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AQ Feature

Political Innovator: Camilo Soares, Paraguay

Once an activist, always an activist. The political trajectory of Camilo Soares Machado, only 33 and already Paraguay's Minister of Emergency Preparedness, has spanned the full scope of activism, from student organizing to the highest echelons of politics.

As a middle-class student at a wealthy high school in Asunción, Soares became preoccupied by his country’s social disparities. At the age of 15, he organized the first high school student council in Paraguay. The same year, he directed a successful campaign to halve the cost of public transportation for students in Asunción. In 1996 he joined other young Paraguayan activists to create Casa de la Juventud (Youth House), aimed at involving the new generation in Paraguay’s transition to democracy, which had begun in 1989 with the end of the 35-year reign of dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

Casa de la Juventud became the hub of a network that drew young people from all over the country to express themselves artistically and politically. “The central problem in Paraguay was that it was a completely dis-articulated society, in which social organizations did not have relevance and citizens did not have enough organizational power to provide a counterweight to the political regime,” Soares recalls. As projects coordinator, Soares guided the group’s transformation into a national presence. It sponsored cultural and arts-related activities, published its own magazine, Tokorre, and established its own radio station, Radio Rebelde.

Soares’ entry into his country’s political arena was inevitable. In May 2006, Soares and a group of colleagues founded the Partido del Movimiento al Socialismo (P-MAS) to chart a new progressive agenda for Paraguay. In November 2006, P-MAS won a seat on the municipal council of Asunción. By then, Soares was already on familiar terms with national leaders. He had met current President Fernando Lugo in 1992 at a national strike in San Pedro, where Lugo was then the Catholic bishop. When Lugo was elected in 2008 as the first national leader in more than 50 years not connected with the Colorado Party, he named Soares Minister of Emergency Preparedness.

As minister, Soares has piloted major reforms that have transformed the operations of the three-year-old agency (known as SEN in its Spanish acronym). He shifted the focus of SEN’s operations to prevention from its former status as a first responder to national emergencies. The ministry should “not only put out fires, but prevent them before they begin,” he explained. The first test to this new approach came in response to the drought that has afflicted Paraguay’s western region since the fall of 2008. Under Soares’ direction, SEN worked with the indigenous populations in the region to build water-collection systems and other mechanisms to prevent further damage to the land resulting from natural disasters.

The drought was just one of a series of disasters, ranging from an outbreak of yellow fever to flooding, that absorbed the country’s attention last year—and triggered a declaration of national emergency across 60 percent of the national territory. SEN’s model of preventive action put emergency workers into the field from the start, engaging in meetings with community groups that provide feedback to help the government target its response. In its own way this represented a revolution in relations between the Paraguayan government and civil society. Traditionally, as Soares points out, bureaucrats and politicians have been wary of popular participation, but “there is no other way of knowing about problems, of recognizing problems and of handling problems without directly involving the people affected.” If SEN’s model succeeds, it will owe a major debt to the lessons learned from youth activism. Without “the experiences of being an activist, I don’t think this vision would have been possible,” says Soares.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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