The government of President Nicanor Duarte responded with increasingly brutal repression against the farm protesters. In August 2003 Duarte had taken office promising to do something about poverty and hunger and demagogically criticized neoliberal economic policies demanded by international finance capital.
Paraguay is a largely agricultural country with a population of nearly 6 million. Its main exports are soybeans, beef, and cotton. Land ownership, however, is dominated by a tiny handful. Only 2 percent of the population owns 72 percent of all arable land, while 85 percent of the rural population works on just 6 percent of the arable land. Hundreds of thousands of peasants have been thrown off their land over the past decade, particularly as capitalist farmers have rapidly expanded soybean production for export, forcing small farmerslacking aid from the governmentto sell their plots. About one-third of Paraguayans live below the official poverty line, and in the countryside the proportion is higher.
Political space opens in 1989
With the end of the 35-year-long reign of terror under the U.S.-backed Stroessner dictatorship in 1989, the peasant movement, along with labor and student organizations, won greater space for struggle and began to gain strength. Two major peasant organizations were formed, the National Peasant Federation (FNC) and the National Coordinating Board of Peasant Organizations (MCNOC), which have been leading the recent protest actions.
In 2002, large protests by peasants and workers pushed back several very unpopular economic measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund as well as a U.S.-promoted antiterrorism bill. As land occupations have increased, landlords have hired private thugs and special police units to attack peasants.
Trying to undercut the growing popular discontent, Duartewhose Colorado Party has dominated Paraguayan politics since 1947began his administration with statements expressing concern about poverty. Among other things, he promised to allocate $10 million to purchase 62,000 acres of land.
Government aids finance capital
While criticizing abuses by businessmen, the measures taken by the Duarte government have been designed to meet the demands of international and domestic capital, such as a tax reform law that lowered taxes on corporate profits and shifted more of the tax burden onto workers and peasants.
The main peasant organizations have been demanding that 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) be distributed among 300,000 landless families. After months of waiting for concrete measures by the government, peasant protests began to grow. Occupations of idle lands, held by absentee owners or landlords with fraudulent titles, picked up in the first three months of 2004. In response to these occupations, organized separately by the FNC and MCNOC each with smaller groups, the government carried out mass arrests of protesters and established army camps near the occupied lands to intimidate the farmers.
At the same time, the government continued to promise to turn over some lands, and began talks with the two peasant organizations that stretched out from May to August. But government officials offered few real concessions.
Rural struggle sharpens
In July the peasant movement began to coordinate further actions along with unions, student groups, and organizations of urban homeless workers. This led to the establishment on July 3 of the National Front of Struggle for Sovereignty and Life (FNLSV), which includes the MCNOC. The Front in Defense of Public Property and the National Patrimony, a coalition that includes the FNC, was also revived. These organizations mapped out parallel plans for stepped-up mass actions whose main demands were in support of the peasants. By mid-September, landless rural workers had occupied eight private estates and large landholders were demanding that the government evict them.
On September 18 the FNLSV gave the government 60 days to respond to the peasants demands or face a nationwide protest action.
Capitalists press for a crackdown
At the same time, capitalists stepped up their pressure on Duarte to crack down more forcefully on the protesters. Some even accused him of inciting the occupations with his promises of land. When President Duarte assumed power, he did so as an enthusiastic populist, a high-ranking Paraguayan diplomat at the United Nations said in a telephone interview with the liberal U.S. lobbying group Council on Hemispheric Affairs. However, many took his speeches too seriously to the point that they invaded lands legitimately owned by others. Since then, the president has had to tone down his populist rhetoric.
On September 21, groups of peasants occupied 18 farms and set up roadblocks throughout the country. We need this land to expand our settlement. This is a latifundio [large landholding] and the owner isnt growing any crops or raising any animals here. We are without land and we will insist on getting some, one of the farmers told the press, referring to a nearly 1,000-acre area his community had occupied. The police responded with mass evictions. In the province of San Pedro, 150 miles north of the capital city of Asunción, they arrested 118 peasants in three different districts.Peasant actions increased between September and November. On November 1, more than 7,000 peasants affiliated with the FNLSV occupied 35 properties in San Pedro, Caazapá, Caaguazú, Alto Paraná, Misiones, and other provinces.
Duarte declared November 4 that he was ordering a tough hand to crack down on land invaders. The government called on the courts to act vigorously to prosecute those taking part in the land occupations. It immediately deployed army troops, whose presence in the countryside until then had mostly been used to intimidate protesters, to intervene actively in the evictions alongside the police.
The next day, government forces carried out a coordinated series of evictions. In San Pedro province, 200 agents of the Specialized Police assaulted 500 sin tierras (landless peasants) occupying the 17,000-acre Cuapé estate, which grows soybeans. The confrontation had begun when local residents protested the indiscriminate use of toxic agrochemicals. Cops attacked them with tear gas, burned their makeshift homes, and arrested 31, many in the homes of neighbors where they took refuge after fleeing the estate. One farmer, Aureliano Espínola, 55, died during the police assault. The authorities said he died of a heart attack; witnesses said he had been viciously beaten.
Luis Aguayo, a leader of the MCNOC, condemned the criminal action by the police and held Duarte and the landlords Rural Association of Paraguay (ARP) responsible for what he called the murder of Espínola.
National civic strike
During the week of November 16-23, the FNLSV organized a series of mobilizations as part of a national civic strike to demand the release of all the imprisoned peasants, the withdrawal of the military to their barracks, and land for the peasants. The participating organizations carried out land occupations, rallies in Asunción, several roadblocks, and marches along the main highways around the country. In the town of San Jan Nepomuceno in Caazapá province in the south, 200 peasants organized by the FNC stormed a police station November 28 in order to rescue a leader who had been arrested the day before. The police responded with a siege of the May Eleventh land settlement, to which most of the peasant protesters belonged, and arrested 48 people.
We cannot allow someone to be jailed for demanding seed and insecticide in order to farm, said FNC general secretary Odilón Espínola, pointing out that the peasant leader had been arrested for his participation in a protest in September demanding farm supplies.
Two days later the government ordered the arrest of Espínola himself, accusing him of coercion, disturbing the peace, inciting criminal actions, and invasion of property. Security forces sharply stepped up their crackdown, arresting 312 people and wounding more than 20 during various evictions. Riot police attacked a solidarity march by peasants in Caaguazú; 46 were arrested and a dozen wounded by rubber bullets. This brought the total number of detained to 715. In many towns the jails were overflowing with peasant militants.
The governments stance was summarized by Duarte in a meeting he had with big landowners. Referring to the peasants occupying estates, he said, We are going to bring them in by the ear, and those who have small ears we will bring in by the hair.
Call for new protests in March
Nonetheless, the rural mobilizations continued through much of December, together with talks between government officials and representatives of the protest organizations. The government finally lifted its arrest order against Espínola and freed most of the imprisoned peasants. On December 22 a court ordered the release of 344 landless rural toilers who had been evicted from an estate in San Pedro province. The peasants, however, were barred from setting foot within a 200-yard radius of the estate.
The government again sought to defuse the protests by reiterating its promise of distributing land to peasants. Officials insisted that the process will require calm and a lot of patience because there is not enough money in the budget to buy property to be distributed and that the courts must decide on disputed ownership issues. At the same time, the officials warned that the government will continue to crack down on illegal protests.
Peasant organizations have announced that if they do not see substantial progress, they will resume their mass protests in March.
Militant staff writer Martín Koppel contributed to this article.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home