by Laurence Blair
June 27, 2017

from WorldPoliticsReview Website



Laurence Blair is a freelance journalist based between London and Latin America. He is currently writing a book on South American history for Bodley Head/Penguin Random House, to be published in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @LABlair1492.




Paraguayans protest

against a plan to change the country's constitution

Asuncion, Paraguay, March 30, 2017

(AP photo by Jorge Saenz).


ASUNCION, Paraguay


The dramatic events that took place on the evening of March 31 grabbed an unusual amount of international media attention for Paraguay.


After months of behind-the-scenes preparations, the governing right-wing Partido Colorado (PC), the left-wing Frente Guasu coalition (FG) and a dissident faction of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) made a bid to change the constitution to allow for presidential re-election, which is prohibited by Paraguay's post-dictatorship 1992 constitution.

Allies of President Horacio Cartes - one of the country's richest businessmen, and a political newcomer prior to his election at the head of the PC in 2013 - had been working for nearly a year to build the necessary congressional majority to pass the changes.


But an abrupt behind-closed-doors vote to consider the possibility of a second term provoked the ire of a normally apathetic general public.


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Amid minor demonstrations across the small country of 6.6 million people, protesters in the capital, Asuncion, pushed back a weak police cordon to storm the steps of Congress.


A small group of rioters among them smashed windows, looted the interior of the building and set small fires on the ground floor.

A fierce response by security forces eventually ensued: Riot police, mounted on horseback and firing tear gas, cleared the square outside Congress and clashed with demonstrators in adjacent streets. A police unit raided the PLRA headquarters some 10 blocks away, and CCTV footage shows the moment a young party activist, Rodrigo Quintana, was shot in the back.


The image of a young demonstrator lying dead in a pool of his own blood prompted comparisons to the "marzo Paraguayo" of 1999, when a factional struggle in the wake of Alfredo Stroessner's Colorado dictatorship, which ruled from 1954-1989, led to the shooting of seven protesters.

When I arrived soon after Quintana's death, PLRA activists stood on the pavement outside in a state of shock.

"Not even Stroessner did this," one told me.

Eleven days later, following pressure from the Vatican and the United States, which is an important source of aid to Paraguay, Cartes announced that he would not seek re-election in April 2018.


That effectively neutered the constitutional amendment, which was duly voted down by the government-controlled lower house a few days later. With that, the brief crisis seemed to be over.



Did the Re-Election Crisis Really End?

The anti-climactic end to the political emergency, however, was at odds with strident domestic press coverage.


Major press, TV and radio outlets - above all, ABC Color, owned by tycoon Aldo Zucolillo - presented the government's re-election drive as a catastrophe for Paraguay's young democracy that would set the stage for another Colorado dictatorship.


ABC Color's fervent opposition to the amendment was attributed by many to the rivalry between Cartes and Zucolillo, who has reason to resent the growing share of Paraguay's media acquired by Grupo Cartes, a conglomerate owned by the president that has been administered by his sister since he took office in 2013.


Many protesters seemed to be less angered

by the idea of re-election in itself

than by the government's secretive pursuit of it.



Supporting this view of an imminent crisis was the opinion of the majority of constitutional experts that the government's attempt to change the rules prohibiting re-election via a constitutional amendment, rather than a more gradual and deliberative reform that would involve convening an elected constituent assembly, was flagrantly unconstitutional.

These concerns were shared by the many protesters who seemed to be less angered by the idea of re-election in itself - an issue that has been mulled over by several previous administrations - than by the government's secretive pursuit of it.


Those supporting the bid to revise the constitution, including media holdings like the Grupo Cartes' La Nacion, were sympathetic to the government's argument that a constitutional amendment via a nationwide referendum would "let the people decide."


They also repeated government claims that powerful economic interests had whipped up public anger and paid rioters, in particular from the poor Chacarita slum immediately adjacent to Congress, to spearhead the demonstrations.

A third strand of opinion, largely from critical voices on the left, pointed out that less-than-reputable political actors were positioning themselves on both sides of the re-election debate.


The anti-amendment protests were promoted and partly co-opted by the PLRA, for example.


But its claims to be standing up for the rule of law rang hollow for many; its abrupt withdrawal of support in 2012 for former President Fernando Lugo led to his controversial impeachment, and the party is widely suspected of being complicit in massive corruption under Lugo's immediate successor as interim president, Federico Franco.


Also fighting re-election tooth and nail was a crony-capitalist Colorado faction headed by Mario Abdo Benitez, the son of Stroessner's private secretary.

The alliance that Lugo's FG and Cartes' wing of the PC - at least on paper, political adversaries - created to flout the constitution also proved distasteful for some Paraguayans who, faced with such a complicated and dispiriting scenario, have stayed out of the re-election debate altogether.


Instead, they are calling for a more profound analysis about the failings of contemporary Paraguay's political economy.

"That was nothing more than a fight between mafiosos. I was even ashamed to go," Guillermina Kanonnikoff, a veteran human rights campaigner, says about the re-election squabble and the resulting protests.

Her sentiment is shared by many who were born after the return to democracy in 1989.


Sandino Flecha, a member of the Frente Estudiantil por la Educación (FEE), an umbrella student organization, says that Paraguayans need to "deepen this sterile anti-amendment debate" beyond elite in-fighting to address the more fundamental problems facing the country.



The Economic Roots of Discontent

To do so requires looking beyond Asuncion to the basis of Paraguay's political economy: rural land ownership.


An approach that would be simplistic or incomplete in other Latin American contexts still has important explanatory power in Paraguay, where economic and political power is still largely based on the ownership of large "latifundio" estates.

As a country that currently lacks as-yet extractable reserves of petroleum, major deposits of minerals, or significant manufacturing, financial services or tourism industries, Paraguay's main private revenue-raising activities are still centered on large-scale agriculture and agribusiness.


This follows a pattern laid down in the late 19th century, when, after a ruinous war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Paraguay was forced to throw open its borders to foreign investment as a means of recovery and debt-repayment.


Today, the country is the world's fourth-biggest exporter of soybeans and the seventh-largest producer of beef, with both sectors expanding massively in the past decade in response to global demand:

Beef exports, for example, rose by 80 percent to 390,000 tons between 2007 and 2014.


Agricultural workers arrive to participate

in an annual march organized by the National Farmers' Federation,

Asuncion, Paraguay, March 17, 2016

(AP photo by Jorge Saenz).



Not all Paraguayans benefit from this, however.


Newly-released government data suggest that just under 30 percent of Paraguayans live in poverty, rising to nearly 40 percent in the country, and land ownership in Paraguay is by some measures the most unequal in the world.


United Nations figures put the Gini ratio - a commonly used indicator of inequality where zero is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality - with regard to land ownership at 0.94.


Research compiled in a 2016 report by Oxfam indicates that ownership of agricultural land is fundamentally skewed toward a small group of families and their businesses.


Some 90 percent of the land in Paraguay belongs to 12,000 large agricultural estates, which make up less than 5 percent of the total number of farms.


The remaining 10 percent of land is shared among 280,000 small- and medium-sized properties. Around 600 estates bigger than 10,000 hectares collectively make up 40 percent of the country's agricultural land.


Meanwhile, 180,000 farms are smaller than 10 hectares - the basic unit recognized by Paraguay's agricultural code needed to support a family.

These elite family businesses are, moreover, often owned by the country's principal politicians, businessmen and media barons.


According to Oxfam, the Zucolillo, Cartes and Vierci families - owners of rival media and business groups - figure among the 15 biggest landowners in Paraguay, with major Brazilian and Argentinean firms occupying other top spots.



Latifundios, Forests and Indigenous Rights

The expansion of these latifundios comes partly at the expense of Paraguay's remaining forests and pockets of biodiversity.


On both sides of the Rio Paraguay, but particularly in the Chaco, this process has often displaced indigenous groups and destroyed their traditional ways of life.


In Campo Loro and Tunocojai - dusty settlements of indigenous Ayoreo people an hour from the Mennonite colony of Filadelfia - village leaders complain that large cattle estates are encroaching on the few shreds of forest and natural habitats left standing nearby.

"We used to hunt wild animals, but now the Brazilians, the Mennonites, the Paraguayans... they finished with all that," Joini Etacore Sosa, a community leader, says.

In Asuncion, I met with leaders of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode at the offices of GAT, an NGO that is supporting the group in government negotiations to protect ancestral territory currently partially occupied by private landholders.


The tribe's leaders worry that the remaining small groups of Ayoreo will be unable to remain in voluntary isolation for much longer.

"Before, we lived a lot better," says Esoi Chiquenoe, who was part of an indigenous group that made first contact in 2004.

In the eastern half of the country, the expansion of large agricultural estates more often involves the expulsion of campesinos, or small-scale landowners, from disputed lands, although indigenous communities here are also under pressure.


Under the Stroessner regime and its successors, agrarian reform was piecemeal and fundamentally flawed.


Stroessner did sponsor campesino colonies, but these were often merely used to clear forested areas, later being displaced by large estates owned by allies of the regime.


According to Paraguay's 2008 Truth and Justice Commission, of the 12.3 million hectares of land redistributed by the state between 1954 and 2003, 7.85 million hectares, much of it already settled, were illegally handed to business and military figures loyal to the government - a total area greater than the size of Panama.

As a result, much of this land today is subject to bitter disagreements about ownership, which, given the judiciary's close ties to landed interests, tend to be resolved in favor of the more powerful landowners or kept in legal limbo for years.


The legal purchase or illegal appropriation of campesino and indigenous lands means that, according to government figures, there are around 75,000 campesinos across the country without any land; Oxfam and local NGOs suggest the real figure is four times higher.


Nor do the larger estates tend to employ significant numbers of people:

Industrial soybean and cattle-raising generate just one job per 200 hectares; the same area can support 20 families and employ 40 people if dedicated to family agriculture.

These families, faced with the disappearance of their means of subsistence, have two choices.


One is to continue to occupy the lands in question, risking forcible removal by police or private security forces.


The other is to migrate to Paraguay's cities, principally the greater Asuncion area, as thousands have done in recent decades:

Paraguay's urban population grew from 35 percent of the total in 1950 to 67 percent in 2012.

Many end up in informal neighborhoods like Banado Sur, on Asuncion's south side, where the main source of employment is sifting through the huge municipal trash heap that towers over the low-lying settlement.


Another common destination, La Chacarita, on the north side of Asuncion, runs from the bank of the Rio Paraguay right to the doorstep of Congress, and is as flood-prone as Banado Sur.

Suffering from poor public education, few jobs and high rates of drug use, residents complain that Paraguay's traditional political parties only pay attention to them at election time, in order to corral votes in return for cash bribes.


Jorge Silva, a community organizer, tells me he believes media reports that anti-Cartes groups paid young men from the Chacarita to fuel the March 31 protests, but doesn't blame them for taking the money and sending a crude message to Paraguay's political elites.

"I wish I'd been there too," he says.



The Long Shadow of Curuguaty

Campesinos who instead choose to stay on their lands, or occupy those they argue they have legal title to, can face a more violent fate.


The most notorious campesino eviction in recent years came on July 15, 2012, at Curuguaty, in the eastern department of Canindeyu, which led to the deaths of 11 campesinos and six police officers.


The small parcel of land claimed by the campesinos, known as Marina Cue, was only a fraction of a huge swath of contested territory granted during the dictatorship to Blas Riquelme, a close associate of Stroessner and one-time president of the Colorado Party.


But the heavy police response - and the harsh prison sentences handed out to 11 campesinos in a subsequent investigation that, according to local and international observers, was plagued with severe irregularities - seemed designed to discourage future occupations.



Supporters of the relatives of 11 farmers killed

in a shootout with police in the town of Curuguaty

march to demand justice.

Asuncion, Paraguay, July 6, 2016

(AP photo by Jorge Saenz).


"It was like a message: 'Stop with this, or you'll face the consequences'," says Sonia Van Lepel, a lawyer working with Codehupy, a local human rights organization.

Sources in the Paraguayan judiciary have maintained that the case was conducted appropriately, and that the campesinos in question had been accused multiple times of cattle theft and other crimes.

Five years after the massacre, the families of Marina Cue are still campaigning for amnesty for their relatives.


Paraguay's Court of Appeal confirmed the sentences in June this year, meaning that, pending review by the Court of Cassation, campaigning groups are now set to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has already begun investigating the killings.


Amnesty International has meanwhile condemned the Paraguayan state's failure to investigate the killing of the campesinos. The U.N. Human Rights Commissioner described the alleged shortcomings in the trial as "deeply troubling."


An exhaustive report by Codehupy, the human-rights organization, includes testimony accusing police of executing and torturing wounded campesinos or leaving them to die, and documents how important pieces of evidence went missing during the trial.

"As a family, it's hit us very hard," explains Karina Godoy, with her 2-year-old daughter on her knee.

Her husband, Arnaldo Quintana, was among those sentenced to 18 years in prison.

"There's a lot of injustice here. We, just as much as the police, have the right for them to investigate everything properly."

Kanonnikoff, the human rights campaigner, is supporting the relatives of prisoners, and fears that, if the case is not overturned, it will establish a legal precedent that will encourage violent evictions in other land disputes.

"If we lose here in Curuguaty, we lose in other cases... It's a criminalization of social struggle," she says.

The Curuguaty case reveals some of the drivers of the re-election crisis.


Competition for land that can be turned over to agribusiness is increasingly fierce:

The average price of a hectare of the most productive land jumped from $200 to $1200 between 2004 and 2014, with the best plots closest to arterial highways going for as much as $15,000.

This in turn has increased the stakes for gaining or retaining control of the government, which offers greater influence over the judiciary and other state bodies, and thus greater freedom to amass wealth in the countryside.


The fierce response of the state security services at Curuguaty and during similar land disputes elsewhere - as well as the deployment of a military task force in several northern provinces since 2013, ostensibly responding to the threat posed by a tiny guerrilla group, the Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguay - also prefigured the unprecedented attack on the PLRA headquarters on March 31.


According to Codehuypy, at least 115 campesinos linked to land struggles were murdered between 1989 and 2013, with convictions resulting in just 8 cases.

Barely a week after the Curuguaty incident, Lugo's opponents leveraged the violence to bring impeachment proceedings against him.


The "express impeachment" that followed - Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defense - was decried as a parliamentary coup by domestic critics and left-wing regional governments.


It also dealt a significant degree of damage to perceptions of constitutionality, arguably paving the way for this year's unconstitutional re-election bid.


Congress may only have been set on fire in March,

but the flames have been flickering

in the countryside for a while.



In supporting this attempt, the FG hoped to allow Lugo to run for the presidency in 2018; the party still maintains that, via other legal loopholes, he can do so.


But while his time in office, albeit cut short, is generally seen as having benefited Paraguay's poorest, it failed to seriously address inequalities in rural landholding.

"Lugo is not a representative of the people," says Teodolina Villalba, the secretary-general of the National Campesino Federation, in an interview.


"Because the structure of Paraguay and the state is bad, no one can guarantee a policy of agrarian reform for the people."

The backroom deal the FG made with the PC on re-election has further damaged his popularity.

"None of the two has the interests of the people at heart - the sector that wants re-election and the sector that doesn't," she adds.

An ongoing legislative alliance between FG and the PC has further disappointed some of the FG's base.



The Calm Before the Storm?

This uninspiring panorama might suggest that the re-election debacle was an insignificant sideshow, and that had Cartes secured his re-election amendment there would have been no lasting damage to Paraguay's institutional fabric.


But changing such a fundamental part of the constitution without due process would have arguably set a dangerous precedent.


Moreover, the fact that Cartes' bid failed means that future attempts to allow re-election will probably have to involve a gradual constitutional reform, which will require greater public participation and earn greater legitimacy.


That could provide an opportunity to look at other problematic aspects of Paraguay's political system, such as the closed party lists for congressional elections that shield corrupt party grandees from accountability at the ballot box.

Cartes's hand-picked successor - his former finance minister Santiago Pena, a Columbia-trained economist with experience at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund - will probably win in next April's presidential election, given a left-wing split among the FG, PLRA and smaller parties.


Pena, a newcomer to the PC and still formally affiliated with the PLRA, lacks traction with the conservative, rural chapters of the PC despite Cartes' backing.


As a result, he is unlikely when in office to risk challenging the privileged position currently enjoyed by agribusiness or expediting claims over disputed land in favor of the campesinos.


Rather than major efforts to tackle rural and urban poverty - such as a wholesale agrarian reform, or an increase in the currently minimal tax burden to fund greater social programs - incremental changes are more likely.


But supporting rural communities makes both economic and political sense in the long term.

A policy for small agricultural producers - finding regional markets for crops other than monoculture cereals, for example - would help insulate Paraguay from its vulnerability to price shocks and fluctuating global demand for meat and soybeans.


And making legitimate economic activities viable for campesinos would reduce the incentives for involvement with armed groups and organized crime. It would also stem the flow of the destitute to Asuncion, thus reducing both pressure on the congested metropolis and the supply of angry young recruits likely to participate in future civil unrest.

Congress may only have been set on fire in March, but the flames have been flickering in the countryside for a while.


Paraguay's future presidents should look there if they want to avoid greater conflagrations in the future.