[News] Paraguay's Peasants Under Attack

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Wed Apr 15 10:55:59 EDT 2009


Paraguay's Peasants Under Attack

http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21169
April 15, 2009 By Ronald J. Morgan

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.

###

SOURCES

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.





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