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Public Transit Strike Paralyzes Paraguay

[Links are to Spanish-language pages except where noted.]

A week before the start of his constitutional mandate, Paraguay's president-elect Horacio Cartes [en]—voted in at the end of April of this year—is facing a predicament that will no doubt leave its mark on the political agenda and in the annals of public opinion: the public transit dispute.

After much coming and going on the subject of projects presented to solve the deficiencies of the public transportation system, a strike of the main bus lines began on Tuesday, August 6.

The bus stoppage left some 700,000 transit users bereft of their main mode of transport.

The conflict started with a claim by CETRAPAM, the centre for metropolitan transit business owners, for failure to pay the subsidy that the Paraguayan government gives to private businesses that provide public transportation, as the organization's leader, César Ruiz Díaz, explained to ABC Color, one of the country's primary media outlets.

For its part, the government declared the pressure tactic illegal and tried to negotiate with CETRAPAM to avoid a strike but did not succeed.

ABC Color shared this video about the strike on YouTube:

Subsidizing “scrapheaps”

Despite the state subsidy, Paraguay's public transit service is inadequate and unreliable. According to the metropolitan public transit department, (Setama), only a few buses are actually authorized to operate legally. “933 buses have stickers [which authorize them to operate], out of a total of 2,100 units registered as serviceable”, as reported in the daily newspaper Ultima Hora in April of this year.

    Flyer publicado por el movimiento Despertar Ciudadano en su fanpage con datos de la situación del Transporte Publico

Flyer published by the movement Despertar Ciudadano [Spur on citizens] on its fan page with information about the public transit situation. (Note: SETAMA is the department in charge of metropolitan public transit.)

The photographs below reveal the dilapidated condition of the vehicles circulating in the streets of Paraguayan cities; they are old, refurbished and often lack official authorization from regulatory bodies.

Foto gentileza de Jorge Baez

Photo taken by Jorge Baez in a street in San Lorenzo; the bus's rear axle came off for no apparent reason causing havoc.

Foto tomada por Natalia Rovira sobre la Avda. Rca. Argentina de la ciudad de Asunción

Photo taken by Natalia Rovira on Avenida República Argentina in the city of Asunción.

The following clip from the program Algo Anda Mal, broadcast every Tuesday by one of the main television stations, shows the situation faced by commuters forced to use public transportation: bad service, inadequate routes, and serious concerns about their safety.

Reaction from commuters

Not surprisingly, a protest was called in response to the demands by the owners of transport companies for Wednesday, August 7, at 6:30 pm in front of the Panteón de los Héroes, located on the emblematic Palma street in the centre of Asunción.

The call to action by local resident Paulo Cabello can be seen on Facebook.

Moreover, as a sign of repudiation, banners and posts inundated social networks, turning up the heat in cyberspace and echoing the humour that permeates the streets of the capital:

Flyer pubicado por el Movimiento Despertar Ciudadano en repudio a los transportistas

“This is how you want a subsidy? Fix your bus and them make your demands!” Flyer published by the Despertar Ciudadano initiative in rebuttal to the transportation providers.

In this flyer, there is a ironic claim on behalf of César Ruiz Díaz, head of CETRAPAM, who drives a Mercedes Benz convertible while at the same time complains that the transportation businesses he represents are operating at a loss.

Poster que circula en Facebook en repudio a Cesar Ruiz Díaz, titular de CETRAPAM

“I demand the payment of the subsidy. He can't afford to keep his car running. We work ‘at a loss'” Poster circulating on Facebook in repudiation of César Ruiz Díaz, head of CETRAPAM

Hitchhiking

Thousands of residents of Asunción and those living in the suburbs, who rely on public transit to commute to their jobs in the capital, were forced to look for alternate modes of locomotion, in response to which the government put vehicles from the Armed Forces and other public institutions at their disposal.

Another alternative that showed a spike in usage was the carpooling initiative called Viadedo [thumbing it] set up by young Paraguayan entrepreneurs. Using this website, anybody in a car can share their route with people who are willing to take a trip by making a voluntary contribution to the driver, who in return offers a place in their car to pedestrians in need.

Metrobús project postponed

Metrobús is a controversial project presented to the Congress in an attempt to solve the public transportation problem in Paraguay. It is co-sponsored by the Ministry of Public works and the municipalities of Asunción, San Lorenzo y Fernando de la Mora.

Metrobús consists of a system of rapid transit buses [en] planned for the Asunción metropolitan area and similar to that used in Bogotá, Colombia, according to a description in Wikipedia.

The project implies that the Paraguayan government would invest some 125 million dollars and would need a loan to cover the costs. Both chambers have examined and postponed the project several times. The last postponement on 31 July was specially requested by President-elect Horacio Cartes.

Update: at 5:30 pm, on Tuesday, August 6, the strike was lifted for 48 hours after the government promised to honour the entire subsidy owed on Friday, August 9, according to information given by César Ruiz Díaz to local media.

Meanwhile, the mobilization planned for August 7 in front of the Panteón de los Héroes has been relocated and will be held instead in front of the offices of CETRAPAM.

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