Land Reform: A Clear and Constant Problem for Paraguay’s President

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President Lugo’s hands are barely on the wheel.

State of Emergency Declared

On April 26, 2010, Paraguay suspended due process and constitutional rights as a result of a State of Emergency (SOE) that was declared in five northern provinces: Concepción, San Pedro, Amambay, Presidente Hayes, and Alto. The official purpose of this action was to apprehend some of the officers as well as members of the elusive Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), a newly formed armed leftist guerrilla group. Nevertheless, many Paraguayan political figures disagreed with the decision to institute the SOE, and few tangible results flowed from the thirty-day sore suspension of constitutional provisions.

The murders of four civilians and one policeman—attributed to the EPP— on April 21, 2010, finalized President Fernando Lugo’s decision to move forward with the state of suspension. Hoping to implement a sixty-day SOE, Lugo turned to Congress to gather support; however, after careful consideration before casting its vote, the final decision of the legislative body was to limit Lugo’s request to a thirty-day “estado de excepción.” The reduction originated in the House of Representatives, with the Senate quickly following suit, enacting the thirty-day bill by a unanimous vote. President Fernando Lugo had the constitutional authority to enact a SOE without these procedures, but chose to go through Congress in his request to suspend basic rights in affected areas. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) supported Lugo’s imposition of the SOE.

The affected area for the SOE covers one third of the nation’s territory and includes the poorest provinces of Paraguay. The five provinces have been plagued by kidnappings, extra-constitutional killings, and now lethal attacks on the police. The SOE was declared in order to detain leaders of the EPP without resorting to warrants, but only one alleged member was caught. Of the eighty-four people detained during the first eleven days of the SOE, only thirty-four were picked-up on the basis of orders of apprehension from higher authorities. According to Raúl Zibechi in Upside Down World, an online publication covering activism and politics in Latin America, “one fact merits attention: all of those detained were imprisoned for not having their documents in order and for fraud and sexual abuse.” None were linked to the EPP or any other insurgent group.

About 3,000 soldiers had been mobilized in the provinces before the implementation of the SOE, and now the Paraguayan government is saying that the latest blows by the EPP justified new action. Contrary to Lugo’s assertions, his disturbingly free-lancing Vice-President Federico Franco, declared that the real objective of the SOE was not the elimination of the EPP, suggesting that the SOE is only a ploy to appear as if Lugo is really taking concrete action. President Lugo firmly denied the truth of this statement; in Lugo’s opinion, the deployment of the military and police proved Franco’s statement to be not only inaccurate, but also disloyal.

What Lugo Promised

Throughout Paraguay, one crucial issue stands out: land reform. Campesinos, government officials, and EPP members alike share the desire for change. Today, Paraguay has become the site of one of the most concentrated and disproportionate centers in need of land distribution in Latin America. National Federation of Campesinos (FNC) Secretary-General Odilon Espinola reported, “eighty percent of fertile lands in the country are in the hands of one percent of the population, while eighty-five percent of farmers only have access to six percent of all the land.” Using land reform as a strategy to change this situation is one of the EPP’s major goals.

The label “bishop of the poor” placed high expectations on the nation’s newest president, Fernando Lugo, at the time he took office. Lugo promised distribution of land to poor farmers, access to health care, education, better homes, and roads for rural communities. With thirty-eight percent of Paraguay’s population living under the poverty line, Lugo’s promises were ambitious but clearly necessary.

Although the Paraguayan president won forty percent of votes under the “Patriotic Alliance for Change” party, thereby defeating the Colorado Party (PC) that had dominated the political scene for sixty-one years, factions within his own party soon repeatedly foiled many of his ambitious plans. The left and right came together in the 2008 presidential election for the sole cause of ousting the PC and they succeeded. As a result, Lugo belongs to the center-left Christian Democratic Party of Paraguay (APC), which comprises seventeen percent of the Senate and Lower House, but the right-leaning Neoliberals control eighty two percent. Lugo cannot operate his government, even at the most elemental level, without the neoliberals. Knowing this, the neoliberals have taken full advantage of this situation, using it to negotiate their own agenda. Even Vice President Franco, hailing from the center-right Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), tried to impeach the president within the first year of his term, declaring that he, Franco, was “ready to govern.”

Some have said all along that Lugo was ill-prepared for the job; Paraguay’s politics are tough and merciless. Lugo has not been able to mobilize the indigenous population, which does not have a strong tradition of standing up for its rights. Lugo’s critics always have maintained that if he cannot control the political process, he cannot effectively carry out land reform. There is a lack of political development and party cohesiveness; corruption is so prevalent in the country that Lugo has been rendered inert by the brazen of others.

The EPP is Born

Until very recently, few possessed any concrete information about the EPP. Only a few months ago Paraguay became certain of the guerrilla group’s existence when the authorities found indoctrinating documents and various examples of incriminating files. Until mid-June 2010, most reporters still denied the existence of the EPP, calling it a mere rumor. Marco Aurelio García, an advisor on International Affairs in the Office of the President of Brazil, told a Sao Paulo publication, “This business of the Paraguayan guerrilla is [a] piece of fiction. A joke.” According to these sources, a more reasonable assumption would be that drug traffickers were causing the major disruptions in the nation, rather than a group of ten to fifteen militants who seem to lack documents and known origins.

Two important events eliminated this line of thinking. A man by the name of Niño Salvador Saldívar claimed to be a member of the EPP on June 20, 2010 upon surrendering to the police in Concepción. The discovery of a camp where EPP documents were found (reminiscent of the Colombian raid on FARC militants inside of Ecuador) further confirmed of the existence Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo and confirmed the authenticity of Saldívar’s confession. Multiple kidnappings and killings have been attributed to the EPP. The most recent incident occurred on June 17, 2010, when the organization allegedly staged an ambush against Paraguayan security authorities stationed in the north. Two police officers were killed after the recently declared SOE. Saldívar, however, claimed that drug traffickers carried out the ambush, not the involved EPP. Special operation police forces were sent to reinforce the troops stationed there. The police are still on a mission to track down EPP members and are checking all nearby campsites. At one of these campsites the aforementioned EPP papers allegedly were discovered along with what “appear[s] to be a draft communiqué,” according to Latin News. The documents contained pertinent information that provided new insights that could alter much of what previous investigators had assumed was going on.

The EPP supports itself financially through kidnappings and ransoms. High profile officials, their relatives, and wealthy ranchers are prime candidates for the EPP to ransom in exchange for thousands of USD. Many affluent ranchers have stated that they are afraid to even enter their property out of fear of the EPP. The lack of an effective state presence in northern Paraguay, where the EPP is thought to be entrenched, contributes to the effectiveness of EPP kidnappings, for there are less consequences and risks. Lack of an adequate state presence in northern regions of the country also allows for the development of private armies or guerrilla groups. Some claim, without producing convincing proof, that the EPP has links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group of leftist Colombians guerillas. Some security officials in Ascunción maintain that EPP members are being trained by the FARC, and the U.S. fears prospects of the “Colombianization” of Paraguay.

The EPP claims to have formed to fight against inequality and the lack of land available to the country’s campesinos and indigenous, based on a deeply felt conviction that there is no other solution. Faith in democracy has diminished for many Paraguayans and a general atmosphere of insecurity is becoming widespread. Landowners are now being suspected of forming private militias for protection against the EPP, though most of them would deny such claims.

Campesinos Fighting Through The Law

The Paraguayan government estimates that there are 150,000 or more landless campesinos in the country, including indigenous peasants, although no official census has been taken. With the rural population growing alongside continued concentration of land ownership, the number of the landless continues to rise. Many campesinos are trying to initiate lawsuits in the courts to advance land reform or guarantee their rights; sadly, a corrupt judiciary continues to defend the status quo in favor of the rights of large landholders.

Land reform is difficult without firm judicial support, and the current generation of judges does not see a need to rearrange the existing paralyzed state of land distribution. The Supreme Court’s top nine judges ruled that until the age of seventy-five they could not be removed from their seats. The President of the Centre for Rural Services and Studies (CSER), Mirta Barreto, reported: “The way things currently stand, it’s impossible to get justice when it comes to land ownership.” The number of land disputes has reached an astronomical level with thousands of them congesting the courts.

To avoid a surfeit of statistics and the use of unwieldy generalizations, the Xákmok Kásek community in Paraguay provides a practical example of the struggle faced by many campesinos. For example, concerned with often having to walk long distances to reach sources of water, or to obtain medical treatment (the nearest health center being over 100km away) and deeply disturbed over the lack of respect for indigenous land rights, the Xákmok Kásek community is going to court over the land they claim is theirs. Forty members of the community have died in the past twenty years due to poor living conditions and denial of basic health care.

The Xákmok Kásek community has been awarded twenty hectares (forty-nine acres) for each family, but the community is adamant that the Constitution grants rights to 100 hectares (247.1 acres per family). President Lugo is working on granting legal title of the land to the community, but its representatives insist that twenty hectares is not enough. According to the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS),

The community first filed a formal claim to their land in 1986, and the lack of response from the authorities pushed them into legal action in 1990. Since then, the land has been in the hands of several different landowners, and part of it has been cleared to make way for various cattle ranching establishments.

Other rulings pertaining to the Yakye Aza and Sawhoyamaza indigenous communities have been in favor of these peoples, but the awards have yet to be put into effect. Limited action by the Paraguayan government is all but routine, especially when land reform for the poor is involved.

A Coup Threat in Paraguay

At a private meeting during the UNASUR summit on May 4, 2010, in Buenos Aires, President Lugo spoke of a possible coup threat targeted at him, “similar to that which happened in Honduras” when President Manuel Zelaya fled from the country after being held at gun point. “The right-wing wants to get rid of him because the growing social movements have become a threat to the old oligarchy,” campesino leader Ernesto Benitez said in an interview with Dia de Hoy. A “constitutional coup” is a threat, and with only a small minority of representatives in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate backing Lugo, the right wing potentially has enough power to stage such an overthrow. In a U.S. ambassador-hosted lunch, Paraguayan Vice President Frederico Franco, who increasingly is being seen in Washington as a power-crazed and obsessed opportunist, stated that he is “prepared” to replace Lugo if the right wing does take him out of power. Suspicions have floated around American, Brazilian, and Argentine news sources about this coup threat, but evidence in support of this hypothesis are, as yet, in short supply.

Lugo’s presidency has been filled with trials and tribulations, with two more years still to go. Although he ran on a populist platform that emphasized assisting the poor, Lugo now apparently does not have the ability or fortitude to follow through with his promises. With a split government, an ineffective president, courts overflowing with campesino demands, and now a guerilla group suspected of training with the Colombian FARC, the nexus of this bizarre scenario seems to be the pressing need for land reform. Meanwhile, poor Paraguay seems destined to continue to be a country bereft of a worthy figure capable of providing worthy governance to its people.