People & Power

Paraguay’s Forgotten Coup

Did a bloody confrontation over land rights lead to a coup against the country’s former President Fernando Lugo?

In 2012, Paraguay’s then left-wing President Fernando Lugo was ousted from office after being impeached by the country’s Congress.

Officially he was deposed because he was held responsible for the deaths that occured during a land rights dispute when a standoff between landless campesinos and the police turned violent. But to this day Lugo’s supporters claim the affair was orchestrated by his right-wing opponents to provide an excuse to get rid of him.

People & Power sent filmmaker Reed Lindsay to investigate.

Paraguay’s battle for land

By filmmaker Reed Lindsay

I first went to Paraguay in September 2002, and was shocked by the country’s stark inequalities and seemingly brazen corruption.

One narrow street separated the Senate building from a vast slum of tin-roofed shanties. The economy was propped up by the smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband. And in the latest of a series of scandals, the president at the time was discovered to have been using a stolen BMW as his personal limousine. The brutal 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner had come to an end in 1989, but his Colorado Party was still firmly in power, causing many Paraguayans to question the benefits of their fledgling democracy.

But in the countryside, landless campesinos were taking full advantage of the dictatorship’s demise. They were organising road-blocking protests and occupying land claimed by powerful businessmen and politicians, acts of defiance that would have been unthinkable under the iron-fisted rule of Stroessner.

However, as in many other Latin American countries, the battle over land in Paraguay played out in relative obscurity.

A decade later, the conflict between campesinos and landowners has taken centre stage politically like nowhere else in the hemisphere, bringing down a president and changing the course of a nation. 

The day I returned to Asuncion, March 20, 2013, thousands of campesinos had converged on the capital to demand an end to what they called the agro-export economic model.

“Every day, the land is becoming more concentrated in a few hands with the extension of soybean plantations,” campesino leader Marcial Gomez told me as he marched through the streets of the capital. There are half a million landless campesinos in Paraguay, where 2 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land.

This disparity has only worsened as a boom in soybean production has made Paraguay the fourth largest exporter of the grain in the world. The soybean bonanza has brought windfall profits to large domestic and multinational agri-business companies, but it has exacerbated the conflict between the campesinos and Paraguay’s elite.

The campesinos blame the soybean producers with using pesticides to drive them off their land. They have fought back by occupying disputed property that they claim belongs to the state, while the landowners have countered by leaning on the justice system, politicians and the police to evict the campesinos.

A new president: Rankling the elite

In the midst of the intensifying fight over land, the Colorado Party’s political hegemony was shattered when former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won the presidency in 2008. Lugo was seen as a champion of the poor, especially the landless campesinos, for whom he promised to deliver a sweeping agrarian reform.

But he was elected as the head of a coalition ticket, and his running mate, Federico Franco, belonged to the conservative Liberal Party, which like the Colorado Party, had close ties to agri-business. With no political party of his own, and the Liberals and Colorados in firm control of Congress, Lugo lacked the political capital to push through agrarian reform. Instead, he responded to campesino complaints by tightening regulation of soybean production.

“We came to rain on the parade of these agri-business gentlemen who thought they were the government,” said Miguel Lovera, who was appointed by Lugo as head of the agency that regulated agriculture.

Lovera restricted the use of pesticides and halted the introduction of new genetically modified cotton and corn, seen as a threat to native varieties. 

The pushback against Lugo by industrial agriculture began almost immediately.

“Lugo didn’t have a policy of encouraging production, but rather of stopping it,” said Hector Cristaldo, who heads the Union of Production Trades (UGP), an umbrella group that represents Paraguayan companies as well as multinational corporations like Monsanto, Novartis and Dow AgroSciences.

The UGP attacked Lugo for the new regulations, but the issue agri-business seemed most concerned about was the continued occupation of land by campesinos.

The Lugo administration had begun looking for ways to meet the demands of the campesinos and tried to resolve land disputes peacefully, a strategy that was criticised by Paraguay’s elite.

“It’s the left of Hugo Chavez, the left of the Castros, a left that dazzled, fanaticised Paraguayan campesinos,” said Aldo Zuccolillo, the owner of ABC Color, Paraguay’s largest and most influential newspaper.

The massacre

The bitter conflict between Lugo and Paraguay’s business elite came to a head when campesinos occupied a 2,000-hectare property in the border region of Curuguaty.

The land was controlled by a company called Campos Morombi, owned by a wealthy Colorado Party politician named Blas Riquelme. But the government land institute claimed it was state-owned, and a group of landless campesinos occupied the property, demanding it be distributed to them.

Colorado Party congressman Oscar Tuma pressured for an eviction on behalf of Riquelme and Campos Morombi. 

“Where does it say that dialogue has to be generated?” Tuma said. “The law must be applied, whether you like it or not.”

By the middle of 2012, the stage had been set for a dramatic showdown. On June 15, security forces were deployed to Curuguaty in unprecedented numbers. Their ranks included 324 police officers, a helicopter and several special forces units.

When the force arrived, some of the campesinos present were armed and determined to hold their ground.

“Nobody dreamed of or expected an operation of this magnitude,” said investigative journalist Julio Benegas.

A firefight erupted, leaving dead 11 campesinos and six members of Paraguay’s elite anti-terrorism special forces corps.
It became known as the Curuguaty Massacre – and Lugo’s opponents moved quickly to apportion blame.

Impeachment or coup?

It took a matter of hours for the UGP to demand Lugo’s impeachment, a call echoed by ABC Color and other major media outlets. A week later, Paraguay’s Senate impeached Lugo, 39 votes to four.

Oscar Tuma helped lead the impeachment proceedings against Lugo. Six months earlier, Tuma had pressured the police to evict the campesinos. Now, he attacked Lugo for being overseeing the eviction. Lugo denied responsibility for the massacre, saying that he was misinformed about the police operation.

“I believe they utilised the death of innocents to carry out plans that were pre-established as part of a conspiracy,” Lugo said. The presidents of Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela denounced Lugo’s impeachment as a coup d’etat.

The Obama administration did not consider Lugo’s ouster a coup, and unlike Paraguay’s neighbours, recognised the new government. Today, Lugo believes the US was complicit in the impeachment effort. 

“Even if they didn’t participate, they always give their blessing,” said Lugo, who had annoyed Washington with his ties to Chavez and by rejecting bilateral military exercises with the US.

No evidence of US involvement in the effort to remove Lugo from office has emerged. Nor is there proof that the massacre was planned. But on the street, theories about the impeachment, and the massacre, are rampant.

Graffiti asking “What Happened in Curuguaty” is ubiquitous in Asuncion, and many Paraguayans believe the country’s politician and businessmen conspired to oust him.

A case in question

In the aftermath of the massacre, nine campesinos were arrested and charged with attempted homicide. They say they are victims of political persecution and some have gone on hunger strikes lasting several weeks.

“This is a social struggle, a struggle that Paraguay needs,” said Ruben Villalba, who is accused of masterminding the killing of police and is in prison awaiting trial.

Prosecutor Jalil Rachid claims the campesinos were extremists who planned to ambush the police. But Rachid’s impartiality has been called into question. His father, Bader Rachid, was a friend of Blas Riquelme, the owner of Campos Morombi, which controlled the disputed Curuguaty land. Both Bader Rachid and Blas Riquelme were former presidents of the Colorado Party.

Rachid admits there is no evidence to prove who killed whom, which is why the campesinos were accused of attempted homicide and not murder. For their part, the surviving campesinos and their family members say they have become scapegoats.

“It shouldn’t be that all of the weight of the justice system falls on the campesinos, and the other people responsible have impunity,” said Mariano Castro, a campesino whose son was among those killed in Curuguaty.

Castro and other campesinos say their family members were summarily executed, a charge supported by numerous testimonies, but disputed by the prosecutor.

And it is not just the campesinos who contest the official version of events.

“In my 29 years of service, I’ve never received an order like this one,” said Paraguayan special forces officer Jose Almada.
Almada, who has seen hundreds of evictions, says that the special forces almost always act as an anti-riot force, equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets. But this time, they were ordered to send a heavily armed platoon to evict the campesinos without any attempt by the prosecutor or police commander to negotiate, which is the usual protocol.

Former special forces officer Hermann Thomen also questions why there was not an attempt to negotiate with the campesinos, a strategy that Lugo had endorsed as president but which was questioned by business interests, the media and opposition politicians.

“Why didn’t one of our superiors who was there order the group to retreat?” Thomen asks. “They practically threw us into the mouth of the wolf.”

Rollback of reforms

Hours after the impeachment, vice president Federico Franco assumed the presidency. The next day, he dissolved an independent committee formed by Lugo to investigate the Curuguaty massacre.

Environmentalist Miguel Lovera was replaced by Jaime Ayala, the president of a company that sells pesticides. In short order, the Lugo administration’s restrictions on pesticides and genetically modified seeds were lifted.

And in national elections last April, Paraguayan politics also returned to what they were like before Lugo.

The Colorado Party regained the presidency when wealthy banker Horacio Cartes won. According to a Wikileaks cable, Cartes was the target of a US Drug Enforcement Agency investigation into money laundering and drug trafficking. The new president denies his fortune is connected to illegal activities.

At the top of the winning ticket for the lower house of Congress was Oscar Tuma.

“The Curuguaty case is just one more example,” said campesino leader Marcial Gomez. “We already have around 100 campesinos assassinated by armed civilians and police in land occupations.”

One of those killed was Vidal Vega, a campesino leader who lives just a few miles from the site of the massacre and was helping to organize the family members of the victims. Gunmen appeared at his home and shot him in the head. The case is still unsolved.

At the entrance to the Curuguaty property, landless campesinos are still camped out at the side of the road. When I visited them, a tractor passed nearby across Campos Morombi’s soybean fields, spraying pesticides into the camp.

But the campesinos seem more determined than ever to fight for land they believe is theirs.

“What we have clear in our minds is that this land must be taken,” said campesino Mariano Castro. “We will not permit that soybeans be planted on top of the bodies of our dead family members.”


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