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A Coup Over Land: The Resource War Behind Paraguay’s Crisis

What lies behind today’s headlines, political fights and struggles for justice in Paraguay is a conflict over access to land.

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While certainly the bloodiest confrontation of this kind since the dictatorship, it was but one of dozens of such conflicts that had 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 criminalizing 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 which was unfounded, but served as fodder for the ongoing political attacks against the president. In response to critics, Lugo replaced his Interior Minister with Colorado Party member Candia Amarilla, a former State Prosecutor known for his criminalization of leftist social and campesino groups, and who was trained in Colombia to export Plan Colombia-style policies to Paraguay. Lugo also made the Police Commissioner Moran Arnaldo Sanabria (who was in charge of the Curuguaty operation) the National Director of Police.

In this way, Lugo handed over the state’s main security and repressive powers to the Colorado Party. The move was an an effort to avoid impeachment from the right, but it backfired; the Liberal Party opposed Lugo’s replacements and, empowered by the criticisms leveled against Lugo’s handling of Curuguaty, collaborated with the Colorado Party and other right wing parties 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 Vice President and Liberal Party leader Federico Franco took his place. New elections are now scheduled to take place in April of 2013.

This Parliamentary coup was condemned as undemocratic and illegal by many Latin American leaders who refused to recognize Franco as the legitimate president. In response to the coup, Latin American trade and political blocs such as Unasur and Mercosur have suspended Paraguay’s participation in their organizations until next year’s elections. Unsurprisingly, the Organization of American States decided to not suspend Paraguay’s membership in the group because, according to OAS secretary general Jose Miguel Insulza, doing so would create further problems in the country and isolate it regionally. This is the second such coup in the region in recent years; in June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted under similar circumstances.

The backdrop to this political fight is a struggle over how to control, use and distribute Paraguay’s vast land. Approximately 2% of landowners control 80% 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 would 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. 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.

A Sea of Soy

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 up 40 percent of Paraguayan exports and 10 percent of the country’s GDP.   An estimated twenty million liters of agrochemicals are sprayed across Paraguay each year, poisoning the people, water, farmland and livestock that come in its path.

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