Free Market Paradise?

Ciudad del Este Travel Blog

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For everyone who thinks of government as a nightmare and for those who pray to the bible of Laisser-faire, Ciudade del Este, Paraguay is your paradisio. With a population estimated at near 140,000 this small town on the Paraguayan border with Brazil, a bridge away from the Brazilian tourism town of Foz do Iguaçu, Ciudade del Este boasts a tax-free market that draws attention from buyers in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Cross over the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) from the relatively wealthy Brazilian Foz do Iguaçu and even on a rainy day you will be stuck (whether walking or driving) in a traffic jam that spans the length of the bridge and into the crowded, merchandise filled streets. Border control is a laughable matter here where in plastic garbage bags people cross carrying goods from one side of the bridge to the next, unhampered, unidentified. It is this lack of border control, an extraordinary anomaly when looking at Latin America as a whole, that has drawn attention from the United States and other western nations highlighting this spot as a terrorism training post as well as a smuggling point for every illegal substance you could imagine.

But Ciudade del Este has drawn a different form of international attention as well. A brief walk through the streets of this city and into the crowded, electronics filled storefronts reveals not only Latin Americans, but Koreans and Arabics as well attracted to Ciudade del Este because of the lack of income tax, liberal immigration policies, and most importantly continual flow of “foreigners” taking advantage of the tax-free, lower priced goods. It is these immigrants as well as Paraguayans who have grown Ciudade del Este from a housing unit for those working on the construction of the massive Itaipu Dam (1975-1982) into the bustling market it is today.     

Not only are the streets of Ciudade del Este filled with people from countries all over the world, they are filled with goods from all over the world as well. Cameras, laptops, mp3 players, televisions, tennis shoes, soccer jerseys, hunting knives, fishing poles, books, DVD’s, makeup, perfume, this city has it all, and all at an inflated price waiting to be argued down. Merchandise is bought and sold in four different currencies: Paraguayan and Argentine pesos, Brazilian reales, and U.S. dollars. While Spanish is the principal language in Paraguay, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, and Guarani are just some of the languages that can be heard on the same block. Every step you take someone is trying to put something into your hands, convince you of your need for the items they are selling, or simply eye you warily as you pass their goods. Every crowded sidewalk is barricaded in by merchandise booths on the roadside and storefronts on the other and is patrolled by walking venders carrying their goods or pushing their carts of various street food items. 

A free trade paradise? Perhaps, but paradise comes with a heavy burden. The few police who are sprinkled throughout the crowded, chaotic streets offer little sense of security despite their massive rifles. Ciudade del Este carries with it a certain feel of chaos. Maybe it is the frenzy of merchants forcing upon you goods at every moment or the frenzy of buyers carrying tires, televisions, and everything imaginable across the bridge, or maybe it’s the trash in the streets and the congestion of cars, but it is difficult to imagine that people can call this city their home.

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Ciudad del Este
photo by: pacovera