Tragic Week in Paraguay
Javiera Manuela Rulli and Reto Sonderegger
Translation Lilian Joensen, Grupo de Reflexión Rural
Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has just been removed from office by Congress through political impeachment, an express trial that lasted only 24 hours. This manoeuvre must be seen as a coup to the democratic process started in 2008. Social movements are protesting in front of Congress as well as in various parts of the country.
This plot by the major Paraguayan political parties has to be interpreted as the last step of a process of political destabilization in the country started with the massacre of Curuguaty last June 15th.
The facts from Curuguaty seem to show a high-level plot and operation by the opposition. The massacre that occurred in a camp of the landless peasants during a police operation left a toll of 17 dead, 11 peasants and 6 police officers, and 80 wounded. There are 54 people arrested facing very serious charges.
We will try to explain now the chain of events that have shaken the country from the Curuguaty deaths to Lugo’s overthrow today.
Background to the Curuguaty events
The Canindeyú department in the northeast part of Paraguay is a border region with Brazil with a high concentration of land in the hands of soy agribusinesses, marijuana cultivation and drugs and weapons smuggling.
Blas N. Riquelme is one of the richest people in the country, former Colorado Senator, large landowner with supermarket chains and many other food companies. Blas N. Riquelme was fraudulently given 50 thousand hectares of land, which were meant for poor peasants of the agrarian reform, during the Stroessner Dictatorship in 1969. This case of ill-gotten land was reported in the Report of the Truth and Justice Commission in 2008.
Since the fall of the Dictatorship in 1989, local peasants have been fighting to get these lands back. Two months ago a group of 60 landless peasants occupied two thousand hectares of the lands in an area called Marina Cue. These people did not belong to any specific peasant organization.
The Curuguaty massacre
On Friday June 15, two groups of law enforcement officers, the GEO Special forces and the police, entered Marina Cue with only a search warrant. The first group went to the camp to talk with the peasants. The police group suspiciously positioned itself behind. Surprisingly, in a confused event, long distance shots were fired. The first persons to fall were the chief and the deputy chief of the GEO forces.
During the ensuing battle, helicopters with reinforcements from the Special Operations Forces arrived and dispersed the peasants with flamethrowers and tear gas. The result of the battle was 11 peasants and 6 policemen dead.
In the first 24 hours after these events, police and soldiers surrounded and closed the area not letting anybody in. A first group of human rights advocates from Asuncion was detained by the police for several hours. In the Capital peasant leaders remained on alert, and in Curuguaty locals complained of law enforcement hunting down all survivors of the gunfight and any peasant activists in the area. Police burned the camp, erasing all evidence. During this period no prosecutors entered the area to observe what happened and collect evidence. It is assumed that during this time the police removed dead bodies and destroyed any proof.
Injured people, who went to health centers, were detained and placed in isolation cells in police stations. Some relatives and local people, who went to the health centers or to the police stations in order to get information on the victims, were also arrested. Lawyers and human rights organizations were not allowed access.
On Saturday, 16 family members, activists and media members crossed the police cordon and entered the peasant camp to search for survivors and wounded who might still be hiding. Indigenous people from the area helped with the search operation. Throughout the weekend there was heavy rain which made the operation almost impossible; regardless, they found 2 peasant bodies. According to information provided by human rights and peasant organizations: “these bodies were moved from where they were killed because there was no blood in the vicinity. They were also dressed as alleged guerilla-snipers and showed signs of recent torture and execution, with fresh blood and bullet wounds in the head and neck, and the weapons that are beside them are shotguns that could not have been used, since they are short distance weapons that shoot pellets, that do not match the long-distance wounds of the dead policemen.”
The search committee found traces of weapons of war, weapons which are not used by peasants. The suspicion is that, besides the landless peasant group, there was another infiltrated group which ambushed and killed the police. Peasant witnesses confirm this information, reporting that another group of men had camped nearby during the previous days, carrying heavy weapons and that these were the shooters. Their actions do not correspond to the methods used by peasants in their struggle for land. Questions arise about who these people might be: Could they be thugs tied to Blas Riquelme, border mafia, paramilitaries, or guerrillas? What seems to be clear is that they are not among those killed, detained or charged. Much of the evidence that could have helped identify them has also been eliminated.
Meanwhile, the prosecution presents charges against 54 people. Most are members of peasant organizations and relatives of the deceased who were not in the peasant camp at the time of the massacre. The charges are every serious, such as aggravated homicide and intentional murder, in addition to charges of invasion of private property, which carry sentences of up to 30 years in prison.
Only 12 people are currently arrested and charged, several of them are in jail. There are several minors, including a 16-year-old wounded girl and her infant child. The detainees have signs of torture, and several were arrested when they went to the police inquiring on friends and relatives. The situation of helplessness and defenselessness makes the locals dare not leave their homes. There is a non-declared state of siege in Curuguaty.
The prisoners are kidnapped by the police
On Sunday June 17th, Presidential Cabinet Secretary Miguel Angel Lopez Perito and Health Minister Esperanza Martinez went to Curuguaty to personally evaluate the matter. Previously, the police moved the detainees out of the police stations to other detention centers, so that the two Ministers could not see them. The detainees were literally kidnapped by the police.
Assembly meetings are held between civil servants (funcionarios?), family and social movements where they present their demands, which are:
1. End to the persecution and release of all prisoners;
2. Compensation for the families of the victims,
3. Recovery of ill-gotten lands of Marina Cue for the creation of a model peasant settlement
At a conference on June 19th, Emilio Camacho, auditor of the Paraguayan Land Institute (INDERT), confirmed that Blas Riquelme did not have the title to the 2,000 hectares; the ongoing ownership trial is still unresolved. This makes evident the irregularity and partiality (to landed interests) of the Paraguayan judiciary system: search warrants and eviction orders are signed without land titles.
Lugo hands over the repressive apparatus to the Colorados
Because of what happened in Curuguaty, Lugo replaced Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola naming as his replacement the former Attorney General, Candia Amarilla. During his tenure as State Prosecutor, Amarilla was characterized by his persecution and criminalization of social sectors.
Amarilla was trained in Colombia and is one of the promoters of the implementation of Plan Colombia in Paraguay. He is also a member of the Colorado Party. To make matters worse, Lugo replaced the National Director of Police and put in his place the chief who was in charge of the police operation in Curuguaty, the Commissioner Moran Arnaldo Sanabria. Both officials are publicly rejected by the social movements and several political sectors. Amarilla announced the end of the “protocol” in eviction operations, implemented by the previous Minister, consisting of dialogue with civil society organizations prior to operations. Amarilla states that his mandate will be the enforcement of the law with a strong arm.
With these two appointments, Lugo hands over the repressive apparatus into the hands of the Colorado Party. It is evident that he negotiated these nominations to avoid political impeachment. However, by doing this, he got the Liberal Party against him, which in turn negotiated with the Colorado Party and the Oviedistas to carry out the political impeachment.
On Thursday June 21st, a popular mobilization was called in front of the lands of Marina Cue. Over a thousand people were present with the objective of re-occupying the property until the detained people are freed and the land of Marine Cue returned to its rightful owners, landless peasants.
That same morning, the Colorado and Liberal parties suddenly agreed with the Oviedistas to impeach Lugo. In a few hours the impeachment process was set in motion by both houses, giving the president two hours on Friday to defend himself.
On Thursday, social movements called for mass mobilization in front of the Congress. Thursday night, 2000 people slept in the square in front of the Congress and people from all over the country started arriving in Asuncion. In several parts of the country, peasant organizations blocked roads.
On Friday afternoon, after an absurd and circus-like session in the Senate, Lugo is impeached. Paraguayan parliamentarians finally destroyed the democratization process that started with the electoral victory of Lugo. Upon hearing the verdict the first wave of repression started in the square outside the Congress. It marks only the beginning of what is being orchestrated against social movements and especially the peasant movement.
International solidarity can play a crucial role in the defense of Human Rights of the popular sectors in Paraguay. We call on all social organizations to be on alert to the situation in this country.
Paraguay’s president ousted in parliamentary coup
Bill Van Auken
Latin American governments have denounced the lighting-fast impeachment of Paraguay’s president Fernando Lugo as a parliamentary coup and attack on constitutional government on the continent.
Lugo was indicted by the lower house of the Paraguayan parliament and tried by the upper house, the Senate, in a farcical set of proceedings that lasted barely 30 hours. The lower house voted unanimously in favor of the charges, while late on Friday, June 22, the Senate found the president guilty by a vote of 39 to four, significantly exceeding the two-thirds majority needed under the Paraguayan constitution to oust a sitting president.
Lugo joined a small demonstration in the early hours of Sunday morning outside a public television station to denounce his impeachment as a “coup against the citizenry and democracy.”
In the immediate aftermath of the impeachment vote, thousands of peasants blockaded highways and demonstrators confronted riot police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon in Asuncion’s Plaza de Armas. The president, himself, however, offered no resistance to his removal from office, nor did he appeal for any popular resistance.
Instead, Lugo declared his “submission” to the impeachment decision, declaring that he had always “acted within the framework of the law”, even though the law had been “twisted” to remove him from office. He called on his supporters to carry out only “peaceful” protest, and he praised the armed forces for their contributions to “the consolidation of democracy.”
The commanders of the military, who had mobilized forces in support of the parliamentary coup, immediately endorsed it and gathered behind Franco as he donned the presidential sash.
The principal charge brought against Lugo was a “weak performance” in relation to a forced eviction on June 15 of landless peasants who had occupied land owned by Blas Riquelme, a wealthy businessman and landowner, who was also a leading figure in the country’s right-wing Colorado Party, which before Lugo’s election had ruled the country for six decades.
The eviction of the some 100 families from the land in Curuguaty in eastern Paraguay near the Brazilian border led to a massacre in which 11 peasants and six policemen were killed. Witnesses reported that the bloodbath began when snipers opened fire on the peasants as their leaders were negotiating with a police commander.
The Lugo government responded by sending the army into the area to impose order. Nine peasants, one just 15 years old, have been arrested and charged with murder.
While Lugo had called for an investigation into the massacre, offering to turn such a probe over to the police themselves together with the Colorado Party, i.e., those responsible for the killings, his right-wing opponents brushed the proposal aside, moving to impeach the president instead.
The charge against Lugo was based not on his responsibility for the murder of peasants, but rather for his supposed failure to use sufficient force to suppress them and employing empty populist rhetoric that aroused expectations among the country’s most oppressed layers.
Elected in 2008, Lugo’s triumph was generally reported as another example of the so-called “turn to the left” in Latin America. A former Catholic bishop, who embraced liberation theology and identification of the church with the poor, Lugo came into office as the candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), a loose coalition supported by various unions and peasant and community groups, but dominated politically by the center-right Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which provided Lugo’s vice-presidential candidate, Federico Franco.
Various tendencies of what passes for the Paraguayan “left” promoted the conception that social change could be advanced in an alliance with “progressive sections of the bourgeoisie”, and Lugo himself sought to present himself as a man of the “center”, claiming that he was forging a path somewhere between those of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
In Friday’s impeachment, carried out just nine months before scheduled elections, the Liberals voted in favor of the constitutional coup, catapulting their man Franco into the presidential palace.
While Lugo took office vowing to carry out agrarian reform, his government has accomplished next to nothing in altering a land distribution that is the most unequal on the continent. Approximately 2 percent of the population, dominated by immensely wealthy latifundistas, control over 77 percent of the country’s arable land, while small farmers, who make up 40 percent of the population, owned barely 5 percent.
Inequality in the countryside was vastly increased under the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, whose government rewarded loyalists with large tracts of land expropriated from peasants who had farmed it. Further exacerbating conditions has been the growth of soy production, dominated by Brazilian agribusiness, which has taken over substantial territory in Paraguay’s eastern border region.
Even though Lugo neither carried out any significant land reform, nor protected peasants and small farmers from the violence routinely used by the big landowners and state forces against them, Paraguay’s reactionary oligarchy and its representatives in the Colorado and Liberal parties blamed his election for raising the expectations of the country’s rural poor, who in many cases occupied land illegitimately appropriated by the wealthy and politically connected in the vain hope that the government would intervene on their behalf.
The impeachment charges against Lugo included the statement: “The constant confrontation and struggle of social classes, which as a final result brought about the massacre between compatriots, is an unprecedented development in the annals of history since our independence until today.”
Additional charges were brought over Lugo’s having allowed a conference called “Latin American Youth for Change” to be held at a military base and his signing of a regional treaty—a seemingly innocuous document affirming respect for democratic principles—without parliamentary approval.
The ouster of Lugo drew sharp protests from a number of Latin American countries. “Without any doubt there has been a coup d’etat in Paraguay,” declared Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner. “It is unacceptable.” Argentina withdrew its ambassador from the country. Similar denunciations came from Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Even the right-wing government in Chile was compelled to criticize the ouster of Lugo, with the country’s foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno, stating that the hurried impeachment “did not fulfill the minimum requirements for this type of procedure.”
The reaction of the Brazilian government of President Dilma Rousseff will be among those most closely watched, given the control exercised by Brazilian capital over much of the Paraguayan economy. This includes its joint ownership with Paraguay of the Itaipu dam—one of the world’s largest hydroelectric projects—which straddles the border between the two countries.
“The Brazilian government condemns the summary impeachment of the president of Paraguay decided on June 22, in which the right to defend himself was not properly guaranteed,” said a statement issued by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Brazil indicated that sanctions could be considered within the Mercosur trading bloc and called its ambassador back for consultations, but did not follow Argentina’s example in breaking diplomatic relations. One of the major organizations representing Brazilians inside Paraguay, including those controlling Paraguayan farmlands, called on Brasilia to recognize Franco as the country’s new president.
In contrast to the condemnations from Latin American governments, the Obama administration issued statements expressing no direct opinion on the impeachment coup, but warning the Paraguayan people against resistance. The State Department called upon “all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility.”
There are many similarities between the ouster of Lugo in Paraguay and the coup carried out just three years ago in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya, with Washington’s backing. In both countries, the overthrow was accomplished through parliamentary maneuvers directed by right-wing politicians who the two presidents had previously embraced as allies.
Moreover, in both countries, the removal of the sitting president was accomplished with the backing of military commands with deep ties to the Pentagon. In Paraguay, these date back to the Stroessner dictatorship, which through decades of murders, torture and repression, kept the backing of five US administrations on the strength of the dictator’s vigorously avowed anti-communism.
More recently, the Obama administration more than doubled US aid to the country’s security forces last year, from $3.9 million to $8.2 million, under the banner of the “war on drugs”.
The leading figure in the impeachment drive against Lugo was the Colorado Party senator and declared presidential candidate Horacio Cartes. A confidential State Department cable published by WikiLeaks identified Cartes and his Banco Amambay as being responsible for “80 percent of money laundering in Paraguay” on behalf of the drug traffickers.