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Young Paraguayans and a Venue for Dialogue: Asunción

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The success of Casa de la Juventud (CdJ) in Paraguay illustrates the important role of training in the expansion of civic participation. A quarter of Paraguay’s population is between 15 and 24 and a quarter of those are unemployed. CdJ’s goal was greater involvement by 4,200 low-income Paraguayans between 15 and 29 in making public policy and increased awareness of matters affecting their lives. It envisioned 95 training sessions and workshops on young people’s rights, 20 public hearings, 10 educational campaigns and grants of up to $1,000 for young entrepreneurs. By the end of its IAF funding, CdJ had formed youth counsels and developed formal channels for interaction with authorities on public policies in five municipalities of the Central Department, each with a secretary for youth and a budget. Today, that model exists in 10 municipalities and the eventual goal is to reach all 19 in the department. Activities originally financed by IAF continue: one allows an average of 200 youths from rural areas to attend university with lodging, books and bus passes provided. Overall, young Paraguayans are now participants in national public debates and discussions on policies affecting them, even if many of their demands remain unmet. Some who benefited from the IAF’s grant are public figures. In 2008, a former CdJ coordinator became vice minister for youth, the first person from the youth movement to occupy such a high post in the Paraguayan government. During her tenure, and after, the national budget for youth increased dramatically.

CdJ had started in 1995 by opening a place in Asunción where young Paraguayans could gather for cultural activities. It evolved into a multi-faceted program including a radio station, self-employment services and leadership training. It then took a greater role in providing information, training and strategic assistance to other youth organizations, advocates and policy-makers, as well as in developing educational campaigns targeting young people. CdJ’s own internal structure was a starting point for building a democratic culture among young Paraguayans. Regular elections and rotation of leaders gave more people experience as internal and external representatives of the group. Rotating leadership meant that training had to run almost continuously to bring along the new leaders. Internal decision-making was based on consensus and unanimity but resorted to voting when necessary, which had the benefit of teaching the minority to accept majority decisions. One example of the success in inculcating democratic values came when youth organizations decided to prioritize community needs for a better water supply over their own particular demands, and channeled their energy to the campaign for water.

Post-dictatorship possibilities for increased civic participation opened in the municipality of Asunción when the first democratically-elected government restructured municipal offices to serve barrio organizations for the elderly, youths, children, the unemployed, disabled, women and neighborhood commissions. The grantee itself, the evaluator reported, was directly responsible for opening new opportunities. It organized meetings on several subjects of interest to youths, including gender violence, health, education, employment, culture and sports, and then encouraged formal meetings and dialogue between youths and local authorities. As opportunities for interaction and coordination between youth groups and municipal officials became more common, several young leaders quit to take government posts, which may have stalled the movement for a while.

Democratic openings have been impressive in Paraguay, where the experience of democracy is barely 25 years old. Increased civic participation has forced authorities to be more discreet about unscrupulous behavior. There is more citizen control through radio, social networks and demonstrations. Young people who work on the street have their own organization and demonstrate for their rights, as do the elderly. Ten to 15 years ago, such demonstrations were unknown. Information about government operations was restricted; today much of it is accessible.
Increased civic participation, especially in the capital and the Central Department, led to many improvements in barrios through a Fund for Small Projects financed by public resources designated for community organizations. However, the sustained practice of civic participation still faces major challenges. Civic participation is not part of the vocabulary of the current Paraguayan administration and ground has been lost. Poverty and illiteracy continue to be obstacles to increased participation; mobilization for community activities on weekends has to compete with the popularity of soccer. Despite democratic advances, vertical and paternalistic politics have not disappeared. At the local level, there is still much to do to institutionalize processes of civic participation. A lot still depends on the person in power. On the other hand, thanks to income from Paraguay’s sale of hydroelectric power, more resources are available at the local level.

Room for optimism exists. Voting is respected, and the number of political parties involved in national elections has grown to eight, most created in the last 25 years. The traditional parties still tend to view participation as limited to voting in elections. But newer parties show signs of encouraging broader participation. Information on budgets past and future is more transparent, through public hearings and posts on websites.