Behind Paraguay’s coup

At the heart of the nation’s current crisis is an ongoing battle over land.

Paraguay''s ousted President Lugo leaves Pais Solidario party headquarters in Asuncion
Paraguay's ousted President Fernando Lugo was removed from office in a 39-4 vote by parliament [Reuters]

Each bullet hole in downtown Asunción, Paraguay light posts tells a story. Some of them are from civil wars decades ago, some from successful and unsuccessful coups, others from police crackdowns. The size of the hole, the angle of the ricochet, all tell of an escape, a death, and another dictator in the palace by the river.

On June 22 of this year, a new tyrant entered the government palace. The right-wing Federico Franco became president in what has been deemed a parliamentary coup against democratically elected, left-leaning President Fernando Lugo.

What lies behind today’s headlines, political fights and struggles for justice is a conflict over access to land. Land in Paraguay is power and money for the elites and survival and dignity for the poor, and has been at the centre of major political and social battles in Paraguay for decades. In order to understand the crisis in post-coup Paraguay, it’s necessary to grasp the political weight of the nation’s soil at the heart of its current crisis.

The coup

Hope surrounded the electoral victory of Fernando Lugo in 2008, a victory that ended the right-wing Colorado Party’s 61-year dominance of Paraguayan politics. It was a victory against the injustice and nightmare of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), and a new addition to the region’s left-leaning governments. The election of Lugo, a former bishop and adherent to liberation theology, was due in large part to grassroots support from the campesino (small farmer) sector and Lugo’s promise of long-overdue land reform.

Land disputes at heart of Paraguay’s conflict

Yet Lugo was isolated politically from the very beginning. He needed to ally with the right to win the election. His Vice President Federico Franco is a leader in the right-wing Liberal Party, and became a vocal opponent of Lugo shortly after Lugo came to power. Throughout Lugo’s time in office the Colorado Party maintained a majority in Congress, and there were various right-wing attempts to impeach the “Red Bishop”. Such challenges impeded Lugo’s progress and created a political and media environment dominated by near-constant attacks and criticism towards the president.

At the same time, Lugo was no friend of the campesino sector that helped bring him into power. His administration regularly called for the severe repression and criminalisation of the country’s campesino movements. He was therefore isolated from above at the political level, and lacked a strong political base below due to his stance towards social movements and the slow pace of land reform. None the less, many leftist and campesino sectors still saw Lugo as a relative ally and source of hope in the face of the right-wing alternative.

The issue that finally tipped the scales towards the parliamentary coup against Lugo was a conflict over land. In April of this year, 60 landless campesinos occupied land in Curuguaty, in northeastern Paraguay. This land is owned by former Colorado Senator Blas N Riquelme, one of the richest people and largest landowners in the country. On June 15, security forces arrived in Curuguaty to evict the landless settlement. The subsequent confrontation during the eviction – the specific details of which are still shrouded in confusion – led to the death of 17 people, including 11 campesinos and 6 police officers.

While certainly the bloodiest confrontation of this kind since the dictatorship, it was but one of dozens of such conflicts that have taken place in recent years in a nation with enormous inequality in land distribution. The right’s response to such conflicts typically involved siding with the land owners and business leaders, and criminalising campesino activists. With the tragedy of Curuguaty, the right saw yet another opportunity to move against Lugo. The right blamed Lugo for the bloody events at Curuguaty, an accusation that was unfounded but served as fodder for the ongoing political attacks against the president. The Liberal Party collaborated with the Colorado Party and others in Congress to move forward with the impeachment.

The process began on June 21, and within 24 hours the Senate gathered and officially initiated the trial, granting Lugo only two hours to defend himself. The next day, Lugo was removed from office in a 39-4 vote. He was accused of encouraging landless farmers’ occupations, poor performance as president, and failing to bring about social harmony in the country. Lugo stepped down and Franco took his place, with new elections now scheduled to take place in April 2013.

The backdrop to this political fight is a struggle over how to control, use and distribute Paraguay’s vast amounts of land.

Approximately two per cent of landowners control 80 per cent of Paraguay’s land, and some 87,000 farming families are landless. While Lugo failed to meet many of his campaign promises to the campesino sector, he did in fact work to block many of the right’s policies that could worsen the crisis in the countryside. For example, Lugo and his cabinet resisted the use of Monsanto’s transgenic cotton seeds in Paraguay, a move that likely contributed to his ouster. But now that Franco is in power, negotiations with the Canadian mining company Rio Tinto have moved ahead – discussions that had stalled under the Lugo government due to the controversial economic and environmental implications of the company’s plans for Paraguay.

Agro-industry and injustice

Yet even before Lugo was elected, political alliances and victories were shaped by the question of land. Multinational agro-industrial corporations are fully entrenched in Paraguayan politics, and their fundamental enemies in this resource war have always been the Paraguayan campesino.

For decades, small farmers in Paraguay have been tormented by a tidal wave of GMO soy crops and pesticides expanding across the countryside. Paraguay is the fourth-largest producer of soy in the world, and soy makes up40 per cent of Paraguayan exports and 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. An estimated twenty million litres of agrochemicals are sprayed across Paraguay each year, poisoning the people, water, farmland and livestock that come in its path.

Paraguay’s Lugo condemns ‘coup’

Managing the gargantuan agro-industry are transnational seed, agricultural and agro-chemical companies including Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge. International financial institutions and development banks have promoted and bankrolled the agro-export business of monoculture crops – much of Paraguayan soy goes to feed animals in Europe. The profits have united political and corporate entities from Brazil, the US, and Paraguay, and increased the importance of Paraguay’s cooperation with international businesses.

Since the 1980s, national military and paramilitary groups connected to large agribusinesses and landowners have evicted almost 100,000 small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities in favour of soy fields. Although more than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated, only one of the cases was investigated with results leading to the conviction of the killer. In the same period, more than 2,000 other campesinos have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance to the soy industry. The vast majority of Paraguayan farmers have been poisoned off their land either intentionally or as a side effect of the hazardous pesticides dumped by soy cultivation in Paraguay every year. Beginning in the 1990s, as farmers saw their animals dying, crops withering, families sickening, and wells contaminated, most packed up and moved to the city.

The havoc wreaked by agro-industries has created some of the most grave human rights violations since Stroessner’s reign. A report produced by the Committee of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of the United Nations stated that “the expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems, and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities”.

The expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities who occupy the vast land holdings of the wealthy. Most rural Paraguayans cultivate diverse subsistence crops on small plots of ten to twenty hectares, but do not have titles to their land. The Paraguayan government has historically represented the soy growers in this conflict by using the police and judicial system to punish campesino leaders.

While Lugo’s inability and unwillingness to sufficiently address such hardships was a betrayal of the grassroots campesino sector, the recent coup against Lugo was also a coup against hope, a coup against the hundreds of thousands of farmers struggling the countryside. Behind this coup lies the vast land, some of it poisoned, some still fertile, and much of it tear- and blood-soaked. Until the demand of land justice is realised, there will be no peace in Paraguay, regardless of who sleeps in the presidential palace.

Benjamin Dangl is a journalist and author of book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press).