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The Fruits of Change in Paraguay

The mythic American legends we grow up with as children in the United States may not be accurate renderings of history, but they are formative in building our values and beliefs. They include George Washington, a soldier and politician, who occasionally made a mistake but never told a lie; the freed slave John Henry, who worked so hard he beat a steam drill while laying rail; and the fearless Calamity Jane, who lived as she chose in the Wild West. But for me, the most influential was Johnny Appleseed, a poor farmer who traveled the land making friends and planting apple seeds, but rarely if ever returning to see the well-tended trees that grew in his wake. The life of a diplomat is a similar journey of planting ideas, programs, and projects while trusting that others will nurture them to grow strong and produce.

In Paraguay, however, thanks to a dynamic civil society, I have the benefit of seeing the hard work of my predecessors bear fruit even as I plant a few seeds of my own. Paraguay’s people deserve all the credit for reforms that have advanced their democracy and economy in recent years, but a few well-planted seeds by public and private US partners, carefully nurtured by Paraguayans themselves, have certainly helped. But much remains to be done, as Paraguay’s leaders have themselves declared, to eradicate corruption, broaden economic opportunity, confront criminal organiza­tions, and address poverty. The work that we do today, building on the progress of the past, will root our friendship even more strongly.

Paraguay’s strength is in her people, who across history have defended their territory with pride, honored their indigenous roots, welcomed migrants from across the world, and worked hard to make their landlocked nation safe and prosperous. Their priority today is to fortify a democracy that over the 205 years of independence has been inter­rupted many times, but never forsaken. Just as the United States has been justly criticized for its early relations with the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, we also share credit for defending human rights and a free press, support that was instrumental in his eventual removal from power in 1989. We have been a prominent ally of Paraguay’s democracy in the intervening years, through constitutional and political challenges. Today our focus is to offer technical and other assistance to promote government transparency across Paraguay’s executive and judicial branches, providing citizens with the information they need to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable. Even as I write this students have successfully forced corrupt university administrators to resign, a police commander lost his job for diverting funds, and multiple other corrupt leaders have been exposed thanks to a government commitment to transparency and citizen empowerment which we support. 

Paraguay’s bounty is in her land, a territory wild and beautiful which has been contested many times. In one historic case President Rutherford B. Hayes agreed in 1878 to arbitrate a territorial dispute between Paraguay and Argentina. His decision validated that almost 60 percent of Paraguay’s territory would remain under her control, and in Paraguay he remains a hero. In 1968, the Alliance for Progress partnered Latin American countries with US states, and matched agriculturally-focused Paraguay with Kansas. Thanks to private commitments on both sides, this partnership has endured almost 50 years, broadening beyond farming to include academics, art, medicine, mental health, firefighting and disaster-relief support, business, and even zoo-to-zoo exchanges. In fact, over 900 Paraguayans have graduated from Kansas universities thanks to the Partnership. You can’t go far in Paraguay without finding a Kansas connection. Meet President Cartes, and he will tell you he lived there in his youth. Visit the former Jesuit church in Santa Maria de Fe, and discover Kansas helped with the reconstruction. Listen to a concert in far-away Concepción, and don’t be surprised to learn the instruments came from Kansas. But farming is the heart of the relationship, and Paraguay today is an important global source of soy, beef, sesame, chia, and other products. We support the small producers looking to build their living on a little land, a single cow, and a lot of hard work. They are the bedrock of small communities in the most difficult-to-access parts of the country, and a barometer of the democratic future.

Her natural resources are Paraguay’s treasure, and as the economy grows so does the imperative of preserving the forests, wildlife, and fauna that make this such a uniquely beautiful country. In 1887, a reclusive Swiss scientist named Moisés Bertoni began catalogu­ing Paraguay’s natural wonders from her plants to her rocks to her weather patterns. A century after his arrival in Paraguay, the United States was instrumental in the creation and financing of the Moisés Bertoni Foundation, which works today to preserve the Atlantic Forest and promote socially-responsible and sustainable conservation and development. Once supported by the US government, today the independent foundation is a partner in preservation, education, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development initiatives. I visited the Mbaracayú Reserve protected by the Moisés Bertoni Foundation, where members of the Ache tribe still help patrol the forests against poachers and indigenous girls attend a high school that both offers them a future and trains them as advocates for nature. Walk amongst the silent tree-lined paths, smell the flower-ridden air, look up at the brilliant stars, hear the campana bird’s one-note trill, and you can appreciate the wondrous natural beauty of Paraguay.

Paraguay’s future is her youth, impatient to integrate more fully with the region and the world, and eager to embrace language, technology, and all the other skills to make that possible. In 1942, the US Embassy started an English language school, the Centro Cultural Paraguayo-Americano (CCPA), which in the 74 years since has privatized, expanded into six different cities, trained thousands of Paraguayans in English, shared American culture with them, and offered them opportunities to train as youth ambassadors, as English teachers, and even as UN translators. Today they too are our partner in offering English scholarships to underprivileged students who travel hours by bus to get to class. They support Paraguay’s moviemakers, promote jazz concerts, offer a gallery for American exhibitions, and host Paraguay’s largest and oldest English language lending library. Their graduates need jobs, and so CCPA works closely with another US government-launched entity that has taken on a life of its own—the American Chamber of Commerce. More than 100 firms with links to the United States cooperate with us now, both to promote youth education and employment, but also to create inclusive labor forces that welcome employees with physical or mental disabilities. The American Chamber is our partner in defending intellectual property rights, in fighting contraband, in promoting trade and investment in the United States, and in demanding good governance.   

Our Embassy team is future-focused with this youth demographic in mind. Our 200 Peace Corps volunteers teach practical skills like beekeeping, along with 21st century skills like tolerance and respect. Our USAID colleagues enlist youth in promoting transparency and responsible citizenship. Our public affairs team highlights the importance of empower­ing indigenous and women, and promotes the vital exchanges that enrich both our societies looking to a new and unpredictable future. Our law enforcement teams cultivate the professional skills and cooperation we need to work together against the full range of cross-border crimes. Our military teams train on natural disaster response, because climate change impacts will likely hit parts of Paraguay very hard, and we want to help prepare. As a mission we promote messages of good governance, human rights protection, preservation of natural resources, and inclusive economic growth. These are the seeds we are planting now, confident that our Paraguayan partners will nurture them well.

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United States Ambassador to Paraguay