Police Repression and Presidential Promises: The Fight for Social Justice in Paraguay

Despite brutal police violence, on November 6, campesinos celebrated the victorious ending of a three day long mass mobilization. Some five thousands campesinos from all over Paraguay gathered in the capital city of Asuncion to celebrate what constitutes a first victory for the campesino and landless movement in Paraguay.


Photos of police repression in Asuncion, Nov 5

Despite brutal police violence, on November 6, campesinos celebrated the victorious ending of a three day long mass mobilization. Some five thousands campesinos from all over Paraguay gathered in the capital city of Asuncion to celebrate what constitutes a first victory for the campesino and landless movement in Paraguay.

The crowd’s chants of “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” [the people united will never be defeated] and “reforma agraria: urgente y necesaria” [agrarian Reform: urgent and necessary] urged recently elected President Fernando Lugo to represent the campesino movement and also denounced the vestiges of corrupt and conservative structure of the Stroessner dictatorship that continues to prevent true and democratic change in Paraguay.

What happened in this small country in South America is an enormous success to be highlighted in the midst of a global economic, energy and food crisis. In a small country that rarely makes it to the headlines in the international media, last week Paraguayans lived the beginning of a promising historic victory after campesinos mobilized for three consecutive days to demand their first truly democratically elected president in over 60 years to represent the needs of the landless Paraguayan campesinos to put an end to criminalization, violence and repression.

Hundreds of trucks, buses and other vehicles arrived in Asuncion last Tuesday from a number of provinces. Decentralized actions like street blockades, demonstrations and protests in front of key institutions and government buildings took place also in other parts of Paraguay. During the celebration at the end of the mobilizations, it felt like the country had returned to April 20th of this year, when Paraguayans celebrated as never before, hoping that finally democracy had come. Even though the Stroessner dictatorship had come to an end in 1989, many, if not the majority in Paraguay, reject the idea that 1989 marked the beginning of democracy, because since then Paraguayans have been living under the rule of the same corrupt leaders in power: the Colorado Party.

Of course, victory never comes easily. On the second day of mobilization, the police in front of the building of the State General Attorney brutally repressed protesters by beating them, spreading tear gas and shooting rubber bullets from very short distances, resulting in sixty people injured, including women and children. 

 Demands from the Frente Social y Popular (FSP)

ImageThe November 4th through 6th mobilization was coordinated by the Social and Popular Front (Frente Social y Popular -FSP). Born after President Lugo’s election, the FSP unites over a hundred organizations, representing small farmers, indigenous peoples, trade unions, women, homeless people, child laborers, students, among other groups, and functions as a “forum to summarize the debates, analyses and proposals of the social sectors and to report them to the government in order to secure a publicly accountable policy which truly works in the interest of the poor and excluded” and a “platform designed to represent the organizations and the social sectors, and to allow them to influence the policies of the new government based on their grassroots demands.” (See past Upside Down World coverage here). 

The FSP presented six concrete demands. First and foremost, the urgency for a contingent plan to address social needs in order to tackle the increasing levels of poverty in rural Paraguay. Another major demand was the removal of the State Attorney General and the dismissal of the nine members of the Supreme Court of Justice. The FSP also demanded an end to the criminalization of social and campesino movements, beginning with the liberation of campesino leaders and organizers who have been unjustly imprisoned as a result of arbitrary detentions. Other demands were the promotion of an integral agrarian reform, the recognition and approval by Congress of the thirteen agreements signed with Venezuela and, last but not least, a demand for energy sovereignty through the re-negotiation of the controversial Itaipú treaty, which is a point of tension between Paraguay and the big and powerful neighboring countries of Brazil and Argentina. 

 The Grassroots and Lugo

Different campesino organizations are divided about the level of support and patience deserved by President Lugo. He owes his electoral victory to a grassroots base that believed in him, and initially found hope in his position as Executive. There are those who will unconditionally support him because they are aware that Lugo is alone in the middle of a political structure that could coalesce anytime to take him out of power to preserve the privileges they have maintained for six decades. The majority of campesinos, however, will not stand passively waiting for Lugo to lead in matters that they have an urgent stake in. Campesinos are aware that without their continued pressure and support, Lugo’s will turn out to be yet another administration that has gained a continuation of the same policies that have protected the private property of large landowners and the profits of international agribusinesses. Campesino communities need Lugo to take immediate action to stop the exponential growth of the agroexport industry, which is currently poisoning entire communities with agro-toxins and benefiting from the ongoing brutal repression of community members during evictions and protests, and to stop the criminalization of the campesino struggle for food and land sovereignty.

Victory of the Campesino Movement

ImageMany times during these last couple of days I head that “democracy started last week in Paraguay,” and as all representative and participative democracies, it will face strong challenges. President Fernando Lugo himself will have to overcome numerous obstacles that will threaten not only his decision-making power, but also his compromise with the broad coalition that allowed his electoral victory, and most importantly, his commitment to a grassroots base that counts on him as their only hope of putting an end to decades of neglect and injustice. The powerful landowners, the majority being soy growing brasiguayos, Brazilians living and working in Paraguay for many years, will not let the campesino victory go unchallenged.

During the brutal repression on November 5th in Asuncion, President Fernando Lugo was traveling from the US to Mexico and arrived only on the evening of the last day of the mobilization without having publicly commented on the committed crimes. Even though he was absent during most of the mobilization and also during previous tense situations in the interior of the country, his meeting last Thursday with leaders from the FSP resulted in the first major victory for the Frente and the diverse and numerous sectors it represents.

As a result of the intense pressure from the successful mobilization and last Wednesday’s meeting between the main campesino leaders and various ministries of Lugo’s administration, the government agreed to establish an emergency and contingency plan for the rural sector and promised to invest in accessibility to food, drinkable water and electricity. Another major success was the government’s commitment to create a National Advisory for Agrarian Reform, which will be supported by the Ministries of Agriculture, Education, Public Health, and Infrastructure, among others. Most importantly, this advisory will be chaired by the National Institution for Rural and Land Developement, the INDERT (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Rural y de la Tierra), which is responsible for public policies concerning campesinos, especially access to and distribution of land.

ImageThe FSP proposed a Social Emergency Plan that promotes the active involvement of a number of state institutions in order to find sustainable and integral solutions and policies that address the root causes of the rural crisis, rather than band-aid or short-term solutions.  Among the measures they proposed are: the distribution of seeds to farmers for the purpose of self-sufficiency and land recuperation; access to tools and credit; dialogue rather than repression; recuperation of illegally sold state lands and a return to their right owners through agrarian reform; a participatory budget; a tax to soy and large landholdings; and the careful respect for and enforcement of environmental laws in order to contain the aggressive advance of Genetically Modified soy monocultures which has resulted in deaths, malformations in children, and serious damages to people’s health and the environment due to the abusive use of agrochemicals.

As the National Attorney General refused to resign from his position, there was an agreement for beginning a process of impeachment. The dismissal of the members of not only the State Attorney General but also the members of Supreme Court of Justice is essential for democratic change in Paraguay since these institutions incite the criminalization of social movements through arbitrary detention of campesino leaders and organizers, violent land evictions, and repression during demonstrations and protests. They are not alone, since the local general attorneys in the various departments play their part as accomplices in such injustices in order to protect the property and profits of the large foreign landowners and agribusinesses.

Soy Bean Wars in Paraguay: How Far in the U.S. Backyard?

There is no better example of Washington’s continued policy of interventionism in Latin American democratic changes than the critical situation currently experienced by Bolivia. It is well known that the United States has a long history of masterminding and financially supporting acts of terrorism in foreign soil when the empire’s sees its “national security” (that is, the rights of foreign investors) as under threat.

The opposition’s violent attacks on Bolivia’s vibrant democracy are a terrible reminder of the power that our front yard neighbor still believes to be entitled to have over our sovereignty in the south. The results of this neocolonial agenda visible in the current conflict in Bolivia are also a wake-up call for the state of affairs in a smaller, neighboring country which is rarely in the headlines: Paraguay. Here we can easily point to a thread of U.S. efforts to destabilize the region. We hear little to nothing in the U.S. media about Paraguay, yet for more than 15 years Paraguayan peasant and indigenous communities have been fighting for their lives in of the most unheard of wars: the “soybean wars.” Soybeans in Paraguay are symbolic of the legacy of a U.S.-backed dictatorship and of U.S. economic interests, specifically those of agribusinesses. A convergence of economic and geo-political interests have made Paraguay a strategically significant stronghold for the U.S. in the region.

Paraguay has been a strategic ally in two of profitable wars of the U.S.: the war on terrorism and the war on drugs. In addition, as a member of Mercosur, Paraguay was at one point attractive to the U.S. for advancing the now dead agenda of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Its biodiversity and wealth in one of the world’s most precious resources, water, also makes Paraguay of special concern to the United States. It takes only a magic combination of terms like ‘land reform’ and ‘justice for the poor’ for Washington to panic in fear of facing another “red threat,” and Chavez’s influence in the region.

Since his election, President Fernando Lugo has shifted sides from left to left of center, placing himself first along the lines of Chavez, Morales and Correa, to a more moderate stand like that of Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez and Chile’s Bachelet. The inconvenient truth is that, despite being the executive, there is little he can do to make changes within a power structure that has been in place for over sixty years. The interests that continue to control the country in order to maintain the status quo, especially those of the large landowners, soy producers and agribusinesses are currently fighting a silent war to overpower the social and grassroots movements of urban homeless (“los sin techo”) and rural landless (“los sin tierra”) peoples in Paraguay.

Rural Violence

ImageLast month Leticia Galeano, a young student and campesina leader with the People’s Agrarian Movement (MAP- Movimiento Agrario y Poupular) in the department of Caaguazu in Paraguay, went on a speaking tour of the United States. In a number of cities throughout the U.S, she shared the story of the ongoing soybean wars in Paraguay, one of land conflict, the impact of fumigations, disparities, criminalization and repression of the social movements, and the struggle for land and food sovereignty, with universities and colleges, communities, grassroots activists, human rights groups, and NGOs. During her time in the US, her campesino organization (MAP), her community as well as other campesino communities in Paraguay, were the target of more violent evictions, repression, and death threats, resulting in many wounded and one death in the province of Alto Paraná.   

On October 3rd, Bienvenido Melgarejo, a landless peasant in the district of Mbaracayu, also a member of the Farmers’ Association in Alto Paraná (ASAGRAPA) became another victim of the of the fight for justice and land sovereignty in Paraguay at the hands of soy producers and the federal police. Sadly, the politics of criminalization and the repression of the campesino struggle continue under Lugo’s administration.

Also, in the districts of Vaquería and Yhu, ongoing threats were on the rise as leaders from MAP mobilized against soy expansion by occupying lands illegally held by foreign landowners. Campesino leaders from the MAP have received direct death threats, and were targeted by the governor himself. Such violence corresponds to campesino movements’ increased mobilization since Lugo assumed power in hopes that he will follow through with promises of agrarian reform. Lugo’s recent condemnation, during the United Nations General Assembly, of the fumigation of people with agrichemicals, especially children, as "terrorism," has infuriated soy producers and added to their rage against campesinos.

World Witnesses

International allies and partners have been accompanying campesino leaders in their communities due to the current tension and fear that soy producers will keep up with their threats that there will be bloodshed. Earlier this month a small School of Americas Watch delegation from the United States visited Paraguay on a mission to request that President Lugo cease to send Paraguayan military to the commonly known “School of Assassins” (SOA/WHINSEC). During their visit, the delegation also learned about the current social and political climate of Paraguayan by meeting with various leaders from campesino organizations and visiting a number of communities in rural Paraguay to hear first-hand the stories of criminalization and repression of the campesino movement.

This is a crucial time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the social movements in Paraguay as organized civil society groups. A united grassroots movement remains the only hope for President Fernando Lugo to make real change and to maintain his electoral promises. International solidarity is also vital to exert pressure to hold Lugo responsible for the protection of the human rights of the people who have supported him from the beginning.

As campesinos continue to mobilize to express their support and exert pressure on the government to meet their demands, it is important that the world witness these important times in order for real change to happen in Paraguay.

Militarization in Paraguay and Stroessner’s Legacy

ImageIt is well known throughout Latin America and around the world that national security for the United States is synonym of securing the interests of the Hill-controlling, powerful transnational corporations through the criminalization of social movements that constitute a threat to the flow of profits from the exploitation of natural resources. Despite the fact that a CRS report released two years ago stated that there was no knowledge of operation cells of Islamic terrorists in the hemisphere, the State Department’s annual Country Reports on terrorism included Latin America in the region due to alleged concerns over terrorist threats, mainly domestic and also pointing at the fact that Latin American countries have been home to international terrorist battlegrounds.


Different from the interventions of the 1980s, at a first glance U.S. interest and role in Paraguay responds to alleged Islamic terrorist networks (activities of Lebanon group Hizballah and the Sunni Muslim Palestinian group Hamas) in the triple frontier (the tri-border area shared by Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil), and to narcotraffic networks and the suppose extension of Colombia’s FARC in Paraguay.


It is under this pretext that through the U.S. Department of State provides Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) through training and equipment to Paraguay, as well as to other Latin American countries to help improve their capabilities in a variety of areas, including airport security management, hostage negotiations, bomb detection and deactivation, and counter-terrorism financing. Since 1997 there has been an increase in assistance to Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay in light of increased U.S. concerns over the mentioned activities in the triple frontier. 


For Anti-Terrorism Assistance provided to the Western Hemisphere in Fiscal Year 2007, Paraguay, with $475,000, was only 3rd to Colombia. In fiscal year 2008, the number was reduced to $268,000. Military cooperation, however, increased from FY 2007 to FY 2008, specifically on international military education and training (from 44,000 for FY2007 to an estimate of 190,000 for FY2008 and a request for $350,000 for FY 2009).

Perhaps unintentionally, the justification for funding and “assistance” to Paraguay perfectly explains the true reasoning behind the U.S. interest in Paraguay, that of its private investors: "As a hub for international criminal activity, including drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, document forgery, trafficking in persons, and intellectual property rights violations, Paraguay continues to be an important partner against transnational crime. According to the Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations in 2009, the United States will focus primarily on improving the following areas: rule of law and good governance; trade and investment; private sector competitiveness."


During the 35 years of dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner, the U.S. played an accomplice role with the support of the bloody Condor Operation, for which Paraguay became the center of intelligence exchange among the three repressive countries including Chile and Argentina. Today, the U.S. military presence is allegedly humanitarian with a number of exercises in key regions. Military cooperation between the US and Paraguay also comes in the form of the country’s graduates from the School of Americas, where trainees are indoctrinated in “National Security,” the same doctrine that caused for the disappearance and assassination of hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Today the excuse is the fight against terrorism. Currently, SOA graduates hold positions of military power (minister of defense, etc) in Paraguay and exercises within the country continue.

There is an indirect link between US exercises and the violence against peasant communities in Paraguay in order to control the territory, or more specifically, to maintain the control of the land, characterized today by the fact that approximately eighty per cent of the land is in the hands of just two percent of the population. According to a study prepared by Serpaj Paraguay (Servicios de Paz y Justicia), the presence of the US Army through SOUTHCOM manifests itself through military exercises and visits to areas where there is a predominant presence of peasant organizations, GM soy monoculture plantations and agrotoxic fumigations.

ImageWhen one cross-posts data on the number of campesinos that have been killed in the period between 2002 and 2005, the presence of Paraguayan military forces, campesino organizations in a number of key departments (or states), and US military operations in Paraguay in those departments, there are some striking coincidences. In the department of San Pedro for example, there were 4 campesino organizations during that period. At the same time, there was also the highest number of US military operations. Strikingly, the number of deaths also coincides with these numbers being the highest with 18 deaths. During that same period, in Alto Paraná, home to the campesino organization ASAGRAPA and where the most recent assassination took place, there were 7 campesino organizations, 3 U.S. military operations, and 12 deaths. In Caaguazú, home for the district of Vaquería and Yhu where death threats are on the increase, there were 4 campesino organizations, including MAP, and seventeen deaths.

Even though Paraguay is not under a dictatorship per se, a number of social movement leaders in Paraguay have pointed at the fact that the transition to democracy brought no change to the political power structure, as we can see in the ongoing repression to those who dare speak up against the ongoing corruption and impunity of criminalization and repression.  

Going after so called “terrorist havens” in allegedly “authoritarian and populist” regimes in order to “defend democracy and the rule of law” is nothing but the violation of people’s sovereignty and the continuation of misguided foreign policy decisions over what ground-up, grassroots, participatory democracy and human rights really mean.

Terrorist networks or terrorizing with fumigations?

ImageDepending on who tells the story, terrorism has a different face. For the most marginalized communities and peoples from the global south it may well be the everyday struggle to have food on the table, to strive for a piece of land or simply to be able to enjoy the basic right to breath a clean air, as it is the case of Paraguay. During her speaking tour, Leticia Galeano shared the unjust story of the slow annihilation of entire communities, either by literally fumigating them to death, or strategically driving farmers out of their land by trapping them into debt, buying them off their land with absolutely unfair and deceitful amounts of money, thus exacerbating migration to urban slums, and the slow ethnocide of a traditional and indigenous rural culture of subsistence family farmers.

Among Leticia’s stories was the case of a family who lost a child only two months old from a case of hydrocephaly, other children with birth defects, premature abortions, numerous cases of cancer, and respiratory, vision and dermatological illnesses as a result of the industrial fumigations with matatodo [kill-all], as farmers call Monsanto’s pesticide cocktail ‘RoundUp.’  

The reality behind US military assistance to Paraguay, allegedly humanitarian in character and directed towards funding anti-terrorism programs, is that these are nothing but excuses to maintain a stronghold in a territory that has been under unrestrained control of the agribusiness sector for decades. The three major agribusinesses in Paraguay are U.S. transnational corporations: agribusinss giants Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge and Cargill, and the genetically modified seeds guru Monsanto.

Today, in the midst of a global food and energy crisis, U.S. agribusinesses have made record profits through the expansion of large-scale industrial monoculture production of Monsanto’s genetically modified soy at the expense of local communities, human rights and the environmental. It is no coincidence that the most organized campesinos and indigenous communities in Paraguay have the higher number of killings. With yet another newly elected progressive President, as part of a wave of left and left-of-center leaders throughout Latin America, who promises of land reform, there is a challenge of the corporate-grab and hence a need for support for Paraguayan social movements that continue to confront injustices and impunity.

ImageThe Paraguayan struggle for sovereignty of land, food and life itself needs the solidarity of the international community. Too little attention has been paid to the rampant impunity in cases of human rights violations. Sadly, impunity has the tendency to be the rule rather than the exception.

More and more people are challenging the destructive industrialized agricultural model by constructing local and regional alternatives with a vision for food sovereignty worldwide. As momentum grows in the United States around truly local, sustainable and fair food systems, it is also crucial that the north stand in solidarity with movements in the global south that are actively pursuing these same alternatives and confronting the interests that oppose them—often in the face of violence and repression.

As the world sees hope for change in the recent US-elections and the grassroots mobilizes to demand fair and human policies towards Latin America it is crucial to remember the special role the US played in the past and realize the connection with today’s ever powerful remains of the Stroessner regime.