Pulling up the roots: the struggle for land in Paraguay
Paraguay, located in the heart of South America, is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank. While the country is very reliant on agriculture, a lot of its inequality can be traced to the question of land distribution, which has become a root cause of internal conflict. However, inequality and conflict is nothing new for Paraguay. Since independence, Paraguay has gone through several bloody wars, the longest military dictatorship on the continent and a fragile democratization process. Today, the country’s political climate is strongly affected by a complex rural situation, where mass expansion of corporate monocultures is thriving and violent persecution of small farmers is systemic.
The Paraguayan Context
Exploitation and interference by foreign and regional actors have characterized much of Paraguay’s history. After Paraguay gained independence from Spain in 1811, a period of economic prosperity followed. However, this progress was short-lived as the country got involved in regional conflicts.
Between 1954 and 1989, Paraguay was ruled by the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and his right-wing Colorado Party. Under Stroessner, there was widespread and ruthless persecution of political opposition and his party had close ties to wealthy landowners and held US support.
He gave large parts of the country’s land to political allies and personal friends, creating a small, landowning elite. Stroessner was eventually overthrown in a 1989 coup by his colleague Andres Rodriguez. Elections were later held, but the 1990’s were characterized by a fragile democratic transition with a number of failed coup attempts. Several of Stroessner’s allies remained in government.
Paraguay’s current president Mario Abdo Benítez is the son of Stroessner’s former secretary. Since Stroessner’s takeover in 1954, the only exception to Colorado rule has been between 2008 and 2012, when the centre-left government of Fernando Lugo was in power.
Lugo was impeached in 2012, a year before the end of his term, in what has been described as a parliamentary coup, and the Colorado Party returned to power. Democratization has not fundamentally changed the structure of Paraguayan society. The Colorado Party remains strong due to its close ties to the judicial system, wealthy landowners and the press.
Charges were pressed against several campesinos and 11 of them were imprisoned in Asunción’s infamous Tacumbú prison. This event was used by the parliament to impeach non-Colorado president Fernando Lugo in 2012, claiming he supported the occupation. In 2018, the Supreme Court claimed the Caso Curuguaty campesinos innocent and victims of a judicial error, which led to their release.
The case of Los seis campesinos is about six campesino leaders from different parts of the country, accused of committing the murder of Cecilia Cubas in 2005, the daughter of former Colorado president Raúl Cubas Grau. The six have been imprisoned since 2006, serving 35-year sentences in Tacumbú prison.
The low-intensity conflict flared up in September this year, when two 11-year old Argentinian girls, relatives of EPP fighters, were killed by the government’s anti-EPP force during an operation. Campesinos are also often accused of affiliation with the EPP during land conflicts – a familiar strategy for the government to legitimize repression.
These cases are very representative of how Paraguay’s political, economic, and judicial sectors work together. They are all active in the conflict of land distribution. It is evident that this issue of inequality needs to be properly addressed. But it poses a tough question: when structures are this complex and deep-rooted, how does one begin to pull them up by their roots?