The global anticorruption watchdog Transparency International describes Paraguay as a “monolith in the study of corruption,” a country that offers a case study on the difficulty of recovering from a dictatorship that institutionalized corruption. Such studies may have to write a new chapter now that Paraguayans have introduced new weapons into the battle — toilet paper and eggs.
Paraguay, a small, landlocked country of fewer than seven million people in the middle of South America, has a long history of conflicts, revolutions and coups d’état followed by 35 years of autocratic government under Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, a serial violator of human rights who actively promoted corruption. “Corruption,” he would argue, “is the price for peace.”
The country has not yet thrown off that yoke, despite some earnest efforts. Several institutions have been set up to fight corruption, but they have run up against deeply entrenched habits of graft in politics and the judiciary. On Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index,” which measures public perception of official corruption, Paraguay, in a tie with Bolivia, ranks above only Venezuela in South America. And according to Latinobarómetro, a Latin American polling organization, Paraguayans have one of the lowest levels of support for democracy in Latin America. General Stroessner’s Colorado Party has been in power for all but four years since he was overthrown in a military coup in 1989 — the current president, Mario Abdo Benítez, belongs to a conservative wing of the party; his father was the dictator’s personal secretary.
That does not mean that Paraguayans, or their elected leaders, are necessarily congenitally hooked on graft and bribery as a way of life. What it does mean is that countries with long histories of rampant and systemic corruption, often as a result of autocratic government, face huge obstacles in eradicating the blight, since it infects the very institutions, political and judicial, that are needed to fight it.
Maria Esther Roa did not despair. As reported by Ernesto Londoño and Santi Carneri in The Times, Ms. Roa, a criminal lawyer in Paraguay, and some other organizers, most of them women, decided that enough was enough when a senator who admitted to using public funds to pay employees at his country estate, José María Ibañez, survived a vote of impeachment. Since responsible institutions were not responding, Ms. Roa decided to try public humiliation.
On the day after the impeachment vote failed, she and some fellow activists gathered outside Mr. Ibañez’s home, banging on pots and pans, chanting “Down with Ibañez!” and covering the house with toilet paper and raw eggs, which soon began to stink. To their amazement, he resigned.
Two other senators followed; prosecutors soon filed charges against five other officials and opened investigations on several more. As the doorstep protests, known as escraches, multiplied and spread on social media, politicians and their spouses began finding themselves unwelcome at fancy restaurants or beauty salons.
Opponents of the escraches have responded that they can turn violent, that reputations are being destroyed without a hearing, that families are being terrorized. Indeed, there has been some violence, both by protesters and against them, which worries Ms. Roa. But in a society that seems locked in an unbreakable cycle of corruption, she and her colleagues view protest and public humiliation as weapons of last resort. “At least now we have hope,” said one activist. “Before there was no hope.”