Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I am writing this from Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The first impressions I got when I was travelling from the airport to the hotel by car was the similarity in landscape with Kerala, and the general cleanliness of the environment. There was very little litter on the streets or garbage on the sidewalks. The air was cool and the traffic was light, as it used to be in Bangalore a couple of decades back. Overall a nice place, I thought. I came here for speaking at a Free Software conference, Free Software Asuncion 2010, and I was happy that this was such a nice place. I had collected data on Paraguay for my presentation and it had shown that the literacy was something like 91%. Overall, I thought, this place has similarities to Kerala. The interest the government is showing in Free Software is another factor that confirmed this thinking. I was also happy to see that Asuncion had been voted the cheapest city in the world five consecutive times.

Paraguay is similar to Kerala in other respects also. The country has very few industries, and has to depend on imports even for food, even though it is an agricultural economy. Further, as in any Latin American country, the people talk a lot and do much less. We may find similar characteristics in Kerala too, though saying so would be automatically be very controversial. However, Paraguay is also very different from Kerala in that it has a much larger area (about ten times that of Kerala) but much less population (about a fifth of Kerala) so that the average population density is about 15 per square kilometer whereas it is close to a thousand in Kerala.

But in just a couple of days I started realising that these similarities were superficial. One night about ten of us were walking to a restaurant when a person stopped us full of concern and asked us where we were going. When someone in the group told him, he told us that it was dangerous to go beyond the place where the restaurant was situated. He had thought that we were out just for a walk. The next day, as three of us went in search of a restaurant, we had to beat a hasty retreat from one point because one of us realised that it was dangerous to go further. I was told that a young tough guy could suddenly attack us with a knife or a gun. Well, this is something very unfamiliar in most parts of India.

Later, I learnt that there was a heavy concentration of population in the region around Asuncion. To the north was a large very thinly populated area. And in that area was a small region dominated by German immigrants who have kept the local people as virtual slaves, and the government had almost no control over the region. Well, this again is something not at all familiar in India. To the East of this region, near the border to Brazil, apparently there is a large community that lived on producing marijuana, and they were mostly Brazilian immigrants. In fact, they thought themselves to be Brazilians, and I believe they have even hoisted flags in schools there.

Though the country is basically an agricultural country, the land is held by a very few people. I am told that 90% of the land is with 2% of the people. The statistics on education seems to be suspect. Almost everything is imported. Though the country produces a lot of electricity, it is in collaboration with a couple of other countries, and Paraguay uses only a tiny percentage of the power it produces. People hardly read newspapers, but there are a large number of glossy (that is silly) magazines that are apparently read mainly by the rich. How different from Kerala! How easily appearances can deceive!


Ruben said...

Just for the record. Paraguay is the fourth largest soybean producer in the world. Besides being basically an agricultural country, cattle raising is a very important activity. Paraguayan breeders have one of the finest stocks in the world and boasts of having approximately six heads of cattle per capita. This is one of the main reasons why Paraguayan diet is based on beef. Paraguayan beef exports are constantly increasing because the animals receive natural feed from natural wild grasslands which are unpolluted by chemicals. Paraguay DOES NOT import food. However, certain delicacies that are not common must always be imported. The rate of criminality is similar to those that you may find anywhere in the world, though much lower than in Mexico, Rio de Janeiro, or in Sri Lanka. This fact was virtually unknown to Paraguayans until 1989 when the country was ruled by a strong regime.

Sasi said...

Thank you, Ruben, for the information. But I don't understand why, in spite of having so many mango trees, mangoes are not found in shops. I am told that people do not commonly eat mangoes. It is certainly good if the country is self-suffient in food, but apparently there is a section that does not get enough food. As you know, demand and supply can be matched either by increasing supply to match demand or by reducing demand to match supply.

If you mean Stroessner's regime as the "strong regime", it may be true. But I cannot agree that it was a good regime. It is generally known as a dictatorship, and I don't think any dictatorship, even a benevolent one, is good for people.

Regarding crime, I guess many parts of Latin America are possibly worse. But it is unfortunate that such a small country, and such a nice city, has so much crime. One possible reason for this, I think, is the striking disparity in society. Perhaps the virtual lack of industry, everything being imported, and little social support for the poor, is a reason for the existence of criminal gangs, making it risky to go to some parts. I think the government should take measures to reduce the disparity and provide land to the landless. I think such measures would help to make this beautiful place beautiful in other ways too.