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Brazilians Invade Paraquay*

June 12, 2001

San Alberto Journal: Awful Lot of Brazilians in Paraguay, Locals Say


AN ALBERTO DE MBARACAYÚ, Paraguay — The billboard on the outskirts of town announces the dates of dances and bingo games, but in Portuguese rather than in Spanish. Most products on sale in local supermarkets are of Brazilian origin, as is the mayor and many leading business owners.

Drawn by the promise of land and opportunity, thousands of poor Brazilian families have crossed an increasingly blurred border to settle in Paraguay in recent years.

But while the presence of these Brasiguayos, as they are known, has brought a burst of economic growth to the region, it has also stirred nationalist sentiment and even xenophobia among their reluctant hosts.

"Paraguayan identity in the border provinces is being diluted because of the predominance of foreigners who speak their own language, use their own currency, hoist their own flag and are masters of the best lands," a columnist complained in the newspaper Última Hora. "In the meantime our poor fellow citizens are left to their own luck."

With only 5.5 million people compared with Brazil's 170 million, Paraguay has always been prickly about its relationship with its gigantic neighbor. The countries fought a war from 1865 to 1870 in which more than half of Paraguay's population perished. Though they are partners today in the South American trade bloc called Mercosur, Paraguayan schools still cultivate the memory of that conflict as an element of national pride and identity.

The New York Times


A census by the Roman Catholic Church nearly 20 years ago put the number of Brasiguayos at just over 300,000, about 10 percent of Paraguay's population at that time.

Since then, some settlers have returned to Brazil, still others have come and many have given birth to children who are formally counted as Paraguayans, making a comprehensive tally difficult.

"You can talk of 300,000 or 400,000, but the truth is that nobody knows," said the Rev. José Fernández, a Roman Catholic priest who works in the Brazilian immigrant community here in Alto Paraná Province. "Any figure will be incomplete, because it does not count the people without documents who are living clandestinely, do not want to declare themselves."

Whatever the real numbers, they are clearly enough to unnerve many native-born Paraguayans who feel that they are second-class citizens in their own country.

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil's national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní.

"There are limits that should always have to be respected," said Adilio Ramírez López, a school principal here, "beginning with the border itself, and our government isn't attending to that task properly. This is Paraguay, not Brazil, so we have to protect our identity or we will be lost as a nation in this onslaught of globalization and Mercosur."

Tensions between Brasiguayos and local people periodically flare into violence. Two years ago, for instance, Brazilian settlers were expelled from their farms by irate Guaraní-speaking peasants armed with pitchforks and machetes, who blocked roads and besieged the town hall for several days until the police intervened.

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto's 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor.

"They have been encouraging peasants to attack Brazilians, burn their houses and invade their stores," Mr. Maia, a businessman born in Brazil who moved here in 1968 at age 6 and later became a Paraguayan citizen, said of the broadcasts. "Their theme has been that `San Alberto no longer belongs to us, it belongs to them, and only pure Paraguayans should be in power.' "

Such incidents have led to fevered accusations of "ethnic cleansing" in the Brazilian press and to pressure on the government of Brazil to do more to defend the migrants. That, in turn, has forced Paraguay's weak government, which originally invited the Brazilians, into a delicate balancing act.

Native-born Paraguayans regard the Brazilian influx as "an invasion, and we share their concern," Luis González Macchi, the president of Paraguay, said in an interview in Asunción, the capital.

"But we say that the proper response is to give more assistance to our countrymen in the region who do not have protection or access to credit," the president said. "We need to invest more in education and health for that sector of the population."

Mr. González Macchi said the policy of his government was to "control and document" the immigrant population. He expressed admiration for Brazilians who had crossed the border "with nothing more than their carts, oxen and wooden plows, have worked 25 or 30 years and brought great progress to the area in recent years."

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil's three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of Indian stock.

But the divisive nature of Paraguayan politics, which has grown as a result of a worsening economy and the assassination of Vice President Luis María Argaña in 1999, also plays an important role in the tensions. The province is a stronghold of the opposition Liberal Party, but almost all of the Brazilians, Mr. Maia included, are loyal to the Colorado Party, which has governed Paraguay without interruption since 1947.

"It's perfectly normal that they would be Colorados," Mr. González Macchi said with a broad smile. "It was a Colorado government, after all, that gave them land and the freedom to work and progress."

Even so, many Brasiguayos continue to complain of discrimination against their children in local schools and official intimidation. A large number have never been given Paraguayan identity documents, which leaves them prey to demands for bribes and other forms of harassment.

"They are constantly threatened with prison or expulsion, and money is demanded of them," said Terezinha Santín, a Roman Catholic nun born in Brazil and raised in Paraguay who works with immigrants on both sides of the border. "Sometimes it is actually the police or immigration authorities who make these demands, but other times it is merely people falsely claiming to be so."

Other Brasiguayos, especially those born in Paraguay, have no Brazilian documents either, which has complicated the situation of some families who say they wish to return to Brazil because they are tired of facing the hostility of their Paraguayan neighbors.

But Mr. Maia, the mayor, has urged his compatriots to stay put and be patient, arguing that conditions are bound to improve.

"A solution here is only going to come with time, as people learn to live with one another," he said. "We're starting to see marriages among Brazilians and Paraguayans now, and that is how you form a nation."

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