Paraguayans felt unusually hopeful in 2008 when they elected the former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo as President. It ended 61 years of rule by the conservative Colorado Party, which had featured the brutal, 35-year-long dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. But the optimism wore off quickly. A year after taking office, the leftist Lugo, now 61, was caught up in a paternity scandal, admitting to having sired a child while he was a bishop. More serious political charges have followed – most levied by Colorado politicians, who still control Congress – including Lugo’s alleged attempts to politicize the military and bypass congressional approval for international treaties.
But a tragedy last week looks to have resulted in Lugo’s outright expulsion from the presidency. In that June 15 incident, six police officers and 11 landless peasant farmers – part of a group of 150 campesinos who had occupied a large tract of idle property in the remote town of Curuguaty – were killed in a shootout. Colorado politicians, one of whom owns the disputed land, say the police were ambushed and that the campesinos were armed and trained by leftist groups aided by Lugo. The campesinos insist they were attacked by the cops, who had come to evict them. Either way, with even his liberal coalition allies in Congress abandoning him, the lower house on Thursday, June 21, voted 76-1 to impeach Lugo. The Senate on Friday, according to Paraguayan media, swiftly tried and convicted the President, in a 39-4 vote, on charges that included the Curuguaty episode. (Lugo has denied all the accusations.) Vice President Federico Franco, of the Liberal Party (part of Lugo’s coalition), will become the new President.
Whether Lugo is a victim of age-old Colorado machinations – Lugo allies in and outside Paraguay are saying his removal smacks more of a “coup” – or his own arrogant blunders – it looks like a combination of both – his ouster adds one more dismaying chapter to impoverished Paraguay’s benighted history. But the issue at the core of the controversy – land reform – reflects how surprisingly far all of Latin America has yet to go before it seriously addresses, let alone solves, what is arguably the region’s most debilitating social problem. “That’s undeniable,” one of Paraguay’s most respected investigative journalists, Mabel Rehnfeldt of the Asuncion daily ABC, told me today. Rehnfeldt doesn’t exculpate Lugo, but she concedes that until Paraguay “confronts its inexcusable concentration of land ownership, we face the real possibility of more crises like this.”
Since the 19th century, Paraguay has been one of South America’s most egregious examples of land inequality. Colorado cronies, especially under Stroessner’s 1954-89 dictatorship, have amassed so much property that today 80% of the country’s arable land is held by just 1% of the population, according to the National Federation of Campesinos (FNC). Paraguay is actually the world’s fourth-largest soybean exporter – meaning the vast majority of its farmers have been shut off from the wealth pouring into the country via the boom in global commodities prices. Not surprisingly, the 5,000-acre (2,000-hectare) tract in dispute at Curuguaty, which campesino groups say was illegally purchased during the Stroessner regime, produces soy.
Lugo, the first former Catholic bishop ever elected a head of state, came to power four years ago promising to rectify that problem. But Colorado opposition and his own political missteps have made the job more difficult. Though most campesino land invasion movements have been peaceable, some more radical groups, as Colorado pols charge, may have decided in recent years to take a more bellicose path.
But even though Paraguay’s land-reform efforts remain well behind those of countries like neighboring Brazil, even Brazil has a lot of work ahead of it. In the 1990s, less than 3% of Brazil’s population held two-thirds of its half a billion arable hectares. Yet today, according to the Brazilian landless peasant movement known as Sem Terra (MST), almost half that land is still held by just 1% of the population. Which is why, groups like MST insist, land occupations like the one at Curuguaty – which often result in negotiated land acquisition settlements for campesinos, and which have gotten 35 million acres (14 m hectares) into the hands of 370,000 landless families in Brazil over the past generation – are still necessary in lieu of more effective political and legal action by Latin American governments.
The situation is no better in Colombia, where cattle ranching barons control more than a third of usable land and where according to the U.N. just 1.15% of the population owns 52% of the country’s total land space. That’s a big reason the country has been mired in a civil war for almost half a century. President Juan Manuel Santos is in the process of redistributing some six million hectares (15 m acres) to four million Colombian campesinos displaced by the conflict; but, as in Paraguay, conservative opposition has slowed the process.
Even Mexico, whose volcanic 1910 Revolution ignited Latin America’s land-reform movement in the 20th century under the banner of “land, liberty and equality,” still hasn’t made near the progress it should have by now. Before 1910, a mere 835 families controlled an astonishing 97% of Mexico’s arable land. The revolution certainly improved the situation, creating ejidos, or agrarian cooperatives, for Mexican peasants. Today, however, most of those plots are fit for little more than subsistence farming, which is why Mexican campesinos have fared so poorly under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
And which is why campesinos will continue to struggle in Paraguay, with or without their former bishop in the presidential palace. Because of that frustration, Paraguayans are bracing for possibly violent unrest now that the Senate has voted to remove Lugo from office. Next year they’ll elect a new President. Whoever that is will be wise to take up Lugo’s land reform agenda – and be wiser than Lugo while doing it.