Christine Folch & Juan Carlos Duré Bañuelos
On September 2, 2020 in rural Yby Yaú, Concepción Department (Paraguay), a military operation against a criminal group ended in the deaths of two 11-year-old girls—an operation which Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez declared a “success.” Beyond the matter of who is to blame, no operation can ever be considered a success when two children are killed. Many questions about the deaths of the girls have arisen because of what happened after: a hasty burial, the destruction of all the physical evidence “due to COVID-19,” and the sketchiness of official accounts. The Paraguayan government asserted it had dealt the criminal group a hard blow and that it had them surrounded. But on September 9, just a few days later and just a few miles away from the site of the operation in Yby Yaú, that same criminal group kidnapped former Vice-President of the Republic Oscar Denis and his assistant Adelio Mendoza (now liberated).
As is patently evident, everything about this is incredibly tragic. Indignant and emotionally impacted by the tragedy—which also touched on the issue of gender—a group of young women decided to protest the deaths of the two girls in the center of the capital city Asunción on September 5 (before the kidnapping of Oscar Denis). Three of the young women scrawled graffiti about children’s rights on the walls of the National Pantheon of Heroes in downtown Asunción. One of them also set fire to a Paraguayan flag. And all of this happened underneath the noses of the Pantheon’s security, who did nothing to stop them.
The graffitiing of the Pantheon and the flag-burning triggered a response, including an exaggerated reaction of “patriotism” on the part of groups and persons suspected of corruption, crime, and even acts bordering on treason. The three young women identified as having graffitied the walls, burned the flag, and as having “encouraged” these deeds were persecuted as if they were ferocious criminals, with international orders of capture. Two of these women sought—and received—asylum in Argentina and one of them turned herself in. She expressed remorse, issued a public apology, and offered to repair the damage. They threw her in jail.
Now we turn to Diana Bañuelos—a 65-year-old activist who just battled her second round of cancer, with a lifelong history of struggle for human rights, political rights, and women’s rights in Paraguay. And we also want to talk about Miguel Ángel Fernández, 83-year-old professor, poet, writer, with a long trajectory in Paraguay. Both well-known figures fought against the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) in Paraguay. And they both happened to be in front of the Pantheon of Heroes. Bañuelos resides close by and her granddaughter lives only a block away from the Pantheon. Fernández was at that famous Asunción haunt Lido Bar, which faces the Pantheon.
Both of them were indignant and decided to walk to where the young women were expressing their indignation at the deaths of the two girls. There they asked to share their thoughts on the matter and, maintaining social distance, they spoke and expressed their indignation at the events. They did this publicly in the street.
A few days later, on September 14, Miguel Ángel Fernández received a summons from the State’s Attorney to defend himself by giving an indagatory statement in the presence of legal counsel. Indagatory statements are formal defenses made by suspects under the rubric of an investigation. Although they gave him less than 24 hours’ notice, he showed up with his attorney. On September 15, Diana Bañuelos got a WhatsApp message notification from the State’s Attorney, summoning her to also give an indagatory statement in the presence of legal counsel the following morning. Bañuelos also showed up with her attorney. That night, the State’s Attorney assigned to the case announced in an interview that they would charge both Miguel Ángel Fernández and Diana Bañuelos and place them under house arrest.
We want to remind the Paraguayan state of Article 26 of the National Constitution “On freedom of expression and of the press,” which says: Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are guaranteed, as well as the dissemination of thought and opinion, WITHOUT ANY CENSORSHIP, with no other limitations than those provided in this Constitution; consequently, no law shall be enacted that prevents or restricts them. There will be no crimes of the press except common crimes committed through the press. Everyone has the right to generate, process or disseminate information, as well as the use of any lawful instrument suitable for such purposes.” The National Constitution reinforces the guarantee of freedom of expression in other articles. Moreover, the Paraguayan state has signed various international treaties and commitments that guarantee the freedom of expression and human rights.
We also have to mention the charging and trial of María Esther Roa, Juan Galeano Grassi and others, well-known anti-corruption leaders, for participating in a protest against corruption and impunity in Paraguay (see image below).
Paraguay is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. According to the IDB, the government wastes USD$ 1.8 billion every year due to mismanagement of public resources. The statistics on education are equally grim: The World Economic Forum ranks Paraguay at the bottom in general education, in primary education, in internet access in schools, and in the general quality of math and science education. There are multiple criminal groups active in narcotrafficking, money-laundering, contraband, corruption, and kidnappings that keep the north of the country in distress, like the EPP and others. This clearly demonstrates that it’s necessary to fight crime in a broad sense in Paraguay and that it’s important to take measures against the breeding ground that makes it so that criminality affects the entire country.
Without a paradigm shift, the situation will not improve. This is why, for some time, our message has been to work together from the private sector, the public sector, the academy, and social sectors on concrete questions that seek to improve the quality of the life of the people, using the resources, connections, and potentialities of the country better.
The problems of Paraguay, or of any country, cannot be solved by persecuting, attempting to silence, or silencing the people; neither by inducing terror nor fear so that the people do not protest or express themselves. That’s why we invoke the famous saying attributed to former French president Charles de Gaulle as the title of this article, synthesizing republican thought on the issue. “You don’t arrest Voltaire,” de Gaulle reportedly said when it was suggested that they arrest Jean-Paul Sartre for one of the many protests the writer organized and took part in. Returning to the past is not an option. You cannot return to practices that were not and are not capable of improving the quality of life of the country. You have to actually deal with the problems and not silence voices that speak about them or that express indignation.
And finally, we call for the liberation of kidnapped captives, for peace, and for a better quality of life for the people of Paraguay.
A Spanish-language version of this article was published in Última Hora as “No se puede encarcelar a Voltaire (I)” and “No se puede encarcelar a Voltaire (II)“