic growth enabled the cities to absorb large numbers of rural Paraguayans who had been displaced by increased population pressures and the country's skewed land distribution. Economic downturns in the 1980s, however, stoked unrest among workers and peasants.


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