In Bar San Roque, the oldest restaurant in Asunción, the waiter returns. Humming a tune, he drops the lunch check.
“Gracias. Are you a musician?” I ask in Spanish.
“Sí, guitarra. The song ‘Sultans of Swing,’—you know it?”
“Eso. The singer, he wrote a song about Paraguay.”
“Really? Mark Knopfler?”
Turns out, Mark Knopfler did write “Postcards from Paraguay.” It’s about a guy who “robbed a bank full of dinero,” took off, and “won’t be sending postcards from Paraguay.” That’s all it says about Paraguay.
Paraguay is known for not being well-known. Hot, landlocked, and mostly flat, it sits between some of the remotest regions of Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. Its celebrated novelist Augusto Roa Bastos called it “an island surrounded on all sides by land.”
I drop the tip and climb into a taxi, headed for the bus station. Ahead is a five-hour journey to see Itaipu Dam on the Paraguay–Brazil border, the largest renewable energy generator on the planet.
On the taxi stereo, the DJ slings jokes. “El Paraguayyy... is a global giant in energy. Yet we don’t have traffic lights.”
Nodding, the white-haired driver points at the radio, then turns it up.
“In Brazil, in Bolivia,” says the DJ, “their ‘Welcome’ signs stand straight, planted firmly in the ground. Ours stand like a drumstick that went through the drum.”
“Through the drum—falling over,” explains the driver in a big hoarse voice, demonstrating with his hands. “It’s to say, many things don’t work here, they need repair, you know? For sure, it’s the truth. This is a very backward country.”
Paraguayans are used to hearing ideas for improvements that never materialize. For over half a century, corruption has siphoned funds from public works and deterred foreign investment. Transparency International ranked Paraguay 130 out of 169 countries on its 2015 Corruption Perception Index, calling it “an important case study of a state seeking to recover from decades of an authoritarian state that institutionalized corruption.” The 35-year dictatorship from 1954 to 1989 under General Alfredo Stroessner was the longest dictatorship in modern Latin American history. In 2012, Paraguay replaced its president in a coup.
But today, something is changing. Big plans are not only being made, they are getting done—fast. Paraguay has a new Master Plan for Transport, a Master Plan for Urban Renewal, and a plan to modernize its national power grid, laying a foundation for new industries. These plans are supported by aid from the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and South Korea. In many ways, Paraguay has been a backward country for a century, but now things are moving forward.
“Korea makes Asunción stop living in 1975″
The taxi zooms through another red light. The DJ was right: most of Paraguay has no traffic lights at all. The capital, Asunción, has been the exception… sort of. It first installed traffic lights in 1975, but over the four decades that followed, most were never maintained. Today most do not work and/or cannot be seen easily from the road.
But a gift from South Korea is transforming the capital’s intersections from chaotic to cutting edge. In 2015, the Korean International Cooperation Agency donated a USD$5.3 million Intelligent Transport System (ITS) using the same traffic light technology found in Seoul, one of the world’s most modern cities.
ITS software optimizes the length of green lights, based on statistics collected by radars that monitor the number and velocity of vehicles. South Korea sent technical trainers to jumpstart Asunción’s new Traffic Control Center, where the city now monitors traffic 24/7 using high definition cameras at major intersections.
After a successful test period, all 420 new intelligent traffic lights began working in April 2015. “Korea makes Asunción stop living in 1975,” announced a headline in Ejemplo newspaper.
“We’re going to have the best traffic light system in all of the region,” said Asunción mayor Arnaldo Sarmaniego Gonzalez. “If it can work in Seoul, it can work here.”
Asunción has not yet reached its goals of providing “green waves” of consecutive green lights for peak-hour commuters and reducing wait times by at least 25 percent. In June 2015, the city reported that a “hacker attack” caused 31 lights to malfunction, sending 6:00 a.m. traffic into chaos. But transit manager Victor Peña says the system will continue to improve and has already been a success in keeping traffic to the speed limit of 40 km/h. Most of all, for the first time, drivers are gradually becoming accustomed to stopping at red lights.
Staging a Bus Revolution
The radio DJ rolls on: “The city, they’ve tried to put in fixed bus stops, with fixed times. But the people, they didn’t want them. They tried to put in a real bus system; but the people, they didn’t want it.”
Buses are a matter of national concern in Paraguay. In 2015, President Horacio Cartes presented his ambitious Master Plan for Transport on national television, standing in front of a line of brand new buses—which, as he pointed out, were air conditioned. In a country with just over one vehicle for every twenty people, buses are the main transport lifeline.
But Paraguay’s buses have been dysfunctional and often dangerous for decades. Most buses have no marked stops or fixed times. There are thousands of privately owned buses, and riders must remember the spots to catch one—on this corner, in front of that bank—or just wave their arms when they see it coming. Tourists have to ask a lot of questions.
Several bone-rattling rides in 2015 confirmed that, until recently, the average bus in Asunción was 20 to 25 years old. Of 2,500 buses citywide, 1,415 were “buses chatarras,” that is, “junk buses,” unreliable and uncomfortable, with broken glass, bad brakes, shaky seats, worn out tires, body damage, and no air-conditioning in a city with an average January high of 92°F. Many were “sardine buses,” undersized microbuses typically packed to double capacity, with half of the passengers standing like sardines.
Paraguayans share photos and videos of junk buses online. Wheels and whole axles literally come off. Some keel heavily to one side. A passenger side dashboard is completely missing with a spaghetti of wires exposed.
Junk buses have been a serious public health hazard. Many videos show junk bus accidents in which people were hurt or killed. One from 2013 shows the aftermath of a crash that knocked over a two-story streetlight, shown wrapped over the bus, sending two passengers to the hospital. The driver had lost control when the brakes stopped working. “How can the government let a bus like this drive through the streets endangering people’s lives?” a female passenger in the video asks.
The lack of reliable buses combined with the unaffordability of cars has made inexpensive motorbikes the most common personal vehicles in Paraguay. But motorbikes are Paraguay’s primary cause of fatalities, according to Dr. Aníbal Filártiga, director of Asunción’s Emergency Medical Center. “Motorbikes are a deadly weapon,” he says. “For every 100 accidents, 75 are on bikes.” Filártiga says the solution is to improve public transport options. “The first horseman of the apocalypse is the lack of a decent public transportation.”
A 2014 investigation by Paraguay’s transport authority, Setama, uncovered a “bus mafia” operating in Asunción. It had falsified the ages of approximately 350 buses owned by 30 different companies to keep them on the road. Some were 30 to 40 years old. Many had never cleared customs when entering the country.
Now Paraguay is responding. In 2014, President Cartes initiated a rapid National Bus Modernization Plan. In August of that year, the national government offered transport companies a USD$30,000 nonrefundable loan for each brand new “zero kilometer bus” they added, required to have air-conditioning and wheelchair ramps. To get the deal, companies also had to agree to continue renovating 10 percent of their bus fleets each year. Within three months, 42 companies had agreed to purchase 559 new buses. In December 2015, under heavy rains, the city proudly presented 148 of them along its riverfront, parked end to end for all to see.
In return for new buses, companies taking the deal had to agree to turn over an equivalent number of junk buses to the government, and 325 were delivered to junkyards and destroyed. The government also removed 292 buses lacking proper legal documentation and 136 sardine buses deemed too small. By June 2016, 726 of 1,415 junk buses had been taken off the road.
The Bus Modernization Plan required companies not taking the deal to replace 20 percent of their fleets with new buses by the end of 2015. Five did not and were put out of business. “If a company doesn’t renovate, it’s gone,” said Vice Minister of Transport Agustín Encina. He projects that by 2019, 100 percent of buses citywide will be less than 10 years old—a remarkable feat by any measure for what had for decades been a city of junk buses.
The next stop for the Bus Modernization Plan may be its most challenging: to finally implement mandatory fixed bus stops in Asunción. In April 2016, the city started by gradually installing bus stop signs and bus shelters along a few major routes. The Ministry of Transport is enforcing the stops with USD$900 fines—astronomical for Paraguay. So far, they have shown they mean business: in one 72-hour period in June, officials fined 75 buses from 34 companies for not complying with the new stops, impounding the buses.
Observers say the change will require an “evolution” in mentality, both by bus operators and by passengers, who have been accustomed to hailing buses informally but will now have to get used to walking to the new stops. “Some complain,” says Encina. “But we’re talking about a change in culture. You can’t catch a bus on every corner anymore. This is real necessity; it’s unthinkable to have a city without bus stops.”
BRT: Very Fast
Paraguay’s Master Plan for Transport has more in store for Asunción. The government is now constructing a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system scheduled to open in 2017 that will serve over 300,000 passengers, some 30 percent of the city’s public transport ridership. Project leader José Tomás Rivarola calls it “the most important transportation project in Paraguay since its first railway was created” in 1861. “This is a project that transforms the structure of cities,” says Rivarola. “It will help to restructure and develop areas of Asunción that have been hard hit by the low quality of transport service.”
Called Metrobús Pya’e Porã (translated as “very fast” in Guaraní), Asunción’s BRT will connect 18.4 km between the downtown Port of Asunción and the major suburbs of San Lorenzo and Fernando de la Mora. At a cost of USD$200 million, it is supported by a USD$100 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as USD$19 million from OPEC.
BRT systems, also known as surface subways, are bus-based mass-transit systems combining the speed and capacity of subways with a much lower cost and time of startup and expansion. BRTs’ ease of scalability is particularly advantageous for fast-growing developing cities like Asunción. Today, BRTs carry over 30 million passengers daily in over 160 cities worldwide, including megacities such as Istanbul, Mexico City, and Guangzhou.
Asunción originally planned to use diesel buses but, after much pressure from the press and citizen groups, instead chose 175 new electric trolley buses. These will leverage Paraguay’s cheap renewable hydroelectricity, lowering operating costs and reducing local emissions from buses to near zero.
In BRT systems, buses travel in a network of dedicated bus-only lanes in the center of the road, away from the curb and thus unimpeded by cars parking, turning, or standing. Turns across bus lanes are prohibited for regular traffic, and buses have priority at signals and intersections. To prevent delays and free drivers from handling transactions, fares are collected in a station beforehand, not on the bus. Passengers board and exit via a station platform already level with the bus, easily accessible for wheelchairs, strollers, and carts.
Of hundreds of systems advertised as “BRT” worldwide, not all adhere to these principles. To establish a common global definition, the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy published its “BRT Standard” in 2012. It now rates systems based on how well they meet the BRT Standard’s scorecard: gold, silver, bronze, basic BRT, and non-BRT. Of seven cities receiving a gold rating in 2014, six were in Latin America and one in China. Overall, over 45 cities in Latin America have invested in BRT systems, serving over 63 percent of BRT ridership worldwide.1
Plugging In to Leverage Renewable Energy
The taxi whizzes by streams of pedestrians, street vendors, and dilapidated shops along the avenue. The driver turns back toward me, stuffing his right hand in his pocket and steering with the left. “The politicians, they sell our electricity and pocket the money. They don’t use it to take care of the people,” he says, waving his hand 360 degrees.
Paraguay is one of the world’s top exporters of electricity. Thanks to the behemoth output of Itaipu and smaller dams, it is able to sell 90 percent of its electricity to Brazil and Argentina for USD$400 million each year and still run its national grid using the remaining 10 percent. It is one of very few countries worldwide running entirely on renewable hydropower.
But ironically, despite its surplus, Paraguay is one of the lowest consumers of electricity in Latin America. Eleven percent have no electricity at all. Blackouts are common and a startling 32 percent of its domestic electricity is lost in transmission and distribution.2 The problem is the country’s antiquated power infrastructure, a legacy of decades of lack of investment—not taking care of the people.3
But now, Paraguay is building a smart grid to finally leverage its overflowing electricity, funded by a USD$100 million loan from the World Bank for the Paraguay Energy Sector Strengthening Project. The project will double the overall energy volume supplied by Paraguay’s grid and improve distribution and transmission, using smart meters, smart substations, and 3,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cables.
A new reliable grid fed by cheap, renewable electricity creates more sustainable possibilities for Paraguay’s future. At present, nearly half the country’s energy is provided by biomass, mostly wood, burned in industrial broilers and homes. As more widely available electricity mitigates the need for biomass, it will help reduce deforestation in Paraguay—which has the second highest deforestation rate in the world.4
Expanded access to renewable electricity will also give Paraguay the potential to become a global “beacon” of electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing and use, according to a 2015 exploratory study by Brazilian energy experts.5 Fortuitously, its neighbor Bolivia holds by far the world’s largest stores of lithium—the key component of lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries—and began making lithium batteries in 2014. Led by Dr. Ildo Sauer of the University of São Paulo, the study suggests Paraguay should invest heavily in creating an EV manufacturing chain, sourcing lithium batteries from Bolivia. Paraguay already has burgeoning industrial parks, where in 2014 Hyundai invested USD$40 million in new auto parts manufacturing plants, bringing 3,000 new jobs. The study recommends Paraguay first transform its national vehicle fleet to EVs over a 10-year period, then export EVs to the South American and global markets. It calculates that the domestic conversion to EVs would reduce Paraguay’s local vehicle emissions to near zero and save USD$996 million. Exporting EVs would give Paraguay a high value high-tech niche in global trade—which it has never had in modern times.
La Costanera is the Place to Be
Past the stark inequality and crumbling buildings of historic downtown Asunción, down the hillside, is the water’s edge, where the Bay of Asunción looks out on the Paraguay River. The city turned its back to the water long ago, leaving the riverside to slums, crime, and garbage. But today, something in the air changes here, and not just because of the onshore breeze. There is a new dimension for public life in the capital city: La Costanera, a four-kilometer riverfront promenade completed in 2013. Sleek, modern, and dotted with clusters of palm trees, La Costanera is restoring the lost connection between Asuncenos and the water. Thousands stroll its length every day. Forty meters wide, it includes both a pedestrian walkway and the two-lane Costanera Avenue, where runners, bikers, and rollerbladers cruise. On a Sunday afternoon in Paraguay’s capital, there is no question that La Costanera is the place to be.
“We’ve waited 400 years for this opportunity. For many years it couldn’t be done, it was just a dream,” said Asunción’s former mayor Enrique Riera Escudero. Part of the city’s Master Plan for Urban Renewal, the USD$125 million Costanera project is partially funded by the Inter-American Development Bank.
Asunción’s Costanera is one of a profusion of recent riverfront restoration projects in the heart of South America, creating seaside environments far from the ocean. Just along the Paraná River alone, seven Paraguayan and Argentine cities have restored riverfronts since 2000. Decaying empty shipping warehouses, abandoned train tracks, thieves, drug deals, prostitution, and trash have been replaced by monuments, beaches, and parks, and events including stage concerts, fireworks, and marathons.
Another Costanera, in Encarnación, Paraguay, was completed in 2010. Last October, it hosted a show by Grammy-winning Mexican singer Marco Antonio Solis. Santa Fe, Argentina restored an historic lighthouse along its Costanera Santafesina in 2014, with a new beacon flashing signals that mimic seaside environments. Not far from the lighthouse is an Artisan’s Walk with 35 craft stalls.
On a continent marked by inequality, South America’s new riverfronts are creating much-needed inclusive public spaces. Here, along La Costanera in Asunción, kids from the slums play soccer near wealthy businessmen talking shop. First dates and families with babies pass kite flyers, kids doing bike tricks, beach volleyball, cotton candy and souvenir vendors, and dozens of police officers—who clearly have no problem socializing with passersby.
Economically, La Costanera is a magnet drawing Asunceneros to their historic but vastly underdeveloped downtown, and the city hopes business investment will follow. “Our overall aim is to revive downtown Asunción holistically and reactivate the city center,” said architect Yona Muñoz. “This is necessary to improve the urban dynamics in Asunción, which are now polarized in an imbalanced way.” In 2018, a USD$200 million complex will open at the renovated Port of Asunción at one end of the Costanera, with a riverside park, fine art museum, and ferry terminal. The city projects privately funded hotels, restaurants, and apartments at the port by 2023.
River flooding is a major concern in Asunción, where in December 2015, El Niño forced 100,000 citizens to evacuate their homes. The city is now constructing a USD$4 million floodable linear park alongside the La Costanera, due for completion in 2017. Engineers are filling the existing floodplain with over 400,000 cubic meters of sand extracted from the bed of the bay, while adding drains and culverts. The three kilometer linear park will be forty meters wide with 90 percent green public space, including bikeways and athletic spaces. In April, Mayor Mario Ferreiro and citizens began planting 700 trees along the park from over 110 species provided by the National Botanic Garden—including fast-growing pink lapacho trees, the national tree of Paraguay.
Rather than building walls of concrete to protect from floods, disrupting natural ecosystems and hydrological processes, floodable parks cooperate with natural processes to absorb floods. The parks are designed not only for protection but to create usable green public spaces and new ecosystems, and they are typically clear of water and usable again within 24 hours after a storm or flood. The presence of water allows increased ecological diversity and the introduction of new species.
Floodable parks are seen as a means of creating “climate resilient” cities and are part of the current “sponge cities” movement in China—where the number of cities affected by flooding has doubled since 2008. Sponge cities “hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Kongjian Yu, dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. They employ design elements such as permeable roads, rooftop gardens, and artificial lakes and ponds to prevent polluted runoff and provide water for the city. The World Resources Institute’s web-based Aqueduct Global Flood Analyzer shows 21 million people are affected by river flooding each year, which could increase to 54 million by 2050 with climate change and urbanization.6
On this heavily stratified continent, the success of social inclusion along Asunción’s Costanera is not to be taken for granted. Many riverfront restoration projects have taken a different trajectory. A prime example is the Puerto Madero Waterfront project in Buenos Aires, Argentina, often cited as a pioneer and model of South American waterfront restorations. Through the 1990s, the city renovated the decaying neighborhood of Puerto Madero, which had been lined with decaying shipping warehouses along the Rio de la Plata. The original intention was a public space for the whole city. But over time, things changed, as Argentine architect Alfredo Garay writes:
“The market strategies of private developers colored the project discourse, diluting socially inclusive public policy objectives in favor of creating an exclusive neighborhood. Wealthy citizens and high-end entrepreneurs covet Puerto Madero’s residential and commercial spaces. [Project managers] have had difficulty protecting the public character of even the district’s new open spaces, such as the ecological reserve, as Puerto Madero’s affluent residents strongly discourage entertainment and sport activities that would appeal to all citizens citywide. [The project] limited itself to articulating the interests of private entrepreneurs and current residents and ignored policies designed to benefit many inhabitants of the city. Affordable housing and [inclusive] social programs did not materialize, isolating Puerto Madero as an elite development area.”
Today, Puerto Madero is a sterile, oversized concrete expanse of global chains, luxury high-rise apartments, offices, and hotels. As real-estate writer Patrick Duffy puts it, Puerto Madero is “basically a compound for the wealthy.” By contrast, the Costanera de Asunción is an outdoor parade of the Paraguayan spirit.
Asunción is now extending La Costanera from 4 to 22 total kilometers in both directions along the coast, vastly increasing spatial connectivity between the historic downtown and outlying zones. As it expands, the project has potential to make the riverfront a green, inclusive focal point for social life for hundreds of thousands of citizens.
In strange ways, many of Paraguay’s longstanding dysfunctions are now working to its advantage. Its crumbling and nonexistent infrastructure leaves little to uproot, and there are few barriers to innovation.
To be sure, there is much work to be done. Much of Paraguay’s growth is due to large-scale cattle ranching and genetically modified soy monoculture, which have elevated GDP and FDI statistics while giving Paraguay the worst land inequality in all of the Americas. While 27 percent of Paraguayans are employed in agriculture, just one percent of the people own 77 percent of the farmland. Protests by small farmers are a regular occurrence. Agricultural reform needs much more attention.
But billionaire President Horacio Cartes, once the target of US investigations into narcotics smuggling and money laundering, is pushing to diversify the economy and traveling the world in search of foreign direct investment, which grew by 230 percent between 2013 and 2014. He is making strides toward transparency—including appointing a Finance Minister from the opposing party.
American Airlines started direct flights from Miami to Asunción in 2012. In my guide book, it says there are no hostels in Asunción, except now there are five, and the one I stayed in was packed. If it completes even half of its Master Plan for Urban Renewal, in 10 years, Asunción will have finally, after a century of neglect, leveraged its rich historic architecture and vast waterfront to create a beautiful, green city center. As the transformation of this country continues, many more curious travelers will be sending postcards from Paraguay.
- Rodriguez, DA & Tovar, EV. Bus rapid transit and urban development in Latin America. Lincoln Institute of Land and Policy [online] (January 2013). http://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/articles/sistemas-transporte-publico-masivo-tipo-brt-bus-rapid-transit-desarrollo.
- Jiménez, R et al. Power lost: sizing electricity losses in transmission and distribution systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. Inter-American Development Bank [online] (2014). https://publications.iadb.org/handle/11319/6689.
- Toledano, P & Maennling, N. Leveraging Paraguay’s hydropower for sustainable development. Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment [online] (2013). http://ccsi.columbia.edu/files/2014/01/Leveraging-Paraguays-Hydropower-for-Economic-Development-Final-CCSI.pdf.
- Hansen, MC et al. High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342(6160), 850–853 (2013).
- Sauer, I et al. Bolivia and Paraguay: A beacon for sustainable electric mobility? Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 51(51), 910 (2015).
- World Resources Institute. Aqueduct Global Flood Analyzer [online] (2016). http://www.wri.org/our-work/project/aqueduct.