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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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Police evict landless farmers from settlement in San Marcos, Paraguay, 2008.
Photo Credit: Evan Abramson

 
 
 
 

Each bullet hole on the 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, 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 in Paraguay is a conflict over access to land; land is power and money for the elites, survival and dignity for the poor, and has been at the center 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. Here, a look at the history of Paraguay's resource war for land, the events leading up to the coup, and the story of one farming community’s resistance places land at the heart of nation’s current crisis.

The Coup and the Land

Hope surrounded the electoral victory of Fernando Lugo in 2008, a victory which 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.

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 was a vocal opponent of Lugo since 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 have impeded Lugo’s progress and created a political and media environment dominated by near-constant attacks and criticism toward Lugo.

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 criminalization 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 toward 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 toward the June 22 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.  In 1969, the Stroessner administration illegally gave Riquelme 50,000 hectares of land that was supposed to be destined to poor farmers as a part of land reform. Since the return to democracy in 1989, campesinos have been struggling to gain access to this land. The April occupation of land was one such attempt. 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. Eighty people were wounded.

 
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