Paraguay’s Ongoing Struggle Over Land and Democracy

October 26, 2012

The unlikely presidency of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo came to an abrupt end June 22 in an impeachment hearing. From the beginning of his administration in 2008, calls for Lugo’s ouster had assailed him at every sign of crisis. Finally the tactic worked. Public fury had erupted after police raided a squatter camp in the rural district of Curuguaty on June 15, ending in a shootout that left six police and 11 campesinos dead. Only hours after the shootout, with the dead yet to be counted, a powerful lobby group representing Paraguay’s soybean industry, the Union de Gremios Productivos, demanded again that he be held accountable. This time the UGP’s allies in Congress pounced, citing the president’s “poor performance” in the raid as grounds for dismissal under the Paraguayan constitution. On the 20th, the Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach. The following day Lugo and his lawyers were given 15 hours to prepare for a two-hour defense hearing, after which the Senate rendered its verdict by a vote of 36-4. Lugo was not present, citing security concerns, but he resigned from the presidency through his lawyers.

Federico Franco, one of Lugo’s most high-profile opponents, took the oath of office and assured the public that no violation of the law or constitutional order had taken place. The Paraguayan constitution is very vague on procedures for impeachment, so in all likelihood the ouster was legal. But the swiftness with which it was carried out and the flimsy pretext behind it led to widespread condemnation internationally, especially from the Mercosur trading bloc that suspended Paraguay’s membership for the length of Franco’s mandate. At home, the impeachment was met with protests by urban progressives who amassed outside the Congress building during the hearing. Lugo has since recanted his resignation, saying that he did so only to avoid a repeat of the 1999 massacre of demonstrators outside congress during the only other case of impeachment in the country’s modern history. Campesinos, still reeling from the Curuguaty shootings the previous week, were slow to mount a popular response and never joined the crowds. Lugo has mounted a constitutional challenge to the hearing, but with the courts largely controlled by allies of the opposing parties, it seems unlikely that his complaints will even be heard.

The “parliamentary coup,” as critics call it, marked the end not only of Lugo’s presidency but of the fractious political alliance that brought him to power. An ex-bishop known as the Bishop of the Poor, Lugo began his campaign in 2006 with the campesino organizations he’d always been close to, building a rural-urban coalition that included middle-class progressives, city-based NGOs, and small leftist parties. This was no small feat: The relationship between urban and rural Paraguay has always been difficult, characterized by mutual distrust. Even among the most progressive elements of the urban middle class, there has long been a thinly disguised fear that the Guaraní-speaking rural masses were inherently violent and authoritarian. Lugo’s successful coalition, called the Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio, persuaded the Liberal Party to join his movement—which represented an opportunity to finally break the single-party rule of the Asociación Nacional Republicana, popularly known as the Colorado party, which had been in power for more than 60 years.

The Liberals brought with them a formidable organization and electoral experience, but this came at a price. Liberal leader Federico Franco was named Lugo’s vice president as part of the pact, and Lugo filled most of his ministries and appointments with high-profile Liberals, retaining only a couple of strategic positions for his progressive allies. Franco spent the next four years publicly undermining Lugo’s government. Rumors of coup attempts swirled from the very beginning, and impeachment was always in the air. But the greatest weakness of Lugo’s government was that, since he controlled no party of his own, he had almost no firm allies in either the Chamber of Deputies or the Senate, whose members are elected in a proportional system that strongly favors well-organized parties with national client networks.

Even the few progressive ministerial appointments Lugo made won him the wrath of large landowners, particularly the soybean producers who have dominated the economy for the last decade. More broadly, Lugo’s ouster represents his ultimate failure to mount an institutional response to the growing conflict over Paraguay’s land, around which much of the country’s politics revolves.

Paraguay’s Fertile Territory is more unequally distributed than in almost any other country on earth. In 1997, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that Paraguay’s land gini coefficient (a measure of distribution where 1 represents complete concentration of resources) was an astonishing 0.93.1 According to the 2008 agrarian census, 1% of Paraguay’s largest landowners held 77% of the territory, while 40% of landowners at the bottom owned only 1% of the land.2 This has always been a source of conflict, especially since the 1960s, when the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner grandly promised redistribution to the poor while mostly using the land reform as a pretext for giving huge parcels to the regime’s friends. After 1989, however, following the global trend, the Paraguayan left became decidedly rights focused, and the conversation about land reform took on an increasingly legalist slant. Rather than debating whether unequal land distribution was in itself unjust, the conversation centered on whether those who had accumulated land during the Stroessner regime had done so illegally.

In Paraguay such illegally acquired land is called tierra mal habida, or ill-gotten land, and countless reports and inquiries have estimated how many millions of acres of it there may be. Many Paraguayans thus believe that a genuine land reform could be accomplished through a massive “reversion” of the ill-gotten lands’ ownership to the state, which would then redistribute it to the peasantry. Lugo championed the cause of redistributing the tierra mal habida, which served as an important alliance builder between rural organizations and urban professionals, who saw it as part of the fight against the corruption of the two main parties.

Despite the popular appeal of reverting the tierra mal habida, there are formidable legal and bureaucratic barriers to it: The legal system is slow, the baroque documentary trail of the public registry virtually impossible to untangle, and given the lapse of time since the lands were taken and the repeated sales since then, it is not clear that the law favors expropriation in any but the most egregious cases. The few successful cases of reversion have not been legal victories but costly political negotiations in which owners have merely sold their land back to the state at a handsome profit. Meanwhile, smallholders are increasingly selling their lands to the soybean mega-farms, far outstripping any meager flows in the other direction. From 1991 to 2008, the area cultivated in soybeans increased from 1.8 million acres to 6.4 million, while over the same time the number of farms smaller than 120 acres decreased by 27%.3

Tierra mal habida may be a good campaign slogan, but it is not a solution to the land question. The Lugo government never quite figured this out, and neither did its allies—including many campesino organizations, which were increasingly demobilized as members became less active, believing that a friendly administration had only to finally comply with the rule of law, and land would be theirs. The focus on tierra mal habida led to a complete breakdown of land redistribution attempts early in 2008, even as campesino protests ground to a halt for close to two years. Moreover, campesinos and their allies underestimated the degree to which a focus on the legal aspects of land tenure would in fact leave them vulnerable, given their own precarious legal position in contrast to that of their wealthy, well-lawyered foes. The only piece of land legislation to pass under the Lugo government was an amendment to the land-reform bill that restricted what campesinos could do with their meager holdings.

Lugo’s rural gambit on behalf of his original allies was tepid and largely ineffectual, and he quickly lost their support while also winning himself powerful enemies. By 2010, moderate campesino organizations were increasingly frustrated, and more radical organizations, like the Liga Nacional de Carperos, were rapidly attracting members. The Carperos began a campaign of large-scale land invasions in the northeast that targeted highly visible tracts of tierra mal habida. Earlier in 2012, several Lugo confidants had managed to negotiate the Carperos off a 54,000-acre parcel, one of dozens belonging to Ulises Rodríguez Texeira, a giant in the soy industry. The squatters were relocated by government agents to a nearby national park, raising eyebrows across the political spectrum either for having gone so easy on “invaders” or for having so easily given up a nature reserve to avoid offending a soy farmer. Four months later, police were sent with a search warrant into another squat in a neighboring district of Curuguaty, this one belonging to Blas N. Riquelme, an old senator, friend of Stroessner, and one of the country’s most notorious landowners. It was this raid that ended in the still unexplained shootout that provided the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment.

There have been any number of speculations as to what alliances and pacts lay behind the Lugo’s ouster, which was carried out with surprising precision given the motley cast of characters behind it. These include the soy industry, with its formidable lobby power and close ties to the private news media, which have been terrified by Lugo’s empty posturing on land reform, the environment, and taxation. They include also the Liberal Party, which has now taken the presidency for the first time since 1940. Although its hold on the executive is assured for only 13 months, it is more than a symbolic victory: Control of the executive means, finally, control of ministerial budgets, revenues from the big hydroelectric dams, and slush funds. The Liberals will be able to channel populist programs like land distribution and a conditional cash-transfer program through their own political networks, preparing a new political base for the next election.

Lugo’s ouster also represents a win for the Colorados, whose dubious presumptive presidential nominee, the millionaire Horacio Cartes, is known to have been one of the primary alliance builders behind the impeachment. The Colorados have thwarted any hope of the emergence of a successor to Lugo who could again unite Liberals and progressives, and the only thing standing between Cartes and the presidency in 2013 is an internal meltdown of his own party, which is certainly possible.

But the idea of an alliance to keep the Colorados out of power was always a long shot. The consequences of Lugo’s impeachment will be felt most acutely among campesinos, who had found in Lugo one of the only allies capable of gathering urban Paraguayans to his cause. Hyperbolic public outrage against campesinos in the wake of the Curuguaty shootings shows that the event confirmed many urbanites’ fears of the dark, inscrutable masses whom they believe to be a constant threat to the social order. Overtly racist diatribes in the mainstream and alternative media catalyzed a vague dissatisfaction with Lugo into widespread clamor for his removal, despite the arbitrary way in which it happened. The impeachment certainly revealed the fragility of Paraguay’s democratic institutions and the ease with which the state might slip back into being the plaything of warring clubs of paternalistic elites. But it also made public the deep prejudice against campesinos in much of Paraguayan society and, more worryingly, gives license to the next political generation to forgo even routine populist overtures to the rural poor.



Kregg Hetherington teaches anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. His most recent book, Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay (Duke University Press, 2011), is a study of how the campesino movement has experienced Paraguay’s transition to democracy.



1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1990 World Census of Agriculture: International Comparsion and Primary Results by Country (1986–95) United Nations, 1997.

2. Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería de Paraguay, Censo agropecuario nacional de 2008 (Asunción, 2008).

3. Ibid.


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