Paraguayâ€™s Peasants Under Attack
Paraguayan campesinos were among those who most welcomed Fernando Lugo’s April 20, 2009 election victory which ousted the Colorado Party from power for the first time in 61 years.
For too long, they felt, the ruling Colorado Party had favored the land barons and practiced unjust prosecutions against peasant organizations occupying land and protesting reckless use of agricultural chemicals.
Corruption stemming from the Alfredo Stroessner Dictatorship, which ruled from 1954 to 1989, and other factors, have left Paraguay with a skewed land distribution where 1.5% of landowners own 77% of the land -- a concentration higher than Guatemala and Brazil.
During the last two decades campesinos have been pressured off the land by the advance of transnational agriculture and a traditional cattle raising elite.
Soybeans plantations, some with links to corporate food giants, like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Monsanto have come to account for 30% of Paraguayan exports and spread across rural Paraguay like a sea of green. Many are farmed by Brazilian immigrants.
While 43% of the population still makes its living from agriculture, Paraguayan campesinos feel expelled, sidelined and under attack. Many campesinos have sold or lost their land and have moved to the cities or headed to isolated rural zones. At times they are forced to evacuate areas due to attacks with agricultural chemicals. Extreme poverty is climbing and hunger is evident.
This year a drought and a sharp drop in international crop prices as a result of the global economic crisis have put extra pressure on rural Paraguay.
Some 250,000 small campesino producers farming on plots of 5 to 20 hectares (13 to 50 acres) are facing financial collapse. On March 24, 10,000 members of the National Campesino Federation marched on the capital, Asuncion, demanding relief for their debts, emergency food relief and implementation of land reform.
"The crisis of capitalism should not be paid for by the poor," said one protest banner.
Campesino Leader Adrian Vazquez of the Caaguazu Department said: "The situation is critical in our country. There is a crisis in production as a result of the drought and also in the context of the world crisis there's a greater crisis because the prices have dropped 70 to 80 percent...this is a grave situation that we are living during the first eight months of the Lugo administration."
Upon taking office in August, President Lugo promised land reform for 300,000 landless peasants, education, health care and fairer justice. He promised to take back 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres) of illegally obtained lands mostly handed out to cronies of the Stroessner Dictatorship.
The arrival of the Paraguayan left in power was symbolized by a visit to the former Bishop's diocese in San Pedro, Aug. 16, by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. During the visit 17 cooperation agreements were signed touching primarily on energy cooperation, health care and education. 1
Campesinos Expelled, Under Attack
The promise of new social policies enthused campesinos and the numbers affiliated with Paraguayan campesino organizations has surged by about 5,000 to 7,000 families since Lugo's election victory. (At the time of the election out of a total of 250,000 to 280,000 campesino families about 30,000 families were organized. 2,3.
In May of 2008, they joined with other left organizations to form a multisectorial organization called the Social and Popular Front to provide political support for social reforms.
As part of the effort to ensure that the promised land reform would be carried out and heighten the awareness of the need for land reform, campesino organizations under took a national series of land occupations during the winter months.
The mobilization of campesino power quickly brought a response from the old guard right wing. The land occupations and the kidnapping of a rancher by a small leftist group aided in the creation of a anti-communist and anti-campesino scare.
An alarmist media campaign calling for greater security in the countryside, pressure from Brazil over perceived threats to Brazilian immigrant farmers, and complaints about Venezuelan cooperation agreements have all played a role in creation of an increasingly tense situation.
Claudia Russer, a leader of the Soy Bean Growers Association for many years, has repeatedly stated that Fernando Lugo will not last in office unless he respects private property and avoids supporting campesino violence. 4,5
In January, just weeks after farmers came to the capital for a tractor protest calling for a end to the insecurity they felt was occurring in the countryside, Lugo startled his supporters by militarizing a Paraguayan peasant activist zone.
The burning down of a military guard post on New Year's eve caused Lugo to trade in his traditional sandals for jack boots. But in many ways it was just a continuation of a gradual process of increased military security which has included extensive training of Paraguayan police, military and prosecutors in Colombia.
American Green Berets are also present in Paraguay training Paraguayan special forces.
Campesinos feel that the military preparations, ostensibly directed at a small leftist group advocating violence, are ultimately designed to silence their organizations and end their ability to put forth their demands through protest.
Ramon Corvalan, a human rights advocate, monitoring the situation in Paraguay’s rural areas for the Service for Peace and Justice warned the mobilization of troops represented a tilt toward the landed elite and may cause the organized campesino sector to reject Lugo's plans for rural reform and poverty reduction, especially, if they seem to be aimed at undermining campesino organizing or have a counterinsurgency focus.
"We have to ask ourselves to what point these social projects that they are planning to implement allow for real autonomy of these organizations," Corvalan said. 6
PLAN PARAGUAY VERSUS VENEZUELA COOPERATION
On January 8, the president sent 1000 police and soldiers into an isolated area of Concepcion department. The group blamed for the attack is thought to be an offshoot of a small leftist party called Patria Libre. The attackers did not kill anyone but burned the small installation at Tacuati to the ground, took two assault rifles, and left pamphlets behind announcing the presence of the Army of the Paraguayan People. 7,8
Several such attacks have occurred in the area in recent years. And Paraguay has been increasing it’s military training since the 2005 kidnapping and murder of Cecilia Cubas, daughter of former President Raul Cubas Grau (1998-1999).
The previous government of Nicanor Duarte Frutos (2003-2008) charged that Patria Libre kidnappers had received assistance from the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces prior to the Cubas kidnapping and that Patria Libre was attempting to establish a clandestine organization in the country.
Prosecutors said the group re-emerged just before president Lugo’s inauguration in August, with the kidnapping of Tacuati area rancher and former mayor, Luis Lindstrom.
Lindstrom, 58, was held for 45 days. Prosecutors charged that twenty´five-year old Manuel Cristaldo Mieres collected the $130,000 ransom and that, later in the year, on New Year’s Eve he and three others burnt down the small military installation. Mieres is also sought for participation in the Cubas kidnapping. 9
A week after the attack the combined police and military unit surrounded the zone with checkpoints. After a month of house to house searches and road checks and patrols into remote areas the campaign produced no significant results.
With the attackers on the military base not easily located, the militarization program became a grab bag of efforts to capture persons with outstanding criminal warrants and conduct marijuana eradication operations. The area is being depicted as a lawless zone full of drug traffickers and cattle thieves were there is a need for more government presence.
The human rights organization, Service for Peace and Justice sent a team of persons to monitor the situation. "The first thing that causes a lot of concern is that entire communities and entire families are now presented as suspects and that they have criminalized entire communities such as Kurusu de Hierro, Hugua Nandu, Nuevo Fortuna, Brasil Que, Horqueta." said Marta Almada of the verification team.
Two persons seized by the military charged they were tortured to the testicles and by the placing of plastic bags over their heads. The military and police interrogators demanded to know the location of the two stolen rifles in what human rights activists said was an unconstitutional use of the military to investigate a crime. 10,11.
"There is evidence that there was mistreatment in putting plastic over their heads. There are noticeable bruise marks where the plastic was tied around the neck. What was also evident was that there was a grabbing of the testicles and there are very pronounced bruises on the testicles," said Maria Montiel of the Service for Peace and Justice. 12
RURAL COMMUNITIES UNDER GOVERNMENT SUSPICION
Former Stroessner era political prisoners and torture victims found the president’s decision to send in the army startling given the nation’s past bad experiences.
“We don’t want the democratic government of Fernando Lugo to be involved in repression with the military.They have denied that there has been repression but we have the reports…and as a result of these cases of torture we feel it’s not desirable. It was not a very nice decision for Fernando Lugo to have approved this intervention,” said Julio Belotto of the Coordinator of Opponents and Victims of the Dictatorship. 13
After two months of activity the main force was ordered back to Asuncion. But the government left behind a new police station and inaugurated a new military base at Kurusu de Hierro. An airstrip is also being put in at the planned reconstructed Tacuati base and there are plans for road and development projects.
The operation, dubbed Jerovia (Belief in the Guarani language) brought calls by the agricultural elite for still more troops throughout the Paraguayan countryside.
Lindstrom, the rancher who was kidnapped, publicly backed the government effort and has donated the land for one of the new military bases. And, he and other ranchers helped pay for the police station.
Campesino Leader Luis Aguayo, who heads the Coordinating Board of National Campesino Organizations, said that for the campesinos the military guard post at Tacuati was protecting a private cattle ranch and was a typical symbol of rancher power.
Nevertheless, he said, campesinos are not supportive of armed insurrection. "There is no risk that the organized and political power of the left is going take this up."
Instead, Aguayo said, there is a need for more political activity. “He (Lugo) needs to implement public policy not repressive policies. The next step is a democratic process, health, education, infrastructure, technical assistance, credit. That’s the path.”
Unlike left governments in Bolivia and Venezuela the Lugo administration arrived in power in alliance with one of Paraguay’s traditional parties.
The president’s most powerful electoral ally, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, has not been fully supportive of the president’s policies, it is divided into several factions, and has followed a more right wing orientation. This has helped an alliance in congress made up of the defeated Colorado Party, and the right wing National Union of Ethical Citizens.
Recently, the conservative voting bloc showed its power by announcing that it would not approve entry of Venezuela into the Mercosur regional trade organization. And it launched a failed effort to censure Camilo Soares, the head of the left P-MAS Movement Toward Socialism Party, who heads the Paraguayan Emergency Assistance Office. The opposition questioned his handling of a $1 million donation from Venezuela for drought relief.
Vice-president Federico Franco and Agricultural Minister Candido Vera Bejarano, both members of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, brought the differences in the cabinet over assistance to campesino organizations to a head by opposing the president's plan to aid sesame seed growers in San Pedro department.
The plan, which would channel $8 million in funds to a campesino organization, was criticized for being unfair and likely to lead to misuse of the funds.
The assistance deal had been brokered by San Pedro Department governor Joe Ledesma and Sesame Seed Growers Leader Elvio Benitez. Both are campesino activists who knew Lugo from when he was Bishop.
The controversy further heightened efforts by the right to reduce the power of campesino organizations, who the newspapers charged, were headed by corrupt bosses unworthy of government assistance. And it brought calls to impeach the president.
Four leftist parties supporting the president, Tekojoja, P-MAS, Socialist Convergence Party and the Communist Party issued a statement calling for the program to go fore ward. The Vice president's and Agricultural Minister's actions were "destabilizing", they said,and they charged that some members of the government were drawing up lists of names and accusations against campesino organizations in a manner reminiscent of the Stroessner era. 14
The dispute caused the president’s chief of staff, Tekojoja Party Member Miguel Lopez Perito to briefly walk out of the government after the president opted for a more conservative approach proposed by the Agricultural Minister.
After his apparent win in stopping the program Vera Bejarano announced an action to investigate leader Elvio Benitez and his use of $500,000 in prior government assistance. 15
A JUDICIAL SYSTEM CAMPESINOS HATE
Without a reliable political base Lugo is facing serious roadblocks to to his left programs and his desire for eventual constitutional reform.
"The congress is against him and the judicial power controls apparatus that is against him. The president doesn't even control all the cabinet," said Aguayo. "The situation isn't very easy. There is a very unequal power situation."
Most disappointing to campesinos has been the Lugo administration’s inability to change the policies of the judicial branch. Campesino organizations blame the legal system for the flow of blood in the countryside. At least four campesinos have died in farm disputes since Lugo took office.
Reform efforts have been delayed by the Paraguayan Prosecutor General’s refusal, despite numerous protests, to resign before his term is up in 2010. And judges have been able to beat back efforts to remove them by congressional action. They have strengthened their hold on the Paraguayan courts by utilizing a provision in the constitution which allows them to stay in office until age 75 if they have already served two terms on the court.
The maneuver leaves the judicial system still controlled by those criticized for practicing impunity. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1989, 100 campesino leaders have been killed and 2,000 have been subjected to lenghty prosecutions for protest activities. Those killing campesinos are rarely successfully prosecuted.
The president and campesino leaders, who both continue to say they support each other, gathered in Santa Rosa, Misiones at the start of Easter Week to honor victims of a Stroessner crackdown on the Agrarian Leagues, the historical founders of the Paraguayan campesino movement. The organization suffered an historical repression on April 4, 1976, known as the Easter of Pain.
Monsignor Mario Melanio Medina took the opportunity to call for the organization of a national plebiscite to demonstrate public support for reforms to the Supreme Court and Public Prosecutors office.
1. ABC Color Jan. 7, 2009 Congreso reclama canciller que envie los acuerdos con Venezuela.
2. Interview Luis Aguayo, Secretaria General, Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas.
3. BASE-IS Social Research.
4. ABC Color, Dec. 16, 2008 Mas de 50,000 productores salieron a las rutas en el primer dia del tractorazo.
5. La Nacion, March 30, 2009 Sojera estima que Lugo no durará en el cargo si privilegia a violentos.
6. Social programs include: A $11 million pilot land reform program at 27 campesino settlements in San Pedro department; a $50 million poverty reduction program for 100,000 rural families and 20,000 urban familias; and a World Bank $37.5 million credit to assist small agriculutral producers.
7. ABC Color Jan. 10, 2009 Ampllio despliegue militar en San Pedro.
8. ABC Color Jan. 3, 2009 Carmen Villaba hablo sobre asalto a puesto militar en Tacuati.
9. ABC Color Sept. 9, 2008 Osvaldo Villalba lidera la banda que secuestro a Luis Alberto Lindstrom.
10. ABC Color Jan. 15, 2009 Obispo pide examen medico imparcial para probar tortura.
11. ABC Color Jan. 14, 2009 Mcnoc denuncia crimen torturas y pide Lugo culmine operativo.
12. Interview, Servicio de Paz y Justicia, (SERPAJ) verification team: Marta Almada, Maria Montiel, Ramon Corvalan.
13. Interview, Julio Belotto, Coordinadora de Luchadores y Víctimas de la Dictadura (Codelucha).
14. ABC Color April 2, 2009Partidos de izquierda defienden projecto para sesameros.
15. ABC Color April 13, 2009 Ministro pide intervenir asentamiento de Elvio.