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Monday, July 29, 2013

Cuidad del Este

Arial View
         Over the past few months I have found myself more frequently visiting Paraguay's second largest city appropriately called Cuidad del Este (City of the East). Now I'm sure most of you are thinking, why is called Cuidad del Este (CDE)? The answer is as obvious as the name of the city itself. It used to be called Cuidad del Stroessner during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), but after he was thrown out the new regime renamed the city Cuidad del Este simply because it is located on the easternmost border with Brazil separating the two countries by the Paraná river. The fact the city is named after a simple observation says a lot about the culture and the influence it has in the region. It is a city, and it is in eastern Paraguay. It is the capital of Alto Paraná, probably the wealthiest department (state) of Paraguay, and perhaps is also the economic backbone of the country. It is also incontestably the black market capital of South America conveniently located at the heart of what known as the dangerous TBA (tri-border area) shared between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

Street View
            Cuidad del Este is 79 KM from Juan E. O'Leary, where I live, and is the economic hub of the region. With a population of roughly 321,000 it is really the only major urban center outside the capital region surrounding Asunción. The city was founded principally as a regional economic hub for trade with Brazil that was true until the 1970s when Itaipú dam, the worlds largest producer of hydroelectric power, started construction only a few kilometers north of the city. The dam meets most Paraguay's energy demand with enough left over to sell the excess to Brazil for about $300,000,000 annually. It is by far the most diverse city in Paraguay as well. When walking the streets in the center of the city it is common to see hoards of Brazilians, Argentines, Taiwanese, Koreans, Lebanese, and various Europeans wondering the vast shopping areas that encompass almost the entirety of the city center. The city has a mosque, various pagodas, and hand carved murals depicting images of the indigenous people who now make a living selling handcrafted goods on colorful blankets on the sidewalks. The dichotomies of the indigenous people’s lives are very conspicuous, but that is all a part of the culture of the city.
Shopping Monalisa one of the biggest and fanciest malls in CDE
            If I had to best describe what Cuidad del Este is actually like I would start by saying that it is unlike any place I have ever been. The knock off clothing, electronics, and souvenirs, to me, made me think of the giant open-air markets in China, but with a distinct Paraguayan feel. The entire city is like a giant Bazaar. The streets are filled with vendors in their booths. The sidewalks are narrow, and the  juxtaposition between the street vendors and enormous shopping malls that sell the exact same stuff is unlike anything I have ever seen. The only difference between the street vendors and the malls are that the malls sell the same stuff for more money, but also for "guarantee" of authenticity. The streets are crowded with people on motorcycles ducking in and out of traffic. Many of the shopping malls have been around for decades and now look more like fronts for smuggling than a legitimate businesses. The infrastructure of the city is an urban planning nightmare overcrowded with buses, cars, and trucks. I think the word chaos is an understatement in describing the appearance of the city.
Bridge connecting the Brazilian City Foz do Iguaçu
            The amazing thing about the city is how little is written about it despite its regional importance. This is the entire wikipedia article about Cuidad del Este: 

From a tourist perspective, it is unlikely that you will be able to find anything that describes the city and what there is to do in any kind of detail. Most of the things that I have read are pretty much descriptions of how to get out of the city on your way to see Iguazú Falls that lie in between Brazil and Argentina. If you find yourself in Cuidad del Este, and you're looking to buy cheap electronics you're in luck, but other than that I can't think of any other incentive to go there. Here is a recent travel article from the New York Times about the passage to Iguazú Falls in case you haven't gotten a good impression of the city already: 

            Cuidad del Este is not exactly on its way to becoming a major tourist destination anytime soon if that wasn't obvious enough already. The fact that the biggest tourist draw doesn't even lie within the city itself should be enough of an indication of the lack of things to see. Despite it being deficient in common tourist attractions, I have to say that Cuidad del Este is one of, if not the, most interesting places I have been for reasons that I still cannot explain sensibly.
            I think best article I have read that sums up Cuidad del Este is this old piece written 15 years ago in the New York Times: 

Statue of Former Taiwanese/Nationalist Chinese Leader Chiang Kai Shek
Like the article says, the entire culture of the city is dependent on counterfeit goods and technology. The Asian population has thrived in the city as a result of the small personal electronics that they can get relatively cheaply and turn around for big profits in the larger Brazilian and Argentine markets. A lot of the time, the counterfeit goods work just as well as the real deal, but cost significantly less. I have personally been skeptical of buying stuff in Cuidad del Este, but I have yet to meet someone who bought a camera, computer, or external hard drive there that said it was fake or didn't work. Selling these goods is really the only major industry the city has. If it weren’t for the bootlegging of technology starting with assembly of the parts the city would have no real industry. Paraguayan's have to pay a 10% tax mark-up on all goods they buy from the shopping malls while foreigners receive discounts of up to 20%. Things are almost always priced in American Dollars (USD) or Brazilian Reals (Rs.). If you ask for prices in Guaranís (Gs.), the Paraguayan currency, people have to bust out a calculator and often times screw you over on the exchange rate. To reiterate the businesses are primarily employ Paraguayans. The law forces these malls to charge Paraguayans more money to buy things there, and prefers not to operate in their currency. The place is absolutely fascinating.
            As mentioned in the article above, thousands of people decided to settle in Cuidad del Este once Itaipú Dam was finished. The completion greatly increased the population of the city as thousands of families moved to the region as the dam was being constructed. What came as a result, however, was not a formal economy based on something like manufacturing or banking, but rather as a black market hub for all things illegal. Measuring the economic importance of the city to Paraguay is all but impossible given the illegal nature of what goes on there. When calculating GDP or any other measure of economic progress the formulas used do not normally account for things like drugs, counterfeiting, or arms dealing. That pretty much makes up the entire city's economy, so nobody really has exact figures about how much money is flowing through the city. Paraguay is also one of the most corrupt counties in South America, so it makes sense why these types of business practices exist and thrive. With essentially no intervention from the government it is easy to grease enough palms to maintain the status quo.
             Despite all the hype regarding the illegal nature of the city itself however, I have to say that I personally don't feel that I am in any kind of danger when I go there. For most part, the city is a bunch of people who work at legitimate looking businesses just trying to make a living. People casually walk the streets, buy their goods, and take public transportation. The city doesn't have any museums, nice parks, or noticeable cultural hubs, but I say thats all a part of the charm. Now would I ever advocate going there just to see it? I'd have to honestly say no, but if you happen to be in the region it definitely worth a look. I think the city epitomizes the definition of free market capitalism. There is nowhere else on earth have I ever been to or ever heard of that was a city built around shopping malls surrounded by open air booths selling the same stuff they have in the malls right across the street. It may not be the prettiest city, heck it might even be the ugliest city I've ever been to, but there is something about being there that stands out, and cannot help but think when I am there that I am in this incredibly unique place that is unlike anything else in the world.

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