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Paraguay conquers happiness

The South American nation is the happiest country in the world, according to a Gallup survey. But it is also one of the most unjust and corrupt

A fisherman on the Jejui river in Paraguay.
A fisherman on the Jejui river in Paraguay.AMAMBAY TORALES (GETTY)

“Ignorance is bliss”

(Thomas Gray, English poet)

Happiness has become a business. It seems like not a day can go by without some government department, university, philosopher, economist or blogger putting forward what claims to be a new study or practical plan for attaining the dream we all want. Do a search on Amazon and it will bring up a list of 14,384 books on how to achieve happiness.

But what if happiness exists not only in our minds or hearts, but also in a place? And what if that place is Paraguay? Yes, Paraguay, a country landlocked in the geographical center of South America where German, Irish, American, Australian and Finnish communities have been heading for the last 150 years  – or more if we include the 17th-century Jesuit missionaries – convinced that they would find utopia; a country that, according to a global survey by the famous Gallup agency, has for the last three consecutive years been the happiest nation on Earth.

I traveled to Paraguay to see if it would give up its secret and discovered a land that seemed to have it all. Practically empty – seven million inhabitants in a country almost twice the size of Germany – the land is so fertile that mangos lay on the ground rotting; they feed avocados to their pigs; export more meat than Argentina; and the water of its large rivers is so plentiful that not only does it surpass all agricultural and human requirements but, thanks to the gigantic Itaipu Dam, has created nearly 10 times more renewable power – for eternity – than its population needs.

The land is so fertile that mangos are rotting on the ground, and they feed avocados to their pigs

The traditional indigenous theology of the Guaraní people has a paradisaical concept of a “land without evil.” It looks like they might have found it. But then I scratched the surface a little bit and saw that humans still had a bit to do.

It turns out that, in the absence of any remotely serious justice system, corruption permeates political and state institutions from top to bottom – from the judges to the police, from the ministries to the public officials. It also turns out that as each day passes, the poor are getting poorer and the few rich are getting richer, including the current president, tobacco magnate Horacio Cartes, who, as I was told by one of his acquaintances, once confessed that he got into politics in part because he didn’t know what to do with his millions.

But then if Paraguay is one of the most unfair, corrupt and unequal countries on Earth, and if we almost all agree that injustice, corruption and inequality are the great evils that plague us, then why do its residents say they are so happy?

First, as one Paraguayan columnist wrote a few weeks ago, because “one of the most noted characteristics of our idiosyncrasy” is “blindness.” With one eye focusing on the imaginary land without evil, many refuse to see the real evil surrounding them.

Corruption permeates the political and state institutions from top to bottom

The most striking example I found was that of the country’s national hero, Francisco Solano López, the anniversary of whose death in 1870 is a big national holiday. The self-appointed marshal López was a despot whose conceit and tyranny would never be surpassed by any of the Latin American dictators who followed him. During his eight years in office, López ordered the torture and execution of thousands, including close family members, and led his country into an insane war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay that did away with 85 percent of the Paraguayan population, leaving the country without men. Today the main avenues of Asunción, the Paraguayan capital, are named after López and his own Lady Macbeth, Elisa Lynch, the dictator’s Irish mistress who was equally sinister.

The second reason that the Paraguayans believe that they are happy is their habit, which is related to their not examining their past very closely, of living for the moment. I was told this by a businessman named Víctor González while we drove through the countryside around Asunción. As I saw with my own eyes the extraordinary richness of the land and the apparent serenity of the residents, Gonzalez told me that there is no word in the Guarani language, which nearly all Paraguayans speak, for “tomorrow.” The closest choice is “Koera,” which means “if dawn breaks.” This translates into an attitude of not being worried about what might happen in the future, an outlook that González, who is now a rich man but who grew up on a poor family farm, remembers with nostalgia.

González and other Paraguayans with whom I spoke commented that unhappiness comes when you create expectations that cannot be fulfilled. This has been supported by studies conducted by Harvard University, and is demonstrated by one dramatic statistic about Paraguay: each day, on average, one young person between the ages of 15 and 25 commits suicide.

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Each one of them decides that it is better that they don’t see dawn break tomorrow because, in the great majority of these cases, they are people who come from poor rural families whose parents aspire for a better life and who mix, for example by moving to the outskirts of Asunción, with other young people who own Lacoste shirts, Nike shoes or a next-generation cellphone. Happiness suddenly consists of acquiring items that were previously unnecessary, which they see they cannot have and, corroded by a gnawing envy, they take their own lives. It is clear that Gallup did not interview this particular sector of the population, as those they did interview preferred to look away from these unfortunate situations.

What lessons can be learned from the Paraguayan experience? That happiness is possible if you close your eyes to the inevitable evils of life, if you live in the present, if you are content with just having the essential items for living, and can achieve the enormous luxury of not having to worry about money. But there is one ingredient missing to make Paraguay an earthly paradise. Before those who live afflicted by the crisis or by other hardships taking place around the world can follow in the footsteps of the old utopian dreamers, it is essential to ask one thing of the wealthy minority that governs Paraguay: to install a democracy sin qua non and rule of law so that justice is equal for all. When that day comes, yeah, let’s go there. They have everything else.

English version by Martin Delfin.

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