Independence Day – Paraguay

May 15

Today, May 15, is Paraguay’s Independence Day.

The Rio Paraguay winds across 1500 miles of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Its both the source and outlet for the Pantanal wetlands, the largest tropical wetlands in the world, and, due to its Amazonian neighbor, one of the most overlooked.

The river divides Paraguay in half, giving the country it’s name and its lifeblood. Paraguay is a landlocked country, one of only two in South America. Like the Pantanal wetlands, Paraguay has been overlooked by the world in favor of its larger and more accessible neighbors like Brazil, Peru, and Argentina.

The first European to reach the Paraguay River (and live to tell the tale) was Alejo Garcia. After being shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil he lived for 8 years with a tribe who told him of a great “White King” out West on a mountain of silver. Garcia traveled inland to what is now Paraguay, where he recruited 2000 Guarani to fight who would turn out to be the Incas. They stole vast amounts of gold and silver from the Empire, but Garcia was killed on the way back to Brazil.

Word of the city of silver and gold intrigued the Spanish, who initially took interest in Paraguay as a centerpoint of their South American empire. But interest in the area around Asuncion soon waned in favor of Lima and Buenos Aires.

“Madrid preferred to avoid the intricacies and the expense of governing and defending a remote colony that had shown early promise but ultimately proved to have dubious value.”

Map of Paraguay

The settlers elected the Basque Domingo Martinez de Irala governor of the colony. Irala was considered a humane leader and a tough governor, who gained the respect of both the natives and the colonists. But he conceded to settlers’ demands for the parceling of land and conscripted Indian labor to the settlers, a system which eventually degenerated into near-slavery conditions.

Elsewhere in South America this system yielded profits for the Spanish government. But Paraguay was not a farming society like Peru. The Guarani were hunter/gatherers, not farmers.

Friction increased between the descendants of the settlers and the Spanish government. Spain’s economic policies and consistent downgrading of Paraguay’s importance deepened the colony’s impoverishment. In 1617 when the colony was split into two–Asuncion and Buenos Aires–Paraguay lost control of the throughway to the Atlantic via the Rio de la Plata.

There was also friction between the landowning Mestizos and the Jesuit missionaries. For 150 years the Jesuits organized the Indians to block the attempts at forced labor. In the 1720s the Paraguayans rebelled against pro-Jesuit Spanish leaders, and the Jesuits were eventually expelled.

To the Paraguayans, the final blow came in 1776 when Spain officially put Paraguay under control of Buenos Aires and Argentina.

The Napoleonic Wars hit Spain hard in 1808. Spain lost the ability to control its colonies, and in 1810 Argentina overthrew the Spanish government in Buenos Aires. The Paraguayans followed suit on May 14, 1811 with a coup that overthrew the Spanish governor and affirmed the separation between Paraguay and Argentina.

The following day the new government elected its first president, 45 year-old Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia.

Cultures of the World: Paraguay

Paraguay: Independence and Dictatorship

Paraguay Chooses Between Firsts

South American Travels, by Henry Stephens, 1915

Independence Day – Israel

May 9, 2011

And the Lord said to him: this is the land that I promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob in these words: I will give it to your descendants.I have allowed you with your own eyes to see it, but you will not pass into it.

—Deuteronomy 34:4

Today marks the 60th anniversary (in the Jewish calendar) of the signing of Israel’s Declaration of independence. The document speaks for itself.

Declaration of Israel’s Independence 1948

ERETZ-ISRAEL [The Land of Israel] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma’pilim and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country’s inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.

In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.

This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.

The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.

In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.

On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.

Issued at Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 – 5th of Iyar, 5708

Temple Mount. Photo by David Shankbone

Constitution Day – Japan & Poland

May 3

May 3 is Constitution Day in two countries on opposite sides of the globe.

May 3 Constitution, by Jan Matejko, 1891

Poland’s most recent constitution dates only to 1997, but it stems from the Constitution of May 3, 1791, one of the oldest codified constitutions in the world. Only the Constitution of the United States is older. [The Constitution of San Marino dates to 1600, but apparently is not codified enough to compete with the big boys. — Ed.]

The 1997 Constitution was a response to Poland’s changing position in the world, from a one-party socialist state under the control of its powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union, to a multi-party independent state.

The Japanese Constitution was put into effect on May 3, 1947. Its creation dealt with Japan’s changing role in the world after World War II. The Constitution altered not only the government—a government in which the Emperor would have less say in matters of state—but also the Japanese way of life. The Constitution protects standard basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, but goes one step further. Article 19, for example, proclaims:

“Freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated.”

One of the most long-reaching impacts of the Constitution is Article 9, which deals with the renunciation of warfare:

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

So you’re probably thinking, No military? I could go over there with a dinghy and a BB gun and take over the country!

You would be met with a surprisingly powerful defense force. Japan still maintains its ability to defend its homeland, and…

“By 1990 estimates of Japan’s defense budget were that it was either the third or fourth largest in the world and Japan’s SDF was a high technology fighting force.”

The Rule of Law in Japan — Carl F. Goodman

Japan’s Constitution Day falls right in the middle of “Golden Week”, a congruence of four holidays, beginning with Showa Day (April 29) and ending with Children’s Day (May 5).

Japan’s Commission on the Constitution — the Final Report, 1980

Freedom Day – South Africa

April 27

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, a country that doesn’t take freedom for granted. Freedom Day celebrates South Africa’s first democratic elections, held on this day in 1994.

Voting began on April 26, for the elderly, the ill, and pregnant women. The general election was held from April 27 to April 29, and was open to all South Africans 18 and older, regardless of race. Prior to the election, non-whites had limited voting rights. Under the apartheid system that ruled the country since 1948, voting was essentially restricted to white South Africans.

That’s not to say there were free elections before 1948. The Dutch East India Company established the first “refreshment station” on the Cape in 1652. In the 19th century, British settlers arrived in increasing numbers, and black rights gradually eroded.  Blacks and Indians were excluded from government in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed. Later laws required black South Africans to carry special passbooks and banned them from owning property outside of certains “reserves”. These reserves made up only 13% of the land area of South Africa, despite the fact that blacks made up an overwhelming majority of South Africa’s population.

After the National Party came to power in 1948, several laws restricted rights even further: the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Immorality Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act, and the Group Areas Act, which forced black South Africans to move out of neighborhoods that were designated as “white only”.  Future laws segregated virtually every aspect of South African life, from elementary schools to swimming pools.

Signs of Apartheid - Durban Beach, 1989
Sign of Apartheid, 1989

No one event brought about the end of Apartheid. The struggle combined international pressure from both governments and corporations, economic sanctions, internal boycotts, and other forms of resistance. Apartheid laws fell one by one, the African National Congress was reinstated as a legal organization, and in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Mandela became the first black President of South Africa after the election of 1994. He was inaugurated on May 10. Every year since, South Africa has celebrated April 27 as Freedom Day.

This year’s Freedom Day celebrations “happen on the eve of the biggest sporting event, the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, which will for the first time take place on African soil.” — Gauteng province to host the Freedom Day national celebrations

[For Americans: Soccer is a big sport in much of the world outside the States. Much like basketball except it’s played outdoors on grass and players can’t use their hands.] Like many new holidays, traditions are still being formed:

“The only thing I’m not sure about is how we are supposed to celebrate Freedom Day. I know and respect everything associated with the day but for me it is just a public holiday where I chill and do whatever. On the odd occassion, I will watch SABC 2 to hear and see what rallies are happening…”

Celebrating Freedom Day – www.justcurious.co.za

Others call April 27 “unFreedom Day”, using the holiday to comment on the sharp divide between the rich and poor still all-too evident in South Africa.

“There are many in South Africa who feel that Freedom Day is a cruel joke which attempts to gloss over the true social concerns of citizens. Abahlali baseMjondolo, which means “shack dwellers” in isiZulu, is an intellectual movement formed in early 2005 in Durban, South Africa. To counteract Freedom Day, a day that actually reminds the poor in South Africa just how un-free they are, Abahlali spread the realities of UnFreedom Day through educational discussions, meetings and creative expression in films and music. UnFreedom Day has also begun to take on a positive meaning, a reminder of just how strong and united the movement has become.”

Alex J. Hyatt – unFreedom Day in South Africa

Freedom Day: 27 April

South Africa Split on Freedom Day

St George’s Day

April 23

The legend of St. George has been heralded around the world ever since the publication of The Golden Legend, a compilation of the lives of saints, which took for fact the mythic tale of St. George and the Dragon.

All that we really know for sure about St. George is that he was a soldier in the Roman army at the end of the third century AD, he was apparently of noble birth, of Christian parentage, and he was executed on the orders of Diocletian on April 23 in the year 303 in Palestine.

It is believed the reason for his execution was his protestation of the persecution of Christians. Fifth century documents indicate that he was imprisoned, tortured–in an effort to force a renunciation of Christianity–and beheaded when torture proved ineffective.

Much that we previously thought to be fact about George may have been the result of confusing him with other Georges. His birth in Turkey in 270 may have actually been that of George, Bishop of Cappadocia who lived around the same time.

Before he was the patron saint of England, George was already the patron saint of soldiers, rumored to have been seen fighting alongside Crusader forces in the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Richard I later declared his Crusading army to be under the protection of St. George’s watchful eye.

As for the dragon, the legend was spread by the 13th century’s The Golden Legend, which set the scene between George and the Dragon in Lybia. There a town is terrorized by a dragon who demands sheep to devour, and occasionally children, who are selected by lottery. (Note: April 23 is also Children’s Day)

George slays the dragon, frees the townsfolk, and wins the girl. The story may have been the result of the retelling of George’s defiance of Diocletian, symbolized as a satanic demon or dragon.

About the time of Golden Legend, St. George became the Patron of the Knights of the Garter, and later of all England.

Shakespeare coincidentally died on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1616. He reflected England’s faith in their patron hero when he scribed one of the most quoted speeches of his works, Henry V’s rallying cry to his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt. The one that begins “Once more unto the breach” and climaxes with:

“…there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge cry
‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Zimbabwe Independence Day

April 18


Happy Independence Day, Zimbabwe!

Okay, well, maybe not so happy.

A quick scan of the blogosphere headlines reveals:

and my favorite:

According to the first article,

“Independence followed a seven-year war between nationalist blacks and the white-minority regime that left 27,000 people dead. Robert Mugabe was sworn in as president in 1980 and has maintained his grip on power ever since.”

Louise Dunne, Radio Netherlands Worldwide

“The first decade, 1980 to 1990 was superb for everyone, there was an independence euphoria, things were moving. Then 1990 to 2000, people started looking at what they had actually achieved from independence, scrutinising things like corruption. And then after the land reform in 2000, things just went down”.

Charles Rukuni, Zimbabwe journalist

Zimbabwe is a land-locked African nation sandwiched between Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British dude ‘Cecil’.  According to “Disability, Liberation, and Development” by Peter Coleridge…

“The Rhodesian colonial system was geared primarily for the benefit of a white minority for whom ‘the whole economic system on the farms as well as in the mines, rested on a cheap and plentiful supply of native labour.'”

Sadly, as the above quote suggests, they didn’t even know how to spell labor. Education was a big problem back then, and the disparity was rampant. Rhodesia spent ten times as many education dollars on whites than on blacks.

Fortunately, after gaining independence, the government poured vast resourced into the education system, allocating “22 per cent of its budget to education, which it declared to be the birthright of every Zimbabwean. (This compares with an education budget of around 2 per cent in Britain in the same period.)

The school population more than tripled between 1979 and 1989. Sounds like a great idea, except, as Coleridge points out, “the downside of educating so many people so suddenly is that there are very few jobs.

In other words, you pretty much need a Ph.D. to work at Coco’s now.

Zimbabwe also suffers from hyperinflation. It made news in early 2009 when the government printed what may be the world’s first $100 trillion bills. A 1 with 14 zeroes in case you were wondering.

Don't spend it all at once

But if you find one on the street, don’t go on a spending spree. It was worth about $30. Shortly thereafter, the government changed the currency system by removing 12 zeroes from the dollar, so that $1 trillion now equalled $1 Zimbabwean. Though it saved a lot of zeroes, it was a moot point, as Zimbabweans stopped accepting/using the ZD and now use foreign currencies for transactions.

Some blame President Robert Mugabe for the country’s problems, but to be fair, he has only been in charge of the country for the past three decades.

President Mugabe’s life is the stuff of legend. Born in 1924, he was a leader of the independence movement. He spent 11 years in prison for speaking out against the colonial government, during which time he earned three degrees, including a law degree. After independence, in which he played an instrumental part, he was elected the country’s first Prime Minister, and later President.

Since then however, his critics insist his reign has exhibited symptoms of Saturday Night Live skit syndrome. A good idea gone on about 20 years too long.

“On this day I am hoping for change, especially for the president…He is not going to go on and on. The talks must end now so we can vote.”

— Fanuel Chikwakwaire, Zimbabwe citizen (Mugabe rejects violence as Zimbabwe celebrates Independence)