Political and Social Crisis in Paraguay

In his inaugural speech this past August, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo clearly positioned himself on the side of the socially weak and excluded.  However, there is a high risk of rapid, far-reaching social change failing, not just because of the united rejection by the traditional oligarchy, which is made up of large land owners, the mafia and smugglers, but also as because of the lack of an organized social basis for such changes. 


All Photos by ASAGRAPA

On August 15, 2008, Fernando Lugo was officially and formally inaugurated as president of Paraguay. In his inaugural speech, he clearly positioned himself on the side of the socially weak and excluded.  The following day he traveled with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to the inauguration of Jose Ledesma ‘Pakova’ (Guarani for banana since Jose is a banana grower), a long-standing political ally of Lugo’s, as the new governor of San Pedro, a department which has dealt with many land conflicts.

However, there is a high risk of rapid, far-reaching social change failing, not just because of the united rejection by the traditional oligarchy, which is made up of large land owners, the mafia and smugglers, but also as because of the lack of an organized social basis for such changes.  Unfortunately, Lugo’s electoral victory has not stopped the divisions within social movements. One can hope that, given the urgent problems faced by the majority of the population, ‘leaders’ of social movements will come to understand that only a movement which is united in all its diversity will have the strength to create a new country and society.

The biggest problem faced by the new government is the burden inherited from the previous system and its continuing influence in the legislative and judicial institutions.  The parliament is dominated by a majority of politicians from the Colorado Party, followers of General Oveido, and Liberals.  The latter are members of the Alliance for Change, but on concrete issues they often represent and defend the positions of the traditional ruling sectors.  Furthermore, the public institutions have been effectively plundered in order to fill the electoral coffers of the Colorado Party, or simply to deprive the new government of financial means.  Many ministries have already nearly used up their annual budget and are having to wait for the 2009 budget in order to ‘properly’ start their work.  This, of course, is fuelling social unrest which the Colorado Party, having lost power, seeks to channel in order to soon regain the governance of Paraguay.  Within the ministries, only the leadership has been changed.  This means that a majority of the people working in government ministries have kept their jobs and will practice at least passive resistance within the institutions.  The Ministry of Justice is a bulwark of the Colorado Party, where they have perfected their reach over many years.  All members of the Supreme Court were nominated according to Nicanor Duarte Frutos’ orders. There are not even the bare bones of an independent judiciary branch in the sense of a traditional division of powers.  The main strength of the government is thus the support and trust of many social sectors that associate their hopes for social change with the Lugo government.

 Nonetheless, the situation will become dangerous and critical unless the government succeeds in responding in a quick and concrete way to the most urgent social problems.  If the government’s ability to function and the macroeconomic framework are based on the demands of the excluded, conflicts will be inevitable and can easily be manipulated by the opposition.  In the cities, movements of excluded people represent homeless people (Sin Techos) and in the countryside they represent landless people (Sin Tierras).  A lot of maturity, consciousness, responsibility and discipline will be required of the social organizations.

Overall, one can conclude that the new government does not signify structural change but can instead be classed as a transition process, which offers different social actors the opportunity to organize and to build their strength.

The Social and Popular Front


Farmer Bienvenido Melgarejo, killed Oct 3 by national police

After the electoral victory on April 20, the Frente Social y Popular was created 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.  The FSP unites more than one hundred organizations.  Amongst them are small farmers, indigenous peoples, trade unions, women’s organizations, homeless people, child laborers, artists, students, pensioners, small and medium-sized businesses and the social programs of the Catholic Church.  The FSP is not some official quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization.  It is 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.  In this spirit, an agricultural emergency plan has been drafted which aims for the revival of peasant farming.  Unfortunately, this has not yet been accepted by the new Ministry of Agriculture.  The new Minister for Agriculture, Candido Vera Bejarano, is a man without a vision who wants to use genetic engineering to save the world from hunger.  The strings are pulled by his Japanese vice minister, Henry Moriya and, behind the scenes, by people from the German Ministry for Technical Co-operation (GTZ).  In the Land Reform Ministry, INDERT, the FSP found an open ear and was able to get trusted people into the highest positions.  Within INDERT, discussions are now taking place about new forms of land ownerships, since the old model of individual land parcels has allowed land to be forcefully sold out from under the farmers it was given to.

Members of the social movements, or at least people who enjoy their trust, have also succeeded in gaining positions of responsibility in the Ministry of Health, the Office for Indigenous Affairs, INDI, the Environment Ministry and Acción Social, which supports the very poorest people.

Corruption and Plundered Institutions: The Problems of the New Government

One of the biggest problems is that the government has not yet succeeded in finding concrete answers to the grievances of the population.  This is due to the five-month long transition period, between April and August, i.e. since Lugo’s electoral victory and his inauguration. During this period, the state institutions were literally plundered: demolition of infrastructure, plundering of state funds for personal enrichment and the destruction of many data and archives were daily occurrences.  The transition commissions which were set up were not accepted by then president Duarte Frutos and were thus not officially recognized.  Thus, there was no possibility of control, supervision and a proper hand-over of government.

A dramatic example comes from the customs department: recently, documents were found there which prove tax evasion on a scale of $650 million.  Out of this sum, $150 million have been lost forever since the cut-off period for pursuing those taxes has already passed.  Such robberies are common and stand in direct connection with the mafia of businessmen and politicians who rule Paraguay.

The new government has high hopes of accessing money for the process of change, thanks to the two large bi-national hydro dams, Itaipú and Yacyretá. Yet they are finding themselves deeply in the red.  Even the Program for Social Action is in debt because money has continuously been diverted for illegal operations, such as land purchases, offering projects to third parties (party friends charging excessive sums) and for direct payments to the section within the movement of homeless people which supports the former president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos.  Judicial measures and court cases are required to transform this markedly corrupt situation.  Yet, as long as the judiciary is in the hands of the mafia around the former president and Congress is politically impotent, those actions are condemned to failure.  Even the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministerio Público, is clearly in the hands of the Colorado Party and pursues a program of provocation aimed at destabilizing the country.

Free Health Care

The new Minister of Health, Esperanza Martínez, has drawn up a universal free public health program based on social equality and aimed at directly involving community organizations.  One hundred regional health teams are to be set up. The program, which provides assistance to the most vulnerable sectors of the population, involves a more holistic and broader concept of health, and gives higher priority to nutrition and environmental pollution.  The director of the program, Raquel Rodriguez, has considerable experience thanks to her previous work with indigenous peoples and with campaigns against pesticide use.  To facilitate free and universal access to health services, community radios are broadcasting lists of those medicines which have to be provided for free to patients.  All too often health care personnel are selling those medicines to ill informed people in remote areas and pocketing the proceeds.  Yet this institutions, too, faces enormous obstacles.  By August, only 3% of the budget had been used and the remaining 97% will have to be spent in just four months.  Given the institutional framework marked by an excessive bureaucracy, this is practically impossible.  At the international level, some agreements have been reached with Cuba and Venezuela.

Breaking the Power of the Colorado Party in the Education System


Police use horses to intmidate farmers during the eviction

The Ministry of Education is one of the strongest feudal bastions of the Colorado Party.  Even its new minister, Horacio Galeano Perrono, is in the Colorado Party, though at least he is in a wing of the party which has openly supported Lugo.  Right now cases are being prepared that claim former ministers of education under Nicanor Duarte Frutos and Blanca Ovelar embezzled millions of dollars.  The aim is a gradual clean up of the institution.  Thefts are to be exposed and those responsible are to be brought to justice.  Storage depots full of undistributed school materials have been found.  Thousands of books, folders and documentary films financed with international aid had never reached the hands of pupils.  Real improvements, however, can only be expected in 2009.  One of the main priorities is an improvement in the educational curriculum.  Lugo recently convoked a meeting of one thousand school directors, with the aim of taking education out of the hands of the Colorado Party and to move into a democratic direction.

Social Mobilization in the Countryside and Police Repression

There is currently significant mobilization against an agricultural-export model based on intensive genetically modified monocultures.  130 camps of small farmers and landless people exist throughout Paraguay.  In the Department of San Pedro alone there are seventy. Those are on the margins, not inside the large landholdings and thus do not count as trespassing onto private property.  The people in the camps have two goals:

1. Access to land and a new land survey in order to discover illegally acquired public lands.  The authority for land reform, INDERT, has published a report which speaks of nearly eight million hectares of public lands which were illegally handed over to party functionaries, members of the military, and businessmen rather than being distributed to landless farmers.  The landless people demand the expropriation and redistribution of those lands.

2. Mobilization against environmental pollution and the destruction of the conditions necessary for life.  Many communities are mobilizing against their suffering caused by pesticide spraying on soy plantations.  Wetlands and the last remains of forests are also being defended.

Even though the camps are not on private land, the Public Prosecutor is having them evicted and is oppressing the mobilized peasants.  Since August 15, 27 camps have been evicted.  Many people have been arrested and injured; recently there was a serious injury in Choré, San Pedro. In Paraguarí, Sindulfo Britez, a leader of the Paraguayan peasant movement MAP, was murdered in his own house, after having been detained.  In the Department of Caazapá, two hundred peasants remain in detention after an eviction.  In most cases, however, the peasants have retreated in order to avoid direct clashes after the police start evictions.  During those evictions, the tents and belongings of the peasants have been destroyed.  Landless people who refused to leave their tents were arrested.  In view of this violence against mobilized peasants, the FSP initiated a legal action, demanding the replacement of the General Prosecutor and the Supreme Court.  This demand is being supported by the Liberals, the party Patria Querida and the movement Tekojoja.  The parties, however, are now trying to usurp the campaign for their own aims.  At the beginning of September, the FSP mobilized people to go to Asunción when Fernando Lugo unveiled a conspiracy to overthrow his government on television.  This involved a meeting in the house of the former general  Lino César Oviedo, with the ex-president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, the Prosecutor General,  Rubén Candia Amarilla, and Juan Manuel Morales from the Supreme Electoral Court, which had declared Lugo’s electoral victory.  They had invited General Máximo Díaz and asked him what the army thought about the crisis in the senate.  The general replied that this was a political problem, that the army could not voice an opinion and asked to be allowed to leave. The next morning he reported back to the president.  The mobilization by the FSP on September 4 aimed to defend democratic institutions, but also demanded participation in the parliamentary budget debates and free access to information.

Limit Soy Cultivation


Police protecting tractors used for monocultures.

Resistance against extensive soy cultivation in Paraguay has grown.  The pressure from the rural population against the sowing and spraying of soy in their communities has increased enormously.  Large landowners are also increasing their pressure on the government.  They are trying to blame peasant organizations for kidnappings, in order to portray them as terrorists.  In this way they are trying to criminalize the peasants’ struggle for the right to life.  Lugo publicly declared his support for peasant agriculture and has said that soy production should be concentrated in specific areas.  This is a reference to spatial planning, which is a technical response to a political or political and economic question.  One of the obstacles on the path to restricting and zoning soy cultivation is Lugo’s own Minister of Agriculture, Candido Vera Bejarano, who represents the interests of the large land owners and agribusiness.  On September 24, the new president went further in his first speech during a UN Plenary Session in New York.  He spoke out against all forms of terrorism and referred to the “terrorism which in my country affects the children who are dying from pesticides.” This sparked a wave of outrage on the part of the soy lobby.  The chair of the Paraguayan Association of Soy and Oilseed Producers, Claudia Rauser, said she felt discriminated against and called Lugo’s statement “unacceptable since he compared soy producers with terrorists.”  This new conflict coincides with the time that soy is sown or that seeds are being prepared with glyphosate.  Peasant groups have already stopped several tractors in the Lima District of San Pedro and peasants have been criminalized as a result.  Tensions are growing every day.  The systemic questions will become ever more urgent in coming weeks, since this is a matter of life or death for peasants and landless families.  If they cannot stop the soy expansion this year then they are destined to lose everything.  Many are talking about giving up if they are defeated.


The social process which has propelled Lugo into the presidency is characterized by his weaknesses and improvisation. It cannot in any way be compared to the process in Bolivia, where the social movements were the engine of change, at least until Evo became president.  Due to this weakness, solidarity and support from outside is extremely necessary as are other political links which could strengthen the process.  During the early days, Lugo positioned himself alongside Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.  Since then he has changed his position and referred to Chile and Uruguay as examples on several occasions.   He gives in, at least verbally, to those who are putting the most pressure on him.  The current regional crisis with the reorganization of a neoliberal, entrepreneurial and even openly fascist right, from Bolivia to Paraguay and Argentina, which has its basis in soy production, threatens the entire democratic and emancipatory process.

The situation for the majority of the population in Paraguay, particularly in rural areas, is extreme.  The urgent needs due to extreme poverty and other problems, including environmental problems, are creating dissent and compelling the government to seek fast and effective answers.  Above all, this concerns land conflicts and the defense of peasant and indigenous territories against the march of the soy monocultures.  Agribusiness’ pressure on the government is very great.  It will not be easy for Lugo to hold on to his support for peasant agriculture in the face of conspiring political groups, the weakness of the public institutions, the lack of key experts and technicians and the urgency of social needs.  All those factors can be exploited relatively easily in order to manipulate public opinion and mobilized groups in society. In order to pass legislation through blocks and boycotts in the legislative, administrative and judicial institutions, the government will have to rely on emergency decrees, as Nestor Kirchner has done in Argentina.  This appears to be the only way of putting the new government’s policy into action.

 In the case of the severe drought in Chaco and the inhuman conditions of the indigenous peoples an emergency has already been declared, in order to avoid bureaucratic hurdles as far as possible and to provide effective help.  Even the traditional Trans-Chaco rally has been postponed indefinitely, leading to protests by entrepreneurial sectors.  Social organizations from the rural areas of the country are demanding a declaration of an agricultural emergency, which they have drafted themselves with help from a few intellectuals who are part of the movements.  This includes key points such as the distribution of farming inputs for food production, the prohibition of pesticide spaying on communal lands, a moratorium on the selling and renting of agricultural reform land and a general amnesty for all 3,000 peasants who have been criminalized due to land conflicts. 

What happens in the next few weeks will be decisive.  The new government will have to be judged by its actions and no longer by its declaration of intentions.  Lugo appears to have the will to protect peasant families from poisoning.  However, the responsible authority, SENAVE, has exactly three vehicles in the whole country for supervising pesticide use.  With nearly three million hectares of soy in the country, that is less than a drop in the ocean.  The defense of the right to exist will thus once more depend on the strength of local organizations in direct conflict with agribusiness.  The presence of 800 heavily armed Brazilian paramilitaries in the east of the country who are protecting soy production can quickly lead to an uncontrollable and very violent situation.  One can hope that the new government will act cleverly and strategically in this tense situation so that Paraguay will be spared an experience like the current one in Bolivia.

This text is based on a discussion about the current state of affairs of Paraguay and the social movements between Jorge Galeano (Movimiento Agrario Popular – MAP) and one of the leaders of Frente Social y Popular (FSP), Braulio Anibal Avalos Romero, a small farmer and human rights activist from San Pedro, Javiera Rulli and Reto Sonderegger.