Just two months after the Bishop Fernando Lugo moved into the president’s palace in Paraguay (Aug. 15, 2008), thousands of peasants began occupying the soybean farms owned by Brazilian capital, particularly in the Paraguayan border States of Itapúa, Alto Paraná, San Pedro, Concepción, Amambay, and Canindeyú. These rich lands now covered with soybeans were once a center of family agriculture, and strong peasant tradition, which was a base of support for the Lugo presidential campaign. Today, these lands are Brazilian property.
The renegotiation of the Itaipu Dam Treaty, signed in 1973 by Brazilian and Paraguayan dictators, is pending. This could consolidate the position of the Lugo government. The border river dam on the Itaipu River (the second largest on the planet) has an installed capacity of 8,250 megawatts of power. Paraguay consumes just 5% of this capacity, exporting the rest to its neighbor Brazil, at cost. The Itaipu Dam provides 20% of the electrical power consumed in Brazil, for which Paraguay receives just $300 million per year. This price per megawatt hour is considerably below the international price and basically only covers the production costs.
Ricardo Canese, energy specialist, estimates that the 53,000 gigawatts that are sold annually to Brazil have a minimum market price of $4 billion, equivalent to half of the gross national product of Paraguay. While President Lugo does not expect to reach that amount, he claims that his country should receive between $1.5 and $2 billion (five or six times the current rate).
The negotiations, however, are not going well. After two rounds of negotiations, Brazil has not budged on the topics of price or Paraguay’s freedom to sell energy to others nations. The Lugo government feels that an increase of one or two billion dollars could be invested in building schools, hospitals, roads, and the many other necessities of a poor country plagued by 61 years of the corruption of the Colorado Party.
Paraguayans feel exploited by their neighbors. Months ago, a band of Paraguayan peasants burned a Brazilian flag, an event often repeated by the media. A crisis erupted when the peasants began to occupy the large farms owed by Brazilian capital. This happened mostly in the state of San Pedro, the poorest Paraguayan state, where Lugo was ordained bishop in 1994. The government reacted with caution and made it known that they were willing to enter into dialogue. The Institute for Rural Development and Land Rights (INDERT) announced a plan to purchase lands for agrarian reform, which means the government will be in desperate need of funds from the Itaipu Dam.
However, the Lula government has lacked of sensitivity and even the traditional northern good humor. On Oct. 17, 10,000 soldiers were deployed in a massive operative known as Southern Border II, in which they utilized planes, tanks, ships, and live munitions. The press in Asunción reported that the operation included exercises such as occupying the Itaipú Dam and rescuing Brazilian citizens. The Lugo government weighed in and assured that Brazil only wanted to negotiate peace for the soybean farmers for the benefit of Itaipú.
Declarations made by General José Elito Carvalho Siquiera, chief of the Southern Military Command, made things worse. On October 18, he stated to the Brazilian daily Ultima Hora, "The time for hiding things is over. Today we have to demonstrate that we are a leader, and it is important that our neighbors understand this. We cannot continue to avoid exercising and demonstrating that we are strong, that we are present, and we have the capacity to confront any threat." With regard to the security at Itaipú, he said that it was a military issue even should the dam be occupied by a protesting social movement.
Chancellor Amorim asked the Paraguayan government, point blank, to control the "excesses" against the brasiguayos (Brazilian-Paraguayans). Lugo took up the issue at the Permanent Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), where he stated that the Brazilian attitude made it hard to engage in a friendly dialogue between neighbors. He insinuated that the military operation was a "message about Itaipú." In Washington Lugo stated that: "No agreement is sustainable when inequality is established nor is it ethical when disparities are generated as a result of a shared effort."
In October, some 4,000 campesinos mobilized in front of one of the farms belonging to Tranquilo Favero, perhaps the most emblematic brasiguayo. The campesinos tore down the fence and threatened to burn down one of the 30 silos. In the departments of Canindeyú and Alto Paraná alone, which border the Brazilian states of Paraná and Mato Groso, the brasiguayos own 2.9 million acres, or 40% of the total land surface and 80% of the soybean cultivation.
Although there are no official numbers, it is estimated that approximately half a million Brazilians have moved to the border regions of Paraguay since the 1960s, which is equal to 10% of the population of the country. They tend to be medium-sized producers, most with an average of a little more than 1,000 acres worked by laborers brought in from Brazil. In some areas the preferred language is Portuguese and the local currency is the real.
Tranquilo Favero is known as the "king of soy." He cultivates some 136,000 acres of the crop, 86,500 on his own property. He came to Paraguay 40 years ago and is now a citizen. In a long interview with Ultima Hora on Nov. 2, he revealed his own peculiar perspective on the disturbances, stating, "There is no doubt that the campesinos are protecting marijuana plantations." He added that the occupations of campesinos who do not own land "are a nest of criminals."
He has employed similar terms to invoke the concept of "narco-guerrillas" created by U.S. military strategists and applied in the brasiguaya context. Kaiser Konrad, director of Defesanet, wrote after interviewing General Carvalho, "Operation Southern Border II attempts to send the message to the Lugo government that the Brazilian military is aware of the situation confronting the brasiguayos, and that they face land invasions and threats to their legally acquired lands."
Brazil and the "Foreign Threat"
On Oct. 2, Lula enacted Decree 6.952, which regulates the National Mobilization System dedicated to confronting "foreign aggression." The decree defines "foreign aggression" as "threats or injurious acts that harm national sovereignty, territorial integrity, the Brazilian people, or national institutions, even when they do not constitute an invasion of national territory."
An editorial column of Defesanet states that the approval of the decree constitutes a clear message to neighboring countries: "Any act of aggression or persecution of Brazilian citizens residing in Paraguay (brasiguayos), in the Pando region of Bolivia, as well as new threats to cut gas lines and take over Brazilian installations and companies operating in other countries are now characterized as external aggressions and a military response from Brazil will be legally sanctioned."
The issue transcends the Lula government. It is basically the affirmation of an emerging power that its borders extend to wherever its national interests are. All great powers were built up in this way, with an attitude that has always been known as "imperialism." Maybe that’s why many South Americans feel that Brazil is creating its own "backyard."
Translated for the Americas Program by Tony Phillips.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program.
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Defesanet: revista electrónica sobre Defensa, www.defesanet.com.br.
Foro Boliviano sobre Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo, www.fobomade.org.bo.
Javier Santiso, "La emergencia de las multilatinas," Revista de la CEPAL, No. 95, August 2008.
Samuel Blixen, "La creciente extranjerización de la economía uruguaya," Brecha, November 28, 2008.
Raúl Zibechi, "Brazil and the Difficult Route to Multilateralism," IRC Americas Program, February 21, 2006.
Ricardo Canese, "La recuperación de la soberanía hidroeléctrica del Paraguay," Ombligo del Mundo, Asunción, 2007.
ABC (www.abc.com.py) and Ultima Hora (www.ultimahora.com).