June 22 marks the third anniversary of the parliamentary coup d’état against Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. Looking at the period since the fall of Lugo’s government, which was elected on the promise of changing life for the poor, we find that many things are different. First, Latin America itself has changed. Lugo’s election in 2008 was the umpteenth victory of a progressive front across the continent, the high point of the continent-wide project for opposing the historical control over the region of conservatives and foreign powers, Today that front is clearly on the wane.The Gauzú Front (Frente Gauzú), that brought the former bishop to power, was the first – and perhaps the weakest – link to break.
Today the Paraguayan economy has changed, with the country experiencing dramatic growth, much of it based on ever-increasing exports of genetically modified (GM) soya. Politics, too, have changed, with the population very reluctant to entrust power to another candidate from the left. What has not changed are the levels of inequality and poverty, with campesinos (peasant faemrs) and urban workers still the most vulnerable and most exposed to age-old state repression.
The ‘Soft Coup’
Lugo’s dismissal in 2012 was the best example of what is known as a soft coup, a method of overthrowing a government without the direct intervention of the armed forces or the use of violence. Instead, it showed that it is possible to overthrow a government by generating an unstable political climate, portraying the government in power as responsible for the crisis, and by finding ways of circumventing the law.
In order to understand what happened, we must reconstruct the history of the coup. Paraguay has the most unequal system of land concentration in the world. According to official figures, 2.6% of owners hold 85% of arable land, the political and economic base of the country. Much of this land is owned illegitimately, that is to say, it is land that, according to the constitution, was destined for agrarian reform but, instead, ended up in the hands of sympathisers of Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship (1954-1989) and friends of those in positions of power within the government. Between 1954 and 2003 7,800,000 hectares of land – 32% of the country’s arable land – was fraudulently obtained. In this way millions of Paraguayans were prevented from owning their own plot of land, and this has generated deep social conflict that still prevails today.
In 1885, once the Triple Alliance war had put an end to the project for an Independent Paraguay, thought up by Doctor Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and his successors, the first law on the sale of state land was passed. Since then land ownership has been, and continues to be, the main reason for the persecution and death of campesinos. For 61 consecutive years landowners and industrialists, represented by the Colorado Party (Partido Colorado), held power and repressed campesinos in their struggle for land.
In 2014 the Coordinator of Human Rights in Paraguay (CODEHUPY) published a report on the murder of campesinos in Paraguay between the restoration of democracy in 1991 and August 2013. It showed that 115 campesinos had been killed by security forces or contract killers hired by the big landowners in order to frighten other campesinos into giving up land occupations. Two more deaths from last year should be added to this figure.
The Colorado Party’s hold on power was broken when Lugo became president. In 2008 the Gauzú Front decided to form an alliance with one of the traditional power groups in Paraguay, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical Autentico – PRLA), as they were not in a position to fight the elections alone. Opposed by the most powerful at one extreme and by the most radical social movements at the other, Lugo attempted a two-track policy. On the one hand, he kept the country’s economic structure unchanged, with its highly unequal distribution of income and its reliance on commodities, and on the other, thanks to favourable prices on the international markets, he benefited millions of Paraguayans.
He restructured the health service, which became public and free for the first time. He gave basic computers to primary school students and their teachers. He convinced the then president of Brazil, Lula, to triple the amount Brazil paid Paraguay for its purchase of electric power from the Itaipu hydroelectric power station, thereby further increasing state income. In 2010 Paraguay achieved its biggest ever economic growth rate – 15%. But the sympathy Lugo showed for leftist movements and the concessions he made to them provoked a reaction from the right: 24 impeachment attempts were made to impeach him from 2008 to 2012.
In 2011 Lugo’s government began to tackle the problem of the ill-gotten lands. An extensive investigation began, which would later translate into a new push for agrarian reform, widely promised but never delivered. The big national and international corporations, grouped together in the Union of Production Guilds (Unión de Gremios de la Producción – UGP), began a campaign to discredit the president. An important and high profile conflict began in October 2011, concerning the refusal of the National Service for Quality and Health of Vegetables and Seeds (Servicio Nacional de Calidad y Sanidad Vegetal y de Semillas – SENAVE) to authorise the GM Bollgard BT cotton seed, from the US biotechnology company Monsanto. The head of SENAVE, Miguel Lovera, was accused of incompetency and even corruption, with several of the nation’s media asking for his resignation. Meanwhile, the campesino organisations had already expressed their anger with the slow pace of the promised agrarian reform programme.
In June 2012 both fronts in the conflict took action. The UGP called for a ‘tractorazo’ in Asunción on 25 June, a move that looked more like a call for a coup than a mere protest. In Marina Kue, in the department of Caraguaty, some 1,000 campesinos took over a farm which they claimed should belong to the state and, as such, be part of the promised land redistribution programme. The property, though, was owned by the businessman Blas Riquelme, former president of the Colorado Party; he had obtained it during the years when land was irregularly distributed.
On 15 June 2012 some 300 police officers started to evict the campesinos in what came to be known as the Caraguaty Massacre. The courts still haven’t decided what happened there, with various investigations by human rights organisations, both national and international, suggesting that it was an ambush organised by big landowners so that they could then blame the government for the massacre; which is indeed what happened. In the evictions 11 farmers and six police officers died. Lugo was immediately accused of “creating chaos and class warfare between fellow citizens”, as was stated in the accusations against him during the impeachment process that forced him from office on 22June. After the impeachment, Lugo delivered a weak speech resigning from the presidency. His vice-president, the liberal Federico Franco, succeeded him until 15 August 2013.
The return to ‘order’
Franco’s first measures in government were geared to re-establishing the traditional order. He replaced and persecuted all the civil servants appointed by Lugo and opened the way for the agrarian ‘modernisation’ demanded by the landowners in the press. In August 2012 the planting of the genetically modified cotton seed MON531 was permitted, and in November four maize seeds were added, belonging to the foreign companies Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and Pioneer. Until then only one genetically modified soya seed, approved in 2004, could be planted and traded. Before the end of Franco’s rule, Monsanto even managed to get authorisation for two exclusive patents for Paraguay, something that the overthrown civil servants had strongly opposed.
The international community condemned Lugo’s overthrow and suspended Paraguay’s membership of Unasur and Mercosur until the return of a democratically elected leader. Moreover, several countries did not recognise the new government, creating an international isolation that seriously damaged the country. With a liberal president discredited both from within and outside the country, a president involved in never-ending corruption scandals and the social resistance against the coup decreasing, the Colorado Party began to prepare for its return to power.
For the 2013 elections they put forward a young candidate, removed from the traditional political structures, a new face to reinvigorate the damaged image of the historic party. Horacio Cartes, a successful businessman, president of the four times champion of Paraguayan football, the Club Libertad, and former director of selections for the Paraguayan Football Association, was elected. He himself admitted that the first time he had ever voted was 15August 2013, the day on which he won the presidential election.
His first measures were to grant special powers to the executive, especially with regard to matters of security. He implemented the Law of Internal Security (Ley de la Seguridad Interna), which allowed the government, without the approval of parliament, to militarise and declare a state of emergency in entire regions of the country under the banner of fighting against the insurgency of the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP). Campesino movements say that under this law the military carried out evictions and violations of human rights, further favouring the concentration of land. He successfully passed the law of the Public-Private Alliance (Alianza Público Privada – APP), which allows for private enterprise to take over services previously provided by the state, such as infrastructure, health and education. Most important of all, he gave a resounding push for GM production in the agricultural sector.
Currently 92% of the land cultivated in Paraguay is used for the production of foodstuffs destined for export. Of this, 20% is controlled by foreigners, especially Brazilians. The star product is undoubtedly soya, of which today Paraguay is the sixth largest producer in the world and the fourth largest exporter. Under Cartes’ government six other GM seeds, resistant to pesticides, have been authorised. A great shock was caused last year by the deaths of two children – six-month-old Adela and tgree-year-old Adelaida Álvarez — due to the aerial spraying of pesticides in Huber Duré, in the department of Canindeyú; and reports of contamination by spraying have increased in the last few years.
The campesino movements have carried out large demonstrations for the last three years in an attempt to defend native seeds and traditional forms of production. However, as has happened during most of Paraguay’s history, the alliance between landowners, public powers and security forces does not allow such movements to gain strength. Under the umbrella of the impressive economic growth, the new government talks of ending the ‘culture of poverty’, of ‘modernising’ the country with big agro-industrial projects and of embracing free trade as a state policy. A quarter of the population remains below the poverty line, whilst social welfare provision is increasingly in the hands of private interests.
The changes that have taken place in the last three years have only accelerated the process of concentration of wealth that has been taking place for 140 years. Although undoubtedly some resistance has occurred to the increasing inequality, it has been easily dismantled. The future does not look very promising.
* This an edited version of the Spanish article published by Resumen Latinamericano. It was translated into English for LAB by Coromoto Power Febres.