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'Hope without progress'
A filmmaker returns to Paraguay to see if promised agrarian reforms are taking place.
Last Modified: 24 Jan 2010 14:32 GMT



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Filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez spent his childhood summers on his father's farm in Paraguay.

For his film, This Land is Our Land, he returned to Paraguay to see how the election of Bishop Fernando Lugo in April 2008 and his attempts to redress six decades of corruption, poverty and human rights abuses have impacted the country's landless peasants.

Before the election of Bishop Fernando Lugo in April 2008, Paraguay had been ruled for 60 years by the right-wing Colorado party.

Under Lugo, Paraguay has followed the trend toward socialism that is sweeping South America.

Lugo wants to fund Paraguay's democratic revolution with the income from Itaipu, the biggest dam in South America, which Paraguay co-owns with Brazil.

He says the funds from the dam will enable him to give land to the landless peasants whose support helped him to win the election, to dismantle a US military base in the Chaco desert and to promote a wave of nationalisations - a move his middle class supporters want to see.

But the coalition that brought Lugo to power collapsed following his first attempts to deliver on his promises and Paraguay's parliament is now dominated by the right wing opposition, which represents the landowners who stand to lose if Lugo's agrarian reform goes ahead.

Shifting fortunes

Rodrigo Vazquez spent many childhood summers on his father's farm in Paraguay
It was against this backdrop that I arrived in Paraguay, determined to see for myself how all of this was affecting the country's landless peasants - people I had known since the 1980s when I spent summers on my Paraguayan father's farm.

The farm was in the Southern Department of Misiones, which was where the Jesuits settled after the conquest of the country with the aim of indoctrinating the indigenous peasants in the Catholic faith.

It was also there that, after Paraguay gained independence from Spain in 1812, the first experiments in collective land-ownership took place, following an indigenous tradition of collective farming practised before the conquest.

Historically, Paraguay had been at the vanguard of economic development in the region. It built the first railway system in South America and started the first alphabetisation programmes, which made possible a literacy level far superior to that of its neighbours.

But the country's nationalist government was fiercely opposed to the free-market system sponsored by the new colonial powers, England and France - the countries that had funded Latin America's liberation from Spain in order to open the sub-continent to free trade.

As a result, England and France began trading with all of the new South American republics, except Paraguay, which has remained one of the most underdeveloped countries in the region ever since.

In 1870 a war provoked by the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay broke out and during the subsequent four years, 70 per cent of the population of Paraguay was killed.

Setting an example

Peasants are now setting up co-operative farms across Paraguay
In the 1950s, General Alfredo Stroessner rose to power and inaugurated a dictatorship that lasted for 49 years.

In the summers I spent in the country, Stroessner's portrait could be seen everywhere and talk of politics was strictly forbidden.

But, paradoxically, it was there that I first became involved in politics - inspired by witnessing just how poor and oppressed most of the peasants were.

My father sold his farm in 1988. Stroessner's regime collapsed a year later and the farm was subsequently abandoned by its new owners.

However, three years ago, a group of landless peasants led by Melanio Medina, a Jesuit priest, took over the farm and formed a co-operative in order to create a socialist farm there - an example of communal economy and politics for the rest of Paraguay.

When I went there to film, I discovered that most of the peasants working the land there today were the children of the peasants who had formed the Agrarian Leagues during Stroessner's dictatorship - many of whom had been persecuted, tortured and killed.

"What they [the Agrarian Leagues] demanded back then was the right to organise themselves, to administer their own affairs, and to fight for democracy and freedom, to have democracy and freedom," Medina told me.

"[They wanted] a more dignified life according to the Christian brotherhood and fraternity. This wasn't tolerated by the dictatorial regime of General Stroessner."

He explained that the social wing of his diocese is gradually providing those working on the farm with houses.

"We're giving them cows to produce milk and some pigs. And we think this is going very well. We're particularly happy because the co-operative is working well," he said.

One of the members of the commune told me: "The Agrarian Leagues was an organisation led by peasants. It originated within the peasantry and spread beyond it. Our organisation fought for rights: the right to have land, to have markets that we didn't have and to get better prices for our products.

"At that time the dictatorship was very strong and its repressive apparatus was everywhere - in the police, the military, the judiciary.

"In 1976 the repression was total. They managed to break us up and to destroy our organisation on a national level. Here in Misiones a lot of our comrades were assassinated."

Fulfilling dreams

A school for peasants' children was set up in an old farm house
Throughout Paraguay hundreds of peasants had been illegally dispossessed of their land, but their descendants are now trying to make their parents' dream a reality.

The farm that had belonged to my father is now divided among 2,500 families who work the land, growing cotton, corn and sugar cane.

In our old stables the farmers have set up a communal store.

Having never been able to afford the food supplies sold in town, the peasants can now purchase them from their communal store.

"Before we didn't have land. We lived in a little hut and now we have land and most of us have 10 hectares. Before we used to organise land occupations," somebody from the commune told me.

But, Ramona Ferloni, who works on the land, says this example of agrarian reform is not enough.

"We don't have markets. There are no markets for our produce and that's what we need. Here we have a co-operative but it's not enough."

'A magic word'

President Lugo has not been able to open markets to the peasants or give them credit to buy seeds and machinery.

His political opposition has blocked every governmental initiative to help the farmers. So I decided to meet the president to ask him just how he plans to overcome the opposition to fulfill his promises.

He received me in the Presidential Palace with a big smile. I began the interview by asking him how he intended to fulfill the peasants' expectations.

"I think that like in many other countries, in Paraguay the word "change" lit a spark, it is like a magic word," he said.

"And that is what people voted for on April 20 [2008], for substantial change. We believe that this is a process of change, we don't believe in fast, violent change that leaves a lot of wounds.

"We believe in the agrarian reform, we have a project of gradual change that would mostly end in 2013. We've laid its foundations in the last 10 months.

"The foundations consist of giving it an institutional and legal framework to do an agrarian reform with the peasants' movements and today we say that what we've done so far is not enough given that we need to increase the budget for this, but we haven't been fortunate enough to get the approval in the parliament which has slowed down a lot this process of agrarian reform.

"And the state bureaucracy is like a machine that creates obstacles, a machine to delay things. No change is easy."

A future of hope?

President Lugo was elected after six decades of dictatorship and repression

As I left the palace hundreds of landless peasants were arriving to take over the capital's squares in an attempt to force the government to start the promised agrarian reforms.

I had mixed feelings and was worried about the opposition's success to date in blocking Lugo's agenda.

Lugo's last words resonated in my mind: "The majority of people, especially the peasants' movement, are convinced that with the constitution and the laws that we have the agrarian reform will be very troublesome to make and very difficult to realise."

But I wonder how he will be able to change the constitution when he cannot even push a law through congress.

The peasants' plight is now testing not only Lugo's government but the country's young democracy.

As one of the peasants from the commune told me: "After some time, we were able to be reborn from our ashes. We got organised again. We formed the Paraguayan Peasant's Movement (PPM). So thanks to our comrades' struggle to our struggle, we collaborated a great deal to overthrow Stroessner's regime.

"But his cronies haven't gone yet. The torturers are still in power. The oligarchy of the regime is still in parliament, in the courts.

"We trust Lugo because he's a bishop who has always worked with peasants. We started meeting him in San Pedro eight years ago and we asked him to make a change. After a while we started gathering around him, because here in Paraguay there are 800,000 landless peasants."

Paraguay has changed a lot since the days when I spent my summers on my father's farm and that change has given me a great deal of hope for the country's future - a future where human rights and the right to land are finally at the very heart of politics.

This Land is our Land can be seen from Sunday, January 24, at the following times GMT: Sunday: 1400; Monday: 0600, 1900; Tuesday: 0300.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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