Wiens: rising political star in Paraguay

Rise in power and agricultural success pose unique problems to Mennonites in this land-locked country in Latin America.

June 22, 2012 | Web First
By Dick Benner, editor and publisher | Canadian Mennonite
Arnoldo Wiens: suspended candidacy for president in 2013.

News update:  In what is being called a Saturday night coup, Paraguay's Senate removed President Fernando Lugo for what they charged was his role in a deadly clash between police and landless protesters that killed 17 persons.  The abrupt move spurred a fiery debate across Latin America over the fragility of democratic institutions in a region with a long history of dictatorships, according to Simon Romera, quoted in this story below, from the New York Times.

Nearly a century after they arrived in Paraguay as part of the European diaspora escaping religious persecution in the Ukraine or seeking religious freedom from Canada, Mennonites face new complexities in the 21st century now that they have transformed this “green hell” into a farming paradise and have risen to power in the political structure.

They find themselves at the pinnacle of power with the announcement last April by Arnoldo Wiens, a 47-year old Paraguayan Mennonite pastor and executive director of several Mennonite-sponsored media enterprises, that he was a candidate for the upcoming presidential race in 2013 as a member of the Colorado Party.  Wiens was recently featured in a column in The Mennonite by John Roth, history professor at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.

“In a political context notorious for its corruption,” writes Roth, “Wiens defined his candidacy as a Movement of Republican Values.  Not only was he a Mennonite pastor, his doctoral dissertation in theology, which appeared in book form in 1997, focused on “Christian Faith and Challenges of Corruption in Latin America.”

But Wiens then shocked his supporters by suddenly suspending his campaign in March, 2012, and declaring his support for a rival candidate, Horacia Cartes, especially surprising, says Roth, “since Cartes is under investigation in both Paraguay and the United States for alleged connection to several Mexican drug cartels.”

When asked how the Paraguayan Mennonites view Wiens and his political platform, Alfred Neufeld, dean of the Faculty of Theology and president of the board of directors of the Evangelical University of Paraguay, told Canadian Mennonite that “there is no homogenous opinion.”  Wiens does not present himself as a Mennonite candidate, he says, “and from the Gemeindekomitee (all immigrant Mennonite council of senior pastors) we have talked with him and made it clear, that we don't see him as a representative of Mennonite opinion and political action. So most of his voters would be non-Mennonites. But within the Mennonite community some would support him and some would reject him out of a wide spectrum of different reasons, which would not have a lot to do with political ideology.”

Wiens’ swinging of his support to cartel-connected Cartes was a surprise, says Neufeld,”but as Arnoldo says, sooner or later some way of cooperation comes anyway, since in elections the party acts as one body. The three present presidential candidates of the party have similar problems of corruption in the past, which can be said of almost every candidate of any party so far. The switch from presidential candidate to parliament candidate was a strategic and economic one, I suppose.”

Although Mennonites make up only 1 percent of the country’s population, notes Roth, they produce some 40 percent of Paraguay’s meat, more than half its dairy products and employ thousands of factory workers.  As a group, Mennonites enjoy incomes approximately 12 times higher than the national average.

This success is coming with a price, though, not the least of which is a run-in with environmentalists and land rights advocates for the indigenous population. 

Simon Romera, writing recently for the New York Times while interviewing Mennonites in Filadelfia, quotes Patrick Friesen, communications manager for a Mennonite cooperative there, as saying property prices had surged fivefold in recent years. “A plot of land in town costs more than in downtown Asunción,” said Friesen, attributing the boom partly to surging global demand for beef.

“Eighty-five percent of our beef is exported, to places including South Africa, Russia and Gabon,” he said. Citing concerns in some countries over foot-and-mouth disease, which Paraguay detected in its cattle herd in 2011, he continued, “We are currently focused on some of the less-demanding markets.”

Paraguay’s Chaco forest lies in the Gran Chaco plain, writes Romera, spread across several nations. Scientists fear that the expansion of cattle ranching could wipe out what is a beguiling frontier for the discovery of new species. The Chaco is still relatively unexplored. The largest living species of peccary, piglike mammals, was revealed to science here in the 1970s. In some areas, biologists have recently glimpsed guanacos, a camelid similar to the llama.

“More alarming,” he writes, “the land rush is also intensifying the upheaval among the Chaco’s indigenous peoples, who number in the thousands and have been grappling for decades with forays by foreign missionaries, the rising clout of the Mennonites and infighting among different tribes.

“One group of hunter-gatherers, the Ayoreo, is under particular stress from the changes. In 2004, 17 Ayoreo speakers, from a subgroup who call themselves the Totobiegosode, or ‘people from the place where the collared peccaries ate our gardens,’ made contact with outsiders for the first time.

“In Chaidi, a village near Filadelfia, they described being hounded for years by bulldozers encroaching on their lands. The Ayoreo word for bulldozer, ‘eapajocacade,’ means ‘attackers of the world.”

“They were destroying our forests, generating problems for us,” one Totobiegosode man, Esoi Chiquenoi, who believed he was in his 40s, said through an interpreter. As a result, he and others in his group, who in photographs taken in 2004 were wearing loincloths, abruptly abandoned their way of life.

As the Mennonite communities come under scrutiny for the deforestation, Romera concludes in his article, “they acknowledge that big sections of the forest around them are being removed. But they deny that they are to blame, contending that they abide by Paraguayan law, which requires landowners to keep a quarter of Chaco properties forested.”

As for his rhetorical reflections, Roth concludes his piece with an obvious observation and some questions:  “How the drama will play out remains to be seen.  In the meantime, Mennonites in North America, who continue to struggle mightily over the nature of their own political involvement, would benefit from the ongoing attention to the Paraguayan story.  What counsel would you give the Mennonites in Paraguay?  What would you like to learn from them?  Could you imagine a Mennonite president?”

--June 25, 2012

Arnoldo Wiens: suspended candidacy for president in 2013.

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