Reclaiming a Space for Nonviolence in Paraguay
Looking at Paraguay through Colombian eyes
By Susana Pimiento
Sitting under a tree in humid 90-degree weather and surrounded by a sea of soy fields in Tucautí Poty, I couldn’t help but think how familiar and yet unknown this place was to me. There is something unique in this landlocked country, in the heart of South America, where peasant and indigenous people’s main language is Guaraní, and Spanish speakers like myself need interpretation. Where the Cold War military dictatorship lasted several decades longer than in other countries in the region: General Alfredo Stroessner’s sanguinary rule lasted from 1954 until 1989.
Yet I found communities and groups very similar to those of my birth country of Colombia, fighting inequality, struggling for a piece of land to grow the crops they have grown for centuries; communities organized and committed to nonviolence. As in Colombia, groups are facing repression in a highly militarized territory. Yet, I was still shocked to see how overt the repression is in Paraguay and how spaces for nonviolence are closing.
I went to Paraguay as part of the International Mission on the Situation of Human Rights in Paraguay, hosted by FOR’s sister organization in Paraguay, the Service of Peace and Justice (SERPAJ) and the country’s leading human rights organizations. Comprised of 43 members from eight countries, the mission was organized to verify the sharp deterioration of human rights conditions in Paraguay, particularly since last August, when President Horacio Cartes took office. Cartes was elected in an effort to normalize Paraguay after the June 2012 parliamentarian coup d’état that ousted former president, Bishop Fernando Lugo.
Indeed, last August, the Paraguayan congress passed a series of laws giving war-like powers to the executive. Since then, the army has been deployed to the three northern departments of San Pedro, Ambabay and Concepción (which together comprise 12% of the country’s territory). There, the army has been charged with “internal security,” with authority over civilian and judicial agencies. Soldiers and police routinely execute violent search warrants at night and detain civilians. This has resulted in severely curtailing the rights to organize and peacefully demand social justice.
Counterinsurgency war, Paraguayan style
The reforms are framed as counterinsurgency measures. A newly organized and minuscule illegal guerrilla group - with just 30 members - the so-called People’s Popular Army (EPP) is being used by the Paraguayan state as an excuse to jail and prosecute community leaders, falsely accusing them of being guerrilla collaborators. The International Mission verified that dozens of community leaders have been jailed and the government and the mainstream media have falsely accused prominent human rights defenders of having ties to illegal groups.
We visited the community of Horqueta, Concepción, where 14 people, including prominent leaders, such as 62-year-old Sindulfo Aguero, spent 18 months in prison, allegedly because their cell phones were used to place a call to someone who is suspected of being tied to the EPP. Eventually a judge found the detentions baseless and ordered their release, but that decision resulted in the judge being suspended.
The degree of paranoia exhibited by the Paraguayan state equals that seen at the height of the Cold War. It would be funny if it wasn’t true: in Horqueta, we learned how a community effort to send a group of young campesinos to study abroad had backfired. Upon return from their studies at the Paulo Freire Institute in Venezuela, the youngsters were shunned by the authorities and forced to leave their hometown.
In the same town, the government shut down community radio stations and criminally charged the radio operators with terrorism. This was very problematic, because in isolated rural areas of Concepción, a community radio is a great tool for teaching farmers techniques in subsistence farming. The mission also met an elementary school teacher from Arroyito, with the Jesuit Fe y Alegría, who told us how army officers arrived at the school armed with machine guns and aggressively interrogated the children, accusing them of receiving training in handling weapons to become guerrilla fighters. We later learned that the army routinely interrogates children.
For a Colombian-American like myself, whose life has been deeply impacted by a five-decade long guerrilla war, it was hard to understand how such a small group of outlaws could be blown completely out of proportion and used as an excuse for widespread repression. Of course, in Colombia, communities and human rights defenders are systematically accused of having links with leftist guerrillas, and such accusations are used for more than delegitimizing their work. In many cases being accused of links to guerrillas makes civilians military targets, and they are subsequently killed by the armed forces or by paramilitary death squads. In other cases, they are prosecuted with false evidence. I could see an eerie resemblance between the counterinsurgency casualties of both countries, despite the enormous disproportion between the groups that inspire them.
Agribusiness, Land and the Environment
Unlike other countries in South America, Paraguay doesn’t have oil or mineral resources. A significant portion of its wealth comes from agricultural production, and 40% of the population live in rural areas. Yet Paraguay has the highest concentration of land-ownership in Latin America. Stroessner’s regime illegally assigned thousands of acres were to a handful of cronies. Some of that land was stolen from indigenous people, like the Sawhoyamaxa people we visited. The Inter-American Human Rights Court recognized the illegality of the Sawhoyamaxa land grab in a 2006 ruling that ordered the Paraguayan state to restore their land, pay compensation for damages and provide basic services. Seven years later, the Sawhoyamaxa are still living on the shoulder of a highway, without basic services such as drinking water and sanitation. To learn more about the Sawhoyamaxa struggle, read Natalia Ruiz-Diaz’s recent piece.
Land concentration is associated with deep poverty. In the rural areas, one in three people live in extreme poverty. Yet, adversity hasn’t deterred rural communities in Paraguay from organizing a landless movement across the country that has occupied vacant agricultural estates. They have also resisted agribusiness models, insisting on farming their ancestral crops and using environmentally friendly techniques.
Paraguayan rural communities are fighting an uphill battle against agribusiness. Indeed, according to an August 2013 Oxfam report, 80% of Paraguay’s arable land is used for growing genetically modified (GE) soybeans, making Paraguay the world’s fourth largest soy producer. According to Oxfam, half of the soy land has been taken from indigenous peoples and small farmers. The owners of the crops are mainly foreign companies, especially from Brazil and Argentina.
GE soy’s environmental impact is extremely negative. Soy has been an engine of deforestation in areas hosting valuable ecosystems. Furthermore, the herbicides used in GE soy plantations are taking a high toll in rural communities. Unlike in the US, glyphosate in Paraguay is sprayed aerially, very much like in Colombia, where it is sprayed to forcibly eradicate coca crops. As in Colombia, this aerial spraying reaches water sources and campesinos’ food crops, which are often organic. The Mission heard many complaints of miscarriages and skin rashes associated with aerial spraying.
Over the past five years, the struggle for land has been criminalized. Communities have organized and protested against aerial spraying, yet their protests have been met with violence. Just the day after the Mission left, on November 16, 150 small farmers of the National Campesino Federation, concerned about the impacts of aerial fumigation on water, on their health and that of their animals, protested in the Maracaná district of the northern state of Canindeyú. The plantation’s owner demanded police intervention, the police came and opened fire on the group of protesters, which included women and children, wounding two men: Heminio Enríquez (29) and Pablino Rojas (38). The wounded were men were handcuffed and arrested, along with three other campesino leaders.
Generalized fear and tearing of social fabric
Landowners are also resorting to private armies to defend their property. Hit men have killed leaders, and the crimes are not investigated. In Horqueta, the Mission heard testimony that since June, three leaders had been assassinated, the last one the day before president Cartes took office. A campesino leader told the mission, “twenty members of the community have been gunned down. No one knows why. We don’t know where [the killers] come from, who they are. No one seems to care.”
Naturally, killings and threats have created fear among the communities. The climate of fear and distrust is nurtured by an expansion of military intelligence activities, paid informants have been actively recruited within the community. The Mission also heard about helicopters hovering over the towns, of cars without license plates crossing the rural roads. That fear is tearing the social fabric and negatively impacting community organizing. As one of the leaders said in La Horqueta: “We are afraid to participate, because of retaliation. There is a deliberate plan to break apart the Arroyito community.”
Communities in isolated rural areas have demanded the presence of civilian agencies, but all they are getting from the state is militarization. As Victoria Sanabria, a woman leader, said to the Mission in Tucuatí Poty, “We’ve called for a state presence. Instead of sending health, education and roads, [the government] sent us the army… Soldiers keep patrolling our homes, and who can assure me that they are not going to take me away?”
The rural communities the mission met are not defeated. Like in Colombia, they are communities in resistance, that have benefited from the organizing work and training on active nonviolence that SERPAJ has been carrying out for the past twenty years. These communities have a clear idea of what real security means: freedom from fear, having a piece of land to grow their food, potable water, schools, health clinics and decent roads. They know exactly how much it costs to fly an army helicopter to harass the community, and how those resources would be better spent on badly needed services.
International Solidarity can make a difference
Before leaving Paraguay, the International Mission issued a preliminary report that called, among other things, for reclaiming the space for nonviolent action, urging the Paraguayan state recognize the importance of the work done by social, campesino, and human rights organizations, as these organizations fundamentally advance democracy through their contributions to social justice. The report also included demands to judicial authorities - Supreme Court and Attorney General Office - to stop baseless prosecution of human rights defenders and to hold accountable those who attack human rights defenders.
A complete report of the Mission will be forthcoming in the next weeks. Meanwhile, it is up to an international community that believes in the power of nonviolent action for social change, to challenge the Paraguayan state to stop suppressing dissent and demand that it uphold its obligations under international law to protect the human rights of all its people. In the coming days, FOR and groups in the Americas will be circulating an organizational sign-on letter, demanding that Paraguay do just that.