Mariano Rámon Bareiro Soria
This description of Mariano Rámon Bareiro Soria's work was prepared when Mariano Rámon Bareiro Soria was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Mariano Bareiro, a member of the migrant population he serves, has generated neighborhood participation initiatives which provide a voice for under-represented poor residents of Asunción.
The New Idea
Mariano Bareiro has found success in his struggle for justice, despite the residue of official repression that lingers from Paraguay's long history of dictatorships. Beginning in Asunción, he is organizing community groups to work on neighbors's common interests and meet the urgent needs of marginal populations. He counsels the organizations so that they can remain strong in their battles with the power structure, principally municipal governments. They are thus changing the pattern of such neighborhood organizations, which were formed by a national law in 1987. In the past, they have characteristically been linked to special interests or municipalities and have had only a passive voice in the government and community development programs of the city. In order to confront the resistance of the new government to such popular participation, community organizations have set up their management completely independently, and have administered all of their own operations. Assuming a posture of autonomy has empowered these community organizations and, as an additional benefit, has opened new roads to self-management that enhance concrete programs within the neighborhoods. Through training, workshops, and his personal leadership, Mariano is helping to transform these community organizations into both a powerful forum for democracy and a proactive, autonomous voice for the future development of neighborhoods. For the first time in Paraguay indeed in the region these neighborhood commissions are being formed without political, labor, or business ties. A once-small group of 40 community groups, Mariano's associations now number more than 350 and span the greater Asunción area.
The concept of citizen-based organizations is relatively new in Paraguay, a country that suffered 35 years of dictatorship ending in 1989. This dictatorship never permitted the people of Paraguay to construct a culture of social organizing, leaving residents ignorant of their civil rights. Currently, there is a vacuum of authority in Paraguayan government. Officials refuse to assess the needs of the people or to deal with the problems in Paraguayan society, leaving a civil society still in its infant stages to meet the needs of Paraguay's citizens. An additional hindrance comes from Paraguayans themselves, who have residual fears about engaging with the government, based on past negative experiences.The culture of Paraguay's largest indigenous population, the Guaraní, nurtures a sense of community involvement and therefore fosters communal organization. In spite of this cultural history, however, the country as a whole needs to give more formal recognition to community activism. Paraguayans need to strengthen their civil society in order to arm themselves for social battles on behalf of their country's most marginalized citizens, including the Guaraní themselves.Growing migration to the capital accentuates the problems of greater Asunción's neighborhoods. Extreme poverty in rural areas forces people to abandon the countryside and flee to the cities. Fifty percent of Paraguay's population currently lives in urban areas. Housing conditions for migrant populations are unacceptable, but laborers who have left their rural homes because of a lack of employment opportunities have no alternatives. Families congregate in settlements unfit for habitation, the only advantages of which are their low cost and their proximity to informal workplaces in the capital and its suburbs.
Mariano is creating a wide variety of associations that fortify neighborhood efforts, including the Council of Neighborhood Associations, of which he is president, the Neighbors's Commission of Asunción, the Paraguayan Consumers's Association, and most recently the Foundation Center for Self-Management and Citizen Participation. He collaborates with organizations in other municipalities and at the international level, acted as Paraguay's secretary to the 1997 Mercosur Community Forum in Córdoba, Argentina, and has participated in other Mercosur Forums. (Mercosur is the Common Market of the South, an economic and trade group which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile.) Drawing on his experience with the Neighbors' Commission, he is teaching his Mercosur peers that acting independently from municipal governments can benefit their citizen-based groups.The neighborhood organizations' strategy involves rethinking the role of citizens as co-managers of municipal concerns, the best ways to use municipal funds, and the establishment of neighborhood priorities for resource investment. Neighbors define and set their own goals. In contrast, in the few municipal attempts at participatory government, authorities have excluded community residents who are the largest stakeholders in such initiatives. Mariano's program demonstrates that involving residents in the planning and execution of community projects has increased their efficacy; the residents themselves are the communities' greatest resources. For example, when the mayor of Asunción pledged to silence the neighborhood organizations there, they gave him 120 days to rescind his statement. When the citizens threatened to withhold their taxes, the administration finally listened.Mariano considers training the directors of such neighborhood groups one of his most important projects. He listens to and analyzes their needs, and collaborates with them to develop crucial leadership skills. Until Mariano's ideas came along, these directors were able to attend only short, promotional training sessions. Now, they have acquired new management techniques and learned skills such as fundraising and volunteer coordination, which directly enhance their day-to-day, grass-roots work, and improves the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Mariano is continually building community responsibility through specific projects managed and financed by neighborhoods themselves. He keeps costs down by using community volunteers to accomplish the associations's aims. For example, one community built its own school and another erected barriers along the river in Asunción to prevent flooding. Yet another group used its collective force to construct a rudimentary road through the neighborhood. Mariano arranges for local nongovernmental organizations to train neighborhood associations in organizational planning and community development, and he also runs a series of workshops to teach the principles of self-management and urban planning. He is currently expanding the target audience of his educational work, and is writing a book to document his experiences working with the neighborhood associations. Using his legal background, Mariano has trained legislators in community participation techniques and is also focusing on security issues for the neighborhoods. He convenes regular meetings with the mayor of Asunción's office to encourage dialogue between the neighbors and the city, and organizes an annual Congress of the Neighborhood Associations to produce a platform and initiatives for the following year. In addition to his personal involvement in training and conducting workshops, Mariano runs a radio program, called Our Neighborhood, which broadcasts throughout Asunción and disseminates information about neighborhood associations and their methods for meeting community challenges. He frequently participates in other community radio programs to discuss development issues. As president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, Mariano faxes a national newsletter to the coordinators of the neighborhood commissions and maintains a 24-hour hotline which residents can call. In the long term, Mariano hopes to build the community association movement into a national force that will participate directly in the political process throughout the country. At the Mercosur level, Mariano is working with other community leaders to share best practices and ensure that, as Mercosur grows in importance and the countries become economically and politically more closely linked, grassroots community movements among the members will also become more aligned.
After migrating from the countryside as a youngster, Mariano worked in the streets of Asunción to make enough money to go to school. The harsh transition from the indigenous Guaraní culture and language of his rural home to city life and the Spanish language, proved a formidable obstacle to overcome. Early on, however, Mariano discovered an intense desire to develop his society more justly and this made him determined to continue his education. Mariano's parents, a factory worker and a cleaning woman, were unable to provide much financial support for Mariano's education. Therefore, he worked full-time to finance his own education.Despite a demanding schedule and low wages, he managed to study and gain entrance to a university. At age seventeen, he started a student center because he wanted to demonstrate the rights of students to organize. Joining the national student movement as one of its primary leaders, he helped to lead the campaign for reduced-price bus tickets for students, an effort which resulted in a federal law in 1992. During his days at the university, Mariano created the first union for public workers in the city of Asunción, but soon grew disillusioned with the inherently political and partisan nature of this work.As he was beginning his organizing career, Mariano observed the absence of real assistance for neighborhood-based organizations. He noted that existing municipal programs and projects were connected to political parties and focused their efforts on only small sectors of society. He also saw that citizens felt manipulated when they did become involved in their communities, and these observations fueled his passion for coordinating neighborhood movements. Mariano recently completed his final year of law school which he attended in order to gain a solid base for his work for justice. Law has helped him take steps to formalize his neighborhood organizations, giving them juridical force and autonomy. As a member of the migrant population he works to serve, Mariano feels a strong connection to the campesino way of life. He clearly perceives the needs of low-income residents and understands the social organization of their community. Staying in touch with his roots helps Mariano as a law student and as a leader in the neighborhoods of Asunción and beyond.