Paraguay: Platform for Hemispheric Hegemony

Source: IRC Americas Program

Two soccer teams played for a spot in the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores of America on July 18th in Asunción, Paraguay: River Plate from Argentina and Libertad of Paraguay. Before the game was over, a small group of Argentine fans, whose team lost 3 to 1, attacked the local police, which could only turn and run, unable to control the fury that attacked them with small seat cushions.

The incapacity of the police to contain a small soccer stadium puts on display the fragility of the Paraguayan state and contrasts starkly with the same security forces that clash with the poor rural population who demand land. Some 100 rural activists have been killed by police forces, military, and para-police since the fall of dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989; hundreds have been hurt and more than 2,000 prosecuted.

Paraguay is a failed state according to Washington‘s definition. It comprises one of the 50 states in the world that “lack political legitimacy and do not guarantee security, rights, or access to goods for the majority of its citizens.” 1 Although this type of state is one of the main sources of concern, and intervention, for Washington—because it is assumed that they are ideal locations for illicit arms and drug traffic and the installation of terrorist networks—they tend to leave out that their existence is the product of centuries of colonialism and imperialism aggravated recently by the neoliberal politics that further weaken the nation state.

Some of the main priorities of SouthCom coincide in a country like Paraguay. Particularly the second objective, that consists of assuring that “countries exercise sovereignty over their territory” and that they “dominate non-governed spaces.” 2 This becomes key to be able to complete the other priorities: assure energy flows and protect critical infrastructure; assure that countries that are willing participate in “joint operations” like anti-terrorist actions, peace operations, and humanitarian assistance; prevent support to terrorist organizations; and strengthen stable governments on the continent.

This group of priorities takes on special importance at a time signaling the downturn of the superpower and the emergence of leftist and progressive Latin American governments that have as one of their primary objectives to separate themselves from the tutelage of Washington and start independent paths.

A Strategic Scenario

SouthCom establishes as its number one priority access to energy sources. As the planet has begun a downturn in resources such as oil and gas, access to other potential resources takes on special relevance: from biodiversity and water to soy crops that can come to be used as a partial oil substitute for energy.

The policy of “trade and security” designed by the White House as a substitute for the doctrine of “national security” seeks to address this dilemma. However, security is a broad and encompassing definition, including not only terrorism but also potential challenges that can arise. In this sense Paraguay takes on a special dimension.

The small South American country (406,000 square kilometers, 6 million inhabitants, abundant hydro and energetic resources, and a geopolitically strategic location) 3 is key to regional equilibrium. As a member of Mercosur, it is a geographic and political cradle between Argentina and Brazil. Both countries have had a determining presence in Paraguay since the Triple Alliance War (1865-1870), 4 being very close to rich hydrocarbon deposits in the south of Bolivia and with a privileged access to the tri-country border (Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay). In some ways, control of Paraguay has been the “hinge” of South America and forms part of the third scenario in order of importance for SouthCom, after Haiti and Colombia. To “discipline regional behaviors … the military commands of the United States are interested in secure and permissive positions in the area, that in addition to its natural resources is seen as the wedge to deactivate any plan between Argentina and Brazil that does without the mediation of the United States.” 5

In a sense, the changes in the continent since the beginning of the 21st century have highlighted the strategic value of Paraguay. Cooperation between Argentina and Brazil, including economic, political, and military aspects, is a source of concern for the White House. The president of the Brazilian Military, General Luiz Gonzaga Lessa, mentioned to the weekly Brasil de Fato (June 23, 2006) that the armed forces, which historically have been oriented to the south because of the possibility of conflict with Argentina, in recent years have been reoriented toward the north, “most of all toward Colombia.” Now, the American deployment in Paraguay opens a flank at the Brazilian rear, forcing them to attend to two equally strategic fronts. 6

To summarize: Paraguay is a weak state, incapable of securing control of a strategic area and confronting, as we will examine, strong landless peasant movements difficult for it to contain; it has important water and energy resources; it is a central point for control of a region that is seen as key for the global hegemony of the United States.

Internal militarization

Paraguay is undergoing an internal militarization process focused on rural areas.

How has this situation come about? Paraguayan society has undergone three long decades of military dictatorship (1954-1989) led by Stroessner, “descendent of Germans, admirer of Nazis, and protector of escaped European war criminals.” 7 The dictatorship always had the support of the United States because of its persecution of leftist parties and social movements. The regime was supported by the Red Party (Partido Colorado), which during decades maintained strict control over society, from the central government to state and municipal governments, knitting a wide web of social controls that pervaded all levels of society.

At the end of the dictatorship the politicization and social participation of society grew, social movements expanded, above all in rural areas, and as a result, the classic militarization was reduced. The omnipresent Red Party was made more and more illegitimate. It is important to note that political power and latifundismo are strongly related, and at the same time, closely linked to illegal mafia-type businesses. In Paraguay four powerful groups co-exist: transnational capital interests, among whom are included the soy farmers (closely linked to the U.S. corporations Cargill and Monsanto); the latifundistas or large estate owners; drug lords, who control extensive terrain where they grow marijuana and ingredients for cocaine; and the pseudo-businessmen (in Spanish, called empresaurios) that form part of or benefit the government. 8 There is no real business community, because each time that there was an industrialization process, as in the majority of South American countries, the empresaurios benefit from biased public works elicitations, contraband, and the misuse of public funds. 9

The militarization and para-militarization of the Paraguayan countryside is related to the rise of the peasant farmers’ movement and the expansion of soy cultivation, which is not grown on the lands of the large landowners, but of the small farmer. Transgenic soy began expanding in the 1999-2000 agricultural season. It is the second wave of intensive agriculture; the first was in the 70s, with the entrance of Brazilian farmers that expanded the traditional soy-farming border from the southern Brazilian states. Paraguayan sociologist Tomás Palau assures that “without the availability of regulated lands, the soy borders will expand over peasant lands, converted pastures, and the rest of the country.” 10 The progression of cultivated land is surprising. In 1995, 800,000 hectares of soy were cultivated; in 2003 it reached 2 million. In the same production period the yield went from 2.3 million tons to 4.5 million tons. In the same decade the extension of the cotton crops—those that sustain the small- and medium-size farmers—fell 20%, and the volume of production was cut in half.

Palau considers the two effects of the soy explosion: environmental, worsening the disappearance of the last pockets of forest in the eastern region and the indiscriminate use of herbicide and pesticide; and social, that “had dramatic results in a country that was undergoing an accelerated process of impoverishment and now must attend to a massive expulsion of farming families from their lands.” It is estimated that 25% of rural Paraguayans live in absolute poverty. The country suffered, according to Palau, a triple loss of sovereignty. “It depends on the exports of a single product (soy) whose seeds will be provided by a single business (Monsanto);” it loses territorial sovereignty, seeing that large pieces of land are acquired by foreigners, especially Brazilians, the so-called “brasiguayos;” and also a loss of food sovereignty, as the monoculture substitutes the diversity of subsistence crops grown by farming families.

In the 90s, as the peasant land struggle intensified, the landed members of the Asociación Rural (Rural Association) began to create armed groups. “In 1996, when peasant occupations intensified, they created a parallel organization, the Commission for the Defense of Private Property, which in reality was a paramilitary organization.” 11

In 2002, the National Peasant Federation counted 36 deaths among its members, 20 at the hands of armed civilians and the rest by the police at roadblocks and evictions. 12 That year the social movement, whose backbone is the peasant movement, had managed to stop the privatizations thanks to the potent national protests led by the MCNOC (National Coordinating Body for Peasant Organizations) and the FNC (National Peasant Federation) that for a time formed the People’s Democratic Congress (CDP).

With Nicanor Duarte Frutos’ rise to the presidency in August of 2003, a situation was produced that can be summed up as a neoliberal contra-offensive, a closer relationship to the United States, and the militarization of social protest. That year the government emitted decree 167 that “authorizes the armed forces to act in internal security tasks, collaborating with the national police.” 13 In November 2004 the government decided to take the military to rural areas to contain the wave of landless peasant occupations. In February 2005, 18 new military outposts were created in the interior of the country, particularly in the states of San Pedro, Concepción, Caazapá, and Guairá, precisely the area of most peasant organization presence. 14

During this period, under the secretary of the interior, the Citizens Security Council (Consejos de Seguridad Ciudadana) was created that operates mainly in rural areas. They have a pyramid structure: each 20-member group has a leader (according to accusations they are led by members of the Red Party and delinquents); then a District Council, a State Council, and ultimately a National Council that is led by the secretary of the interior. Currently, as confirmed by peasant organizations, the parallel security groups, really paramilitary groups armed by the State and promoted by large estate owners and soy plantations, have nearly 22,000 members. State security agencies have about 9,000 police and 13,000 in the armed forces, which leads to the conclusion that the Citizen Security Councils have as many armed men as the sum of the two main state forces. According to data recorded by the international mission of CADA (Campaign for the Demilitarization of the Americas), they receive training from members of SouthCom. “Soy businessmen are supported by a company called Guardias Rurales S. A. to evict and take over rural lands, to the extent that they refer to ‘liberated zones’ where the State forces don’t intervene.” 15

A demonstration of the will of President Duarte Frutos is derived from his speech on September 30 of 2004, when seven landless peasant settlements were dismantled in the state of San Pedro, one of the most conflicted areas in the country. He warned that they should stop invading lands because if they didn’t, they would suffer the consequences: “Someone will come to rape your women and children and you will have to shut up. They will give you a taste of your own medicine, violence.” 16

All points to the idea that peasants and Indians are a bother to be eradicated, seeing as their presence impedes business and the imperial domination plans. In 1989 the rural population was 67% of the total population of Paraguay, having dropped to 49% in 2002, and approximately 47% in 2006. For the first time in history, the majority of Paraguayans live in cities. Or, better put, in the ring of slums around Asunción, where they have been pushed by soy monoculture. Also, 120 people immigrate daily out of the country; 1.5 million live in Argentina. According to Tomás Zayas, director of the National Network of Indigenous and Popular Organizations (CENOCIP), the World Bank aspires for the rural population in 2015 to be closer to 10-12%, “to produce soy and sugarcane as petroleum substitutes.” 17

United States military presence

The Paraguayan Congress approved law 2594 on May 5, 2005, at the request of the U.S. ambassador, allowing U.S. troops to install themselves and enjoy the same immunity that American diplomats have. The text of the law states that “we equally grant importation and exportation, as well as exemption from inspection and local taxes for products,” and that the Paraguayan and American governments “reciprocally renounce any claim either party could have against the other for personal damage or death of its civilian or military personnel.” 18 The final agreement foresees the development of 13 joint missions between July 1, 2005 and December 31, 2006. The objective is to train the Paraguayan military for anti-terrorism and narco-traffic, as it is assumed that the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC) could be active in Paraguay through the group Patria Libre (Free Country), and that drug trafficking activities exist.

SouthCom landed 400 marines in Paraguay on July 1. 19 A few days later the Paraguayan press reported that the FBI would be installing itself as well, as soon as 2007. 20 In July the first military exercises began, consisting of instructing Paraguayan military members in anti-terrorism and anti-drug tactics. Near the end of July the first medical operations began (known as Medrete, Medical Readiness Education and Training Exercises), led by U.S. troops. The ambassador in Asunción, John F. Keane, denies that his country plans to establish a military base in Paraguay. July 27, while 46 U.S. troops were undertaking a medical operation near the Brazilian border, the army mobilized 300 parachutists that simulated the takeover of the Itaipú dam in a “lightening” operation, considered by the press to be “a suggestive demonstration of force” that they qualified as “without precedent.” 21 August 17, Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Asunción and met with the Paraguayan government, assuring that it is a “serious government that supports democracy,” but also expressed concern about “regional instability.” 22 The previous day, the subsecretary of the Treasury for the fight against financing of terrorism, Daniel Glaser, assured that “there is terrorism being financed at the Tri-Border.” 23

The permanent U.S. military presence in Paraguay consists of small groups of around 50 troops that stay for a period of weeks or months, and are then replaced. The Mariscal Estigarribia military airport, built in the 80s with help from the United States, is not currently a military base. The landing strip is 3,800 meters long and 70 meters wide, the biggest in the country, and is prepared to receive large aircraft such as Galaxy and B-52s. In the area, the heart of the unpopulated Chaco, reside about 2,000 people, of whom 300 belong to the Third Corps of the Paraguayan military. Regardless, the base could become operative at any time. It’s close to the Argentine provinces of Salta and Formosa and barely 250 kilometers from Bolivia‘s hydrocarbon deposits.

However, all indicates that the United States seeks to position itself at the tri-country border. Many diplomats have mentioned in the last decade that it is a “dangerous” place. In October of 2005, the director of the FBI, Robert Muller, confirmed in Asunción that the tri-border is a location of “fundraising that in some circumstances could be used to finance terrorist activities in different parts of the world.” 24 In June of 2006 General John Craddock, head of SouthCom, made an inspection visit to the tri-border. Finally, June 12 the House of Representatives of the United States approved, at the insistence of the Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the presentation to the Organization of American States of a plan for “the formation of an anti-terrorist force to control the region” of the tri-border, that includes the cities Foz de Iguazú (Brazil), Puerto Iguazú (Argentina), and Ciudad del Este (Paraguay). 25 Although the proposal does not have the approval of the Senate, in the proposal it mentions that nearly 30,000 Lebanese live in the tri-border area and they could raise funds for Hamas and Hezbollah.

Humanitarian aid

The majority of the operations that U.S. troops realize in Paraguay are “humanitarian” in nature and are performed in the areas of most peasant movement presence, in the strip made up by the states of Concepción, San Pedro, Caaguazú, Itapuá, Alto Paraná, and Misiones. The Medrete operations led by SouthCom are made up of units of between 15 and 30 medical military professionals to give medical attention, dental, and vision care in remote regions not covered by the states. In 2001 SouthCom performed more than 70 Medrete operations, attending to about 200,000 people. 26

In Paraguay Medrete operations—previously called New Horizons—take place in poor rural communities. These operations are opposed by the peasant movements for various reasons:

1. As a result of the immunity agreement, Paraguayan customs does not register or inspect the types of medicines that SouthCom brings into the country, leaving unknown the types of drugs that are being administered to the population. The national health authorities that host Medrete operations give up their capacity to control the medicines given to the people. According to CADA, “a single drug seems to be given collectively, regardless of patients with different complaints.”

2. The communities only receive attention once; it is very rare that Medrete returns to the same locations. This way, the supposed “preventative” action that SouthCom claims to have really has no effect and the “humanitarian” action really serves more of a propaganda purpose and gets the population used to contact with U.S. troops.

3. The military personnel do not only treat the population. They fill out a form with information about the person that they take along with their “humanitarian” mission. In the first operation in July 2005 in Canindeyú, only 16 of the 45 military personnel that participated provided attention to the population. 27 The rest participated in non-specified tasks, but testimonials taken by CADA claim that “the additional operations included filming the place, infiltrating the community, and collection of data.”

According to the data available, the “humanitarian” operations form part of the construction of a sort of integrated observation system over the poorest populations, that is, those who could provoke instability.

Many alarms have been sounded by the growing presence of the U.S. military. Eunicio Lima de Figueiredo, head of the Núcleo de Estados Estratégicos de la Universidad Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, stated that the concern exists in Argentina and Brazil that “Paraguay can turn into a huge aircraft carrier in the middle of Mercosur.” 28 The Brazilian chancellor was clear in showing annoyance on several occasions, and at the end of September 2005 the Brazilian army executed a new military operation in Foz de Iguazú with 700 soldiers in a motorized infantry battalion. 29

Regardless, the U.S. military presence has notable differences from previous periods and the image of the “aircraft carrier” does not seem to be an adequate description. The traditional military occupation of a superpower implied a massive presence of troops and therefore the construction of enormous military bases throughout the territory, connected by different means. However, in this phase, large permanent bases with accompanying personnel, although they still exist, are not the only way to operate militarily, now not even the most common. The lack of visibility of the large infrastructure does not mean that the militarization is not progressing.

Currently the militarization is moving forward by creating “scenarios” (such as the image of the terrorist presence at the tri-border, or accusing the peasant movements of destabilizing or allying with terrorism) and forming an actual network of small and mini-facilities—that do not operate as “foreign military bases” because their new technologies allow them to be more flexible—so they can become active at a precise moment. In addition to buildings and housing it is also necessary to discuss movements, and above all, potential. In Paraguay enormous infrastructures are combined—such as the Mariscal Estibarribia airbase—with humanitarian operations, small facilities, and internal militarization of the country.

Peasant movements

Paraguay has the worst land distribution on the continent: 1% of the property owners control 77% of the land. Forty percent of farmers with less than five hectares have barely 1% of the land. Approximately 350,000 families are considered landless, while 351 landowners concentrate 9.7 million hectares. Paraguay is the world’s fourth largest soy exporter, which occupies 64% of their cultivated land.

In the 60s the Ligas Agrarias Cristianas (Agrarian Christian Leagues) came about, and were broken down by repression in 1976. In 1980 a new stage began with the creation of the Movimiento Campesino Paraguayo (Paraguayan Peasant Movement, in Spanish, MCP) and in 1986 the Coordinadora Nacional de Productores Agrícolas (National Coordination of Agricultural Products, CONAPA). As a result of the cotton crisis in 1993, a crop upon which small farmers depended, the Coordinadora Interdepartamental de Organizaciones Campesinas (Interstate Commission of Peasant Organizations) was formed, and held a march where 20,000 farmers participated in Asunción in March of 1994. That same year it turned into Mesa Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC) and remained as such until 1997, when it fractured and the Federación Nacional Campesina (National Peasant Federation, FNC) arose. In 1997, MCNOC separated from the Christian Organización Nacional Campesina (National Peasant Organization, ONAC) and the Central Nacional de Organizaciones Indígenas y Populares (National Center for Indigenous and Popular Organizations, CENOCIP). The strongest movements are MCNOC and FNC, the first linked to the Convergencia Popular Socialista Party and to Vía Campesina, and the latter, declaring itself Marxist-Leninist, is linked to the Paraguay-Pyahurá Party.

The combined peasant movement includes about 30,000 families, around 150,000 people. MCNOC has around 600 Committees made up of producers and the FNC has a large base of Grassroots Committees. The first participates in the Frente Nacional de Lucha por la Soberanía y la Vida (National Front for Sovereignty and Life), and the second in the Frente por el Patrimonio y los Bienes Públicos (Front for Heritage and Public Property). A women’s organization also exists, the Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones de Mujeres Rurales e Indígenas (National Coordinating Body for Rural and Indigenous Women’s Organizations, CONAMURI). Peasant movements have testified to 100 deaths resulting from repression and 2,000 prosecutions since 1989.

Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina and adviser to several grassroots organizations. He is a monthly contributor to the IRC Americas Program (

End Notes

  1. Mariano Aguirre, “Al borde del abismo: los estados frágiles,” CIP, Spain, 2004, in

  2. Tom Barry, “New Priorities for SouthCom,” June 2005, IRC Americas Program,

  3. The binational hydroelectric dam at Itaipú (Paraguay-Brazil) is the largest in the world, providing 24% of Brazil‘s energy and 95% of Paraguay‘s.

  4. In 1865 Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, encouraged by the British empire and the Baring Brothers Bank, began a genocidal war against Paraguay. Paraguay was the only country on the continent that had built up an important level of economic development without imperial political influences.

  5. Ana Esther Ceceña and Carlos Ernesto Motto, ob. cit. p. 11.

  6. Raúl Zibechi “Estados Unidos-Brasil: sorda rivalidad regional,” La Jornada, August 26, 2005.

  7. “Guía del Mundo 2003-2004,” Instituto del Tercer Mundo, Montevideo, 2003, p. 456.

  8. Tomás Palau, “El movimiento campesino en el Paraguay” in Marielle Palau and Arístides Ortiz, ob. cit. pp. 22-23.

  9. Idem.

  10. Tomás Palau, “Capitalismo agrario y expulsión campesina,” Ceidra, Asunción, 2004, p. 25.

  11. Diego Piñeiro, ob. cit. p. 149.

  12. Idem.

  13. CADA, “Conclusiones generales de la Misión de Internacional de Observación,” Asunción, July 20, 2006.

  14. “Derechos Humanos en Paraguay,” ob. cit. p. 494.

  15. CADA, ob. cit.

  16. OSAL Magazine, No. 15, December 2004, p. 145.

  17. Interview of Tomás Zayas (CENOCIP) by the Misión Internacional of CADA, Asunción, July 17, 2006.

  18. Law 2.564 as cited by Ana Esther Ceceña and Carlos Ernesto Motto, ob. cit. p. 25.

  19. Santiago Millán, ob. cit. p. 112.

  20. Ultima Hora, July 13, 2005, p. 7.

  21. ABC, July 28, 2005.

  22. ABC, August 18, 2005.

  23. Cable de AFP fechado en Buenos Aires el August 16, publicado en ABC, August 17, 2005.

  24. ABC, October 28, 2005.

  25. Ultima Hora, July 19, 2006.

  26. At

  27. ABC, July 25, 2005, p. 6.

  28. Ultima Hora, September 14, 2005.

  29. Ultima Hora, September 29, 2005.

Translated for the IRC Americas Program by Katie Kohlstedt, IRC.

Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several grassroots organizations. He is a monthly contributor to the IRC Americas Program (


For More Information

Barry, Tom, ” U.S. Southern Command’s New Security Strategy ,” Americas Program, June 2005, .

Campaña por la Desmilitarización de las Américas (CADA), “Presencia militar de los Estados Unidos en Paraguay,” Asunción, CADA, 2006.

CADA, “Conclusiones generales de la Misión Internacional de Observación,” Asunción, July 20, 2006.

Ceceña, Ana Esther y Motto, Carlos Ernesto, Paraguay: eje de la dominación del Cono Sur, Observatorio Latinoamericano de Geopolítica, Buenos Aires, 2005.

CODEHUPY, Derechos Humanos en Paraguay 2005, Codehupy, Asunción, 2005.

Millán, Santiago (comp.), Las tropas norteamericanas y la geografia del saqueo, BASE-IS, Asunción, 2005.

Palau, Marielle y Ortiz, Arístides, “Movimientos sociales y expresión política,” BASE-IS/SEPA/-SPP, 2005.

Palau, Tomás, Avance del monocultivo de soja en el Paraguay, Ceidra, Asunción, 2004.

Piñeiro, Diego, En busca de la identidad. La acción colectiva en los conflictos agrarios de América Latina, Clacso, Buenos Aires, 2004.

Riquelme, Quintín, Los sin tierra en Paraguay, Clacso, Buenos Aires, 2003.

ABC (diario de Asunción):

BASE Investigaciones Sociales:

CEIDRA (Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones de Derecho Rural y Reforma Agraria):

CABICHUI (web alternativa):

CODEHUPY (Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay):