Paraguay: Land reform push amid coup threat

Issue 

Five thousand farmers marched in Asuncion on March 25 to call on Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo to deliver on his election promise of land reform. The National Federation of Campesinos (FNC), an organisation that has fought for farmers' rights for more than 17 years, led the action.

Lugo was elected in 2008 on a pro-poor platform that included land reform. Upon election, Lugo refused his presidential salary, saying it "belonged to the humble people", an August 2008 AFP article said. Paraguay has huge inequality in land distribution. The campesino (peasants) movement is demanding a mass redistribution of land. FNC secretary-general Odilon Espinola told EFE World News Service: "We can't talk of change if 80% of fertile lands in the country are in the hands of 1% of the population, while 85% of farmers only have access to 6% of all the land." The FNC also called for an end to the expansion of the multinational soya bean industry, which destroys traditional small-scale Paraguayan farming. Violence and intimidation tied to the soya industry has forced thousands of small farmers from their homes and fields, and forced the relocation of indigenous communities.

Many campesino leaders have been assassinated, or faced fabricated charges when they have resisted. There have also been terrible effects on farmers' health and the environment from the toxic pesticides used by soya producers. Other FNC demands included access to adequate health services, education, roads and homes for the rural population. The FNC said it would resort to direct action, such as occupations and blockading of highways, if its demands weren't met. Lugo told Latin America-wide TV station Telsur on March 25 that agrarian reform is a historical debt to Paraguay's people that must be paid. He expressed regret over the delay in implementation of his "Paraguay for Everyone" program, which would grant some of the farmers' demands.

A former bishop, Lugo was elected as the candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC). His campaign was supported by a broad alliance of parties and movements ranging from the far left to the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA). The PLRA is largest of the traditional conservative opposition parties. Lugo's victory ended 61 years of rule by the right-wing Colorado Party (PC), notorious for corruption and human rights abuses. However, forces in the old state apparatus have stalled Lugo's reform program. The PC has retained power within the state with the help of judges, right-wing senators and senior civil servants. Many peasants had land illegally taken from them and handed out to members of the military and friends of the regime during the periods of PC-run military dictatorships. The hope of recovering their land through the existing legal system is slim.

Mirta Barreto, president of the Centre for Rural Services and Studies (CSER), told the March 15 Le Monde Diplomatique that thousands of land disputes are clogging up the courts, and the corrupt judiciary is defending the rights of big landowners. Barreto said: "The way things currently stand, it's impossible to get justice when it comes to land ownership." Without judicial support, land reform remains difficult. The situation is not likely to change in the near future. A January 5 Pan-African News Wire article said the top nine judges in the Supreme Court had ruled they could not be removed from their posts until the age of 75. The article reported that APC deputy Desiree Masi warned of a coup plot against Lugo by retired general Lino Oviedo, 2008 presidential candidate for the right-wing UNACE, and sections of PC.

Only a tiny minority of representatives in the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate who could be relied on the back Lugo, so the right wing potentially has enough power to remove the president from office via a constitutional coup. Vice-President Federico Franco, from the PLRA, publicly stated in January at a lunch hosted by the US ambassador and attended by high-ranking US army officials that he is "prepared" to replace Lugo if the right wing removes him from power. The situation has been described as "a permanent coup d'etat". In an interview with Dia de Hoy, campesino leader Ernesto Benitez said: "Even though Lugo is stalled, the right-wing wants to get rid of him because the growing social movements have become a threat to the old oligarchy."

On March 23, 20,000 people, drawn from 20 left-wing parties and social movements, gathered in Asuncion to reaffirm their support for Lugo and the process of change. The groups formed the Guasu Front. The new alliance has been formed to combat threats against Lugo's rule. Paraguayan Communist Party secretary general Najeeb Armado told Dia de Hoy: "To change the situation, Lugo needs to commit more deeply to the social movements. The traditional parties have shown that come the right time, they will abandon him." Benitez said: "But the strength of the people is tremendous."

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