Revealing Protesters on the Fringe: Crucifixion Protest in Paraguay

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Sep 20, 2013 08:05 AM |
An analysis of the crucifix protest in Paraguay in the light of Nishant Shah’s piece: Whose Change is it Anyway? The blog post looks at the physical and symbolic spaces in which narratives of change were conceived and the extent to which information circulating within activates citizen action.
Revealing Protesters on the Fringe: Crucifixion  Protest in Paraguay

Bus driver Juan Villalba, leader of the crucifixion protest (pictured by the Hindu, August 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/18fbaDE)

“What constitutes change? What are the intentions that make change possible? Who are the actors involved?” These are the questions with which Nishant Shah opens the thought piece ‘Whose Change is it Anyway’, a series of reflections and provocations exploring the future of citizen action and digital technologies in emerging information societies. The project, in collaboration with the HIVOS Knowledge Program, begins a process of unlearning conventional understandings of ‘change’ and redefining it in the light of less visible narratives of political, social and cultural transformation. Three pivots of analysis are at the backbone of this piece. First, it locates change by looking at the historicity and stressing the role of invisible crises that lead to digital activism. Second, it moves on to unpack our definition of change and the language framing activism as system-overhaul practices rather reformative experiments. Third, it looks at the outcomes of change proposing a redefinition of failure that enables us to recognize instances of change outside of what is dubbed ‘successful’ citizen action. All in all, the piece is reflective rather than conclusive and when paired up with contemporary events of political and social change, it serves as a framework to challenge existing paradigms and overlooked narratives.

This was precisely my experience when at the end of August I came across the Paraguayan crucifix protest in the BBC News website: the story of eight bus drivers who led by union leader Juan Villalba, crucified themselves onto wooden crosses to protest against labour exploitation in Asuncion.[1] In spite of its international media coverage, the protest has to this day failed to mobilize digitally fluent Paraguayan and global netizens into joining the ranks[2] of their plea, keeping protesters at the fringes of the online sphere. This is surprising compared to other publicized Paraguayan protests, such as Pro-Ache Tribe campaigns back in 2011[3] and the anti-corruption protests earlier this year,[4] which featured politically active students mobilizing through technology to influence public policy in Paraguay.



Before jumping into deeming the crucifix protest a success or a failure, I would like to refer back to the first axis of analysis in Shah’s work and discuss the history, context and structures in which the intent for change was crafted. I will follow Anat-Ben David´s framework based on her research on the geopolitics of digital spaces, and look at how “hybrid geographical and digital spaces” intertwine with “situated knowledges and practices” in order to localize change (2011). I will first focus on the political and social context of Paraguay and how it framed two online campaigns:  the Aché Tribe campaign in 2011 and the anti-corruption campaign in June 2013. Then, I will move on to the symbolic and knowledge context in Paraguay and how it determined the outcome of the offline crucifix protest in August 2013. The objective is to identify the factors that drove the first two issues into the online sphere vis-a-vis those that impeded the latter from making that transition. This will be instrumental to understand what —and what not— activates youth mobilization and citizen action in Paraguay and how their vision of change aligns with their experience in crises.

Political and social context of Paraguay

Landlocked, Catholic and mestizo, Paraguay was under a 30 year oppressive dictatorship that finally came to an end in 1989. Since then, the succeeding thirteen years of democracy have been characterized by citizen upheavals, as younger generations are breaking the silence and conformity of older times (Zavala, 2011). Among the most pressing issues addressed by coup attempts, strikes and protests,[5] corruption remains the standing evil in the Paraguayan political system. Seventy-eight per cent of its citizens perceive the government as ineffective at fighting corruption,[6] and with good reason. Paraguay is ranked as the second most corrupt country in Latin America and 24th in the world, according to Transparency International.[7] The Paraguayan head of Seeds for Democracy, Marta Ferrara commented on corruption being absolute in the public sector due to the legacy of dictatorship, and hence called civil society groups to exert more pressure on the government to fight it.[8] This sentiment is consistent with the loss of faith in democracy in Latin America to which research has attributed the rise of the left and a growing desire for social change (Barret et al, 2008).

Another important contextual question to consider on a par is how relevant are digital technologies in Paraguay to mobilize change. The country has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the continent at 27.1 per cent, [9] suggesting that the remaining 70 per cent is comprised of disconnected Guarani voices whose stories remain untold. This is in a country with a 52.4 Gini coefficient, where 40 per cent of citizens live below the poverty line and 56 per cent of the income is controlled by the upper 20 per cent.[10]

Delving deeper into this divide, we can infer that the success behind the digitally enabled protests comes as a result of socioeconomic inequality and an alignment of the interests of this privileged class and the issues behind their actions. Based on this profile, my follow up questions are a) what is the common thread joining the online campaigns that is absent from the crucifix protest and b) how this digital class is defining these priorities.

The anti-corruption discourse
The legacy of the dictatorship and the anti-corruption discourse is a strong response to the first question. While the concept of corruption is severely stigmatized in society, it is also very loosely defined (Harrison, 2006), making it a versatile stimuli for change. Harrison states that in developing countries, the focus remains on the perception of the relationship between the state and those they are meant to be serving (2006), while for Haller and Shore it also refers to money transactions within power relationships that stratify and exclude in any structure (2005). In this way, the concept remains all-encompassing, perception-based and relevant to the democracy crisis in Paraguay. Hence, protesting against it is locally appropriate, and fits in the moral project Sampson dubbed the global anti-corruption industry (2010). He argues that condemning corruption is now a global trend grounded on uncontested ‘good governance´ and integrity values. Its rhetoric has been mainstreamed and infused with a “feel good character” that turns it into an appealing campaign, easy to identify with, simple to embark on and consistently present in the human-rights discourse both in the online and offline sphere.

The anti-corruption protest in June and the Pro-Aché mobilization in 2011 fit this criterion. In the first case, 3000 Paraguayans took to the streets inspired by neighbouring Brazil´s anti-corruption protests[11] to condemn a new retirement law project for parliamentarians that allowed them to retire after only ten years of public service. Framed as an indicator of state inefficiency, the online campaign PorUnParaguayMejor [For a better Paraguay] went viral compelling students to mobilize against the project in Asuncion.[12] The event was reported immediately by international media publicizing Paraguayan youth as revolutionary agents of change.[13]

The second case was also based on state inefficiency experienced by a specific community: the Aché indigenous tribe. The dispute was a consequence of the Ministry of Environment dishonouring an agreement and not granting property titles of the land Finca 470 to the tribe. As a result, a group of young Paraguayans created social media accounts to organize food and clothes drives, mobilize protests, attract further attention from the press and communicate horizontally with government authorities. Due to their extensive lobbying, the authorities acceded to declare the land an indigenous reserve for the Aché, making it another hailed example of successful technology usage by youth (Zavala, 2011).[14]

On the other hand, the second online protest had a more altruistic tone. The members of the digitally privileged 30 per cent, in spite of not being directly implicated in the conflict, took the disconnected group’s plea and mobilized support networks on their behalf. Although the Aché did not request this intervention, nor intend to utilize technology during their camped protests, the digital group’s strategy was largely more effective at bringing the issues to the attention of media and the government. The successful mainstreaming of the Aché’s story upon being digitalized questions the extent to which staged protests will remain appropriate in information societies vis-à-vis online campaigning.

These developments show how the anti-corruption discourse not only mobilizes citizens in Paraguay but also their power and resources. Therefore, if corruption is the common thread we are looking for, to what extent is it applicable to other social conflicts? Will good governance values always trump individual pursuits of assurance? In the following section I will return to the crucifix protests in the light of the aforementioned and address non-geographical spaces of knowledge and practices, as recommended by Ben-Davis. This will shed light on this question and on the spectrum of citizen motivations framing how digital actors articulate change.

Knowledge, Symbolisms and Visibility

Yochai Benkler describes our networked society as an economy centered on information, cultural production and the manipulation of symbols (2006). These contain and pertain to different ways of understanding the world. In the optimistic view of Benkler, digital technologies enable these views to circulate freely in our network; amplifying all voices, however, as seen in the case of Paraguay, information is being produced by one sector of society that determines and constrains the visibility of other worldviews; reproducing socioeconomic inequalities in the digital sphere. In this section I will look at how different articulations of the present and the conflict between spaces of knowledge and symbolisms derive into different ways of telling the same story, in the light of the extremely visual crucifix protest.

The protest had a very different impact in the national scene, as opposed to its portrayal in international media. This is because crucifixes had already been staged in the past by people of indigenous descent[15] or union workers[16] to call for the attention of the Paraguayan state. Being a predominantly Catholic country, utilizing the charged image of the crucifixion of Jesus is the equivalent of cultural bandwagoning on its symbols of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Eric Tyler reflecting on activism martyrs in the light of the role Khalid Saed in the Arab Spring, called them “catalysts with a profound amplifying impact when combined with the viral force of technology”.[17] Amy Sample Ward added another lesson from Egypt, noting that you do not need a high penetration rate in order for massive impact to occur, “as long as the community is connected”.[18] If the digital class had taken on the bus drivers case in the same way they supported the Aché, mobilization would have been likely. However, the cause did not resonate with the Paraguayan digital public. This lack of connection did not derive from the digital divide, but instead from the long-standing conflict between the transport sector and the citizens.

There are several points to be made about this case of citizen inaction. First, the citizen-market crisis played a large role in creating apathy around the crucifix protest. Shah states that technologies of the market must “assure us of the future in terms of material resources and infrastructures upon which happiness depend” (2013), which was not being delivered by the CETRAPAM (Transport Companies of the Metropolitan Area) in the eyes of the citizen. The CETRAPAM director is perceived as corrupt and inefficient[19] and earlier that month a transportation strike left 700,000 immobilized.[20] These incidents resulted in a citizen online campaign demanding a reliable and transparent service from the companies[21] having anti-corruption, once again, at the core of their claims.

This background determined how national media reproduced the crucifix protest story. ABC, one of the largest news corporations in the country, covered the story portraying drivers as ‘aichinjaranga’s” (‘poor little thing’ in Guaraní), who were appealing to “wake people up through pity and pressure, not resources.[22] On the other hand, the most popular entry on the topic in Crónicas Ciudadanas (ABC’s citizen journalism forum) reads: “We [Luque citizens] are tired. These drivers waste our time and we are sick of it.”[23] The digital class, having the power and resources to mobilize, chose to remain idle in order to disempower a group that has been causing precariousness in their present and future establishing a hierarchy of citizen priorities. By withdrawing their support, the drivers are now left with offline strategies and conventional protest tools to address their demands with only the support of their immediate community.[24] It is unclear whether this will represent a disadvantage for their ability to create structural change, but it does show that internal citizen crises leads to inequality of strategies and resources for mobilization.

Second, this case also highlights the dark side of Benkler’s argument in favour of citizen information production. He claims that citizen journalism curbs the power away from mass media and hands it over to autonomous citizens who can now exchange information, making them less susceptible to manipulation by the owners of communications infrastructure and media (2006). In the case of Paraguay, this power has been handed over to the digitally fluent who are only putting forward causes aligned with their interests and value scheme.Issues of access and digital inclusion come afloat, as the disconnected status of the crucifix protesters keeps them out of social spaces of debate and political conversation. This deems social status a determining factor between “statements that are heard and those that wallow in obscurity” (Benkler, 2006) and a serious constraint for the fulfillment of the drivers’ capabilities and freedoms.

Third, the use of symbols is effective depending on the audience, as shown by the narrative of international news corporations. The use of crucifixes came across as an ancient and peculiar tool protest for western media — especially in the digital era— earning them a space in the global public’s interest eighteen days into the protest. As commented by Al Jazeera’s opinion columnist Courtney Martin, in the light of the Tibetan self-immolations in February,[25]“in a world that tends to shine new power [on] online activism only”, other people need to resort to “attention-getting schemes on the hopes of calling attention to issues that remain unresolved”.[26]

The highly visual crucifixes caught the attention of the international media, yet the focus remained on the props instead of the underlying issues around union workers’ rights. This was evident on the picture included by the CNN, showing the workers lined up on their crosses lying next to a coffin claiming that this will become their "final resting place" if their demands were not met;[27] adding to the thriller effect of what is in fact a social justice crisis.

Crucified bus drivers in Paraguay (pictured by CNN International), http://bit.ly/1fpxKvs

In regards to the audience’s response, I would dare to speculate that the absence of the “language of revolution” that surrounds hyped narratives around digital activism (such as the June anti-corruption campaign accounts) played a role in the inactivity from international human-rights activism communities. Being a global audience “engaged with a spectacle of the rise of the citizen” (Shah, 2013), information circulating through mass media is either discarding or othering the less attractive, under-the-radar citizen struggles that do not fit this sale pitch. If a show must be staged in order to attain global attention, it is only natural to wonder if this plot will require a dramatic twist to become viral, one of the key ingredients for effective information dissemination according to Mary Joyce (2010). Having the protesters reach “the end” in order to achieve attention and support, is evidence of some of the morbid criterion steering our motivations for change.

Conclusion

This analysis localized some of the invisible conflicts underpinning action for change in Paraguay. Rather than focusing on a specific cause, such as workers’ rights; through a particular method, say crucifixions; I have looked at the structures framing the understandings around citizen action. It attempted to go beyond the spectacle of digital mobilization and instead look at two spaces: the geopolitical context of Paraguay and the symbolic knowledge framing the development of the crucifix protest in Asuncion, and how the bus drivers envisioned their future before and after the protest.

The Paraguayan political and social imaginary and their understanding of change are infused with the historicity of corruption. As explored in the first section, campaigning against corruption in Paraguay has risen as a convenient check-and-balance, citizen-led strategy to demand transparency and accountability from state and market actors. It fosters values of responsible citizenship and is endorsed by the national and international community. The prevalence of this discourse, even if it worked against the crucifix protest, is an indicator that ‘making change’ is not necessarily understood as a practice of material transformation in Paraguay, but that is has been legitimized at the stage of awareness and political engagement without tying citizens into long-term advocacy efforts.

The actions and reactions around the crucifix protest varied in the online and the offline sphere. In the online realm, the story was orchestrated by the group with access to information and communication technologies. The bus drivers, having remained at the fringes of digital production, had no control whatsoever of how their narrative was shaped by citizen journalists, national or international media. This was reflected in the offline sphere, where the lack of support to the protesters was a result of market-citizen conflicts and the inability of the crucifix symbolisms to speak to an urban population. These factors also show how socioeconomic divides at the political and knowledge levels were digitalized, determining information production, dissemination and reproduction as well as responses to the protesters’ narratives in the long-run.

In conclusion, this analysis has offered a broader view of how change is understood, in terms of the socioeconomic and information constraints in the making of change in Paraguay. Altruistic activism is only possible when the cause being fought for does not jeopardize the interests and assurances of a powerful class who is in control of the resources for online mobilization, in spite of the social justice nature of the claim. Some questions remain unresolved, particularly in regards to how digital activity is overshadowing offline initiatives in a spectacle driven environment. An interesting research avenue relevant to the larger project of ‘Whose Change is it Anyway?’ would be to collect narratives and stories of change that gauge the relevance of offline protests, to understand if they can remain relevant and appropriate in information societies and whether we, as an audience and potential supporters, are only defining change and citizen action in light of its digital possibilities.


[1]. “Sacked Paraguay bus drivers stage crucifixion protest” BBC News Latin America & Caribbean. August 28, 2013, accessed August 30, 2013, http://bbc.in/17n5NSm.

[2]. “Choferes de la linea 30 en huelga” ABC Color, September 4, 2013. Accessed September 6th, 2013, http://bit.ly/1ffyGp3.

[3]. “Indígenas Ache Acampan frente a SEAM y piden transferencia tierras ancestrales” Ultima Hora. March 14th, 2011. Accessed September 18th, http://bit.ly/15aszv5.

[4]. Agencia EFE, “Protestas contra presunta corrupción en Paraguay”, Caracol Radio Colombia. June 22, 2013, accessed August 30,2013, http://bit.ly/1aPHfEn.

[5]. BBC Timeline: Paraguay. Last modified July 3rd, 2012, http://bbc.in/B6UFV.

[6]. Alexander E.M. Hess and Michael Sauter. “The Most Corrupt Countries in the World”, 24/7: Wall Street: Insightful Analysis and Commentary for U.S. & Global Equity Investors. July 11, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/16jVxrE.

[7]. Corruption Perceptions Index 2012”, http://bit.ly/TBjshd.

[8]. “Paraguay’s Cartes: The man to lead anti-corruption efforts?” Thomson Reuters Foundation, May 3rd, 2013. Accessed: September 10, 2013, http://bit.ly/1aXTd28.

[9]. "Percentage of Individuals using the Internet 2000-2012", International Telecommunications Union (Geneva), June 2013, accessed August 30, 2013, http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/statistics/2013/Individuals_Internet_2000-2012.xls.

[10].The World Bank “Poverty Gap at the Poverty Line” Catalogue Sources: World Development Indicators. Accessed September 10, 2013 http://bit.ly/14oMRDI.

[11]. RT Actualidad, “La ola de protestas de Brasil ‘rompe fronteras’ y ya salpica a Paraguay” RT Noticias, June 22, 2013, accessed August 30,2013, http://bit.ly/1aBAqqj.

[12]. Agencia EFE, “Protestas contra presunta corrupción en Paraguay”, Caracol Radio Colombia. June 22, 2013, accessed August 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/1aPHfEn.

[13]. Gabriela Galilea “The Brazil Effect: Thousands Protest for a Better Change” Global Voices English June 26, 2013. Accessed August 30, 2013, http://bit.ly/15FKwAW.

[14]. For further information on the Pro-Aché online campaign, refer to Maria del Mar Zavala’s essay: Youth and Technology: An Unstoppable Force.

[15]. Protesters in Paraguay staged a public crucifixion in the past calling for a jailed former army general General Lino Oviedo to be set free. “Paraguay man crucified in public” BBC News November 30, 2006. Accessed on September 10, 2013, http://bbc.in/1aPI7Zq. Also see "Homeless in Paraguay protest with Crucifixion” Cleveland News. August 6th, 2009. Accessed September 20, 2013, http://bit.ly/1gGyZHk.

[16]. A bus driver crucified himself for more than 10 hours demanding the recognition of his labor union. “Se crucifico para lograr el reconocimiento sindical” ABC Color, July 6, 2013. Accessed on September 10, 2013, http://bit.ly/1buNKiL.

[17]. Mary Joyce, January 27, 2012 comment on Arab Spring: “The Meta-Activism Community Reflects” Meta-Activism Blog, http://bit.ly/wfXhiW.

[18]. Mary Joyce, comment on Arab Spring.

[19]. 40 companies went on strike demanding further subsidies from the government, paralyzing public transport in Asuncion and leaving almost 700,000 immobilized. As a result, citizens organized a mobilization through Facebook to denounce corruption in the CETRPAM and demand an efficient transportation system, http://bit.ly/15I7Mnl.

[20]. Gabriela Galilea, “Public Transit Strike Paralyzes Paraguay” Global Voices English. Translated by Victoria Robertson. August 8, 2013. Accessed on September 10, 2013, http://bit.ly/1bdllum.

[21]. Gabriela Galilea, “Public Transit Strike Paralyzes Paraguay”.

[22]. “Huelguistas quieren despertar lástima según gerente de Línea 30”  ABC Color, September 4, 2013. Accessed on September 10, 2013, http://bit.ly/1ffyGp3.

[23]. ABC Color “Choferes de la linea 30 en Huelga”.

[24]. “Sindicalistas de Paraguay fueron recibidos por el presidente tras jornadas de protestas” Telesur, September 4, 2013. Accessed on September 10, 2013. http://bit.ly/14kntkF.

[25]. “The 100th Self-Immolation in Tibet – A case for the world to answer” Central Tibetan Administration, February 14, 2013. Accessed on September 10, 2013, http://bit.ly/X65jvA.

[26]. Courtney E Martin “Building a slower, longer fire among the digital flares” Al Jazeera English, February 4, 2013. Accessed on August 30, 2013, http://aje.me/X9YNDj.

[27]. Rafael Romo “Fired Paraguayan bus drivers crucify themselves in protest” CNN International. August 31, 2013. Accessed August 31, 2013, http://bit.ly/1fpxKvs.


Sources

  1. Ben-David, Anat “Digital Natives and the return of the local cause” Digital AlterNatives with a Cause – Book One: To Be. (2011) 10 -22.
  2. Barrett, P. S., Chavez, D., & Garavito, C. A. R. The new Latin American left: utopia reborn. Pluto Press, 2008.
    Benkler, Yochai. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press, 2006.
  3. Harrison, Elizabeth. "Unpacking the anti-corruption agenda: dilemmas for anthropologists." Oxford Development Studies 34, no. 1 (2006): 15-29.
  4. Haller, C. & Shore, C. (Eds) Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives London: Pluto Press  (2005).
  5. Joyce, Mary C., ed. Digital activism decoded: the new mechanics of change. IDEA, 2010.
  6. Sampson, Steven. "The anti-corruption industry: from movement to institution."Global Crime 11, no. 2 (2010): 261-278.
  7. Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.
  8. Zavala, Maria del Mar “Youth and Technology: An Unstoppable Force” Digital AlterNatives with a Cause- Book Three: To Act (2011) 46-53.

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