Populist president faces long odds

President Fernando Lugo, up against an agrarian oligarchy and answerable to a mobilized peasant movement, has yet to introduce transformative measures reminiscent of those initiated by his Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorian counterparts.

The former bishop’s election on a record of solidarity with struggling peasants ended 60 years of Colorado Party rule, 35 years of them marred by the U.S.-supported Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship. Promising to end corruption and redistribute land, Lugo assumed power in August as head of an ad hoc coalition of small center-left parties, hardly as leader of a battle-hardened political movement.

Corrupt office holders had already emptied ministries of operating funds. Colorado Party stalwarts presently staff bureaucracies and control the Congress. A potential military-old guard plot against Lugo surfaced in September.

Beginning that month, peasants stepped up a campaign of land redistribution. Evictions of the landless in Alto Paraná resulted in the death Oct. 3 of peasant leader Bienvenido Melgarejo.

Earlier this month, 50,000 militants organized by the Social and People’s Front, a coalition of 100 groups, protested in cities. In Asuncion, thousands massed in front of the attorney general’s office to demand dismissals of Supreme Court justices and the attorney general, all Colorado Party members. Protesters alleged bias toward large landowners. Demonstrators called for the release of jailed comrades, the hand-over of land, and social assistance. On Nov. 5, police wounded 70 of them.

Lugo persuaded peasant leaders to call off demonstrations in return for renewed commitment to their cause and formation of a National Council on Agrarian Reform involving government and peasant representatives. He warned that destabilizing actions would be punished. Urged on by Catholic bishops, Lugo agreed to state purchase of 41,000 acres in San Pedro for transfer to peasants occupying the land.

In Paraguay, land distribution is the most unequal in Latin America. One percent of the population owns 77 percent of the productive land. Large estates average 68,000 acres; 351 landowners own 24 million acres. Annually 90,000 people are displaced from small holdings. In 1989, 60 percent of Paraguayans lived in rural areas; in 2008, 40 percent.

Soy beans, essential for livestock feed and biodiesel fuel, are as gold in the global market economy. Between one-half and two-thirds of Paraguayan farmland is dedicated to soy production; 375, 000 acres are added annually. Marketing 30 percent of Paraguay’s soy production, Cargill Company epitomizes corporate ascendency in Paraguay, now the world’s fourth leading soy producer. Peasant groups protest toxic chemicals used in soy monoculture. Environmentalists point to the loss of millions of acres of forest.

Brazilian farmers, who migrated into Paraguay over 40 years, control 80 percent of Paraguay’s soy production, having acquired cheap land often in deals with corrupt officials. Their outsized role in Paraguay’s economy has combined with agribusiness’ growing insertion into the globalized economy to stack the decks against the Fernando Lugo presidency.

In early October, landless peasants invaded acreage owned by Brazilian growers, who appealed to Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Citing threats from Paraguayan social movements, Brazil deployed 10,000 soldiers along the frontier, reportedly to showcase their ability to occupy shared hydroelectric facilities. Spokespersons admitted the maneuvers were to press Paraguay to control “excesses” against the Brazilian soy growers.

Later the two governments discussed revising agreements on joint operation of hydroelectric dams. Paraguay argued for expanded sales of hydroelectricity and allowances for price increases in return for protecting the soy growers. President Lugo took the dispute to the Organization of American States. Brazilian farmers agreed to sell 55,000 acres to Paraguay for redistribution.

The confrontation added the burden of history to the paradox of a populist president defending agribusiness interests. Television images of Brazilian troops concentrated at the border resurrected collective pain. The New York Times suggested that Paraguayans remember the war of 1865-1870 when Brazil, allied with Uruguay and Argentina, killed over 50 percent of the population, including 90 percent of the men, and occupied the country.

Meanwhile, according to analyst Raul Zibechi, “With the ascent of Lugo to the presidency, those from below felt that the time had come to begin to resolve historic injustices and they decided to begin to collect on the bill.”