Paraguay: An unequal land

Paraguayan democracy may have come a long way since the end of dictatorship, but terror is sweeping its agricultural heartlands where farmers and indigenous communities are resisting attempts to take away what little land they have left. Toby Hill writes

On a sultry late-summer evening in Asunción, Paraguay’s sleepy capital, a band plays a slow waltz on a stage carpeted in crimson. Behind them hangs a series of photographs, headshots of people murdered by the secret police during the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. In front, beyond a row of bathtubs – the regime’s most infamous torture device – couples dance solemnly.

Among the dancers is Asunción’s newly elected Mayor, an opposition-party politician who supports the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. His presence suggests Paraguayan democracy has come a long way since Stroessner was deposed in 1989, ending 35 years of terror.

Paraguay: smallholders forced off their land who have taken refuge in makeshift roadside huts
Smallholders forced off their land who have taken refuge in makeshift roadside huts. Photo: imageBroker / Alamy Stock Photos

Foreign investors share the positive assessment: the World Bank talks about Paraguay’s ‘extraordinary growth’, while Bloomberg says the country is ‘having its moment’ under President Horatio Cartes of the establishment Colorado Party, elected in 2013.

But Paraguay remains among Latin America’s poorest and most unequal countries. Social tensions erupted in April 2017, when protesters set the country’s Congress ablaze. The spark was Cartes’s push for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stand for re-election. But deeper resentments also fanned the flames.

Paraguay: giant otters on the Paraguay River
Giant otters on the Paraguay River. Photo: Barry Chapman / Alamy Stock Photos

Discontent cuts across the classes. At the National University of Asunción (UNA) students hold frequent strikes, protesting an endemic culture of corruption. Nearby, slums strung along the riverbank house 100,000 people; most summers, these slums flood, scattering residents across Asunción’s plazas and pavements.

Agricultural land is Paraguay’s main source of wealth: this nation of six million people is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soybeans and sixth-largest exporter of beef. Booms in both commodities are driving macroeconomic growth. But these industries are concentrated in very few hands. Measured by land distribution, Paraguay is the most unequal society in South America.

Paraguay: a Mbya-Guaraní woman in her herb garden.
A Mbya-Guaraní woman in her herb garden. Photo: Westend61GmbH / Alamy Stock Photos

Stroessner set the stage for this inequity, distributing 10 million hectares of public land among the military and political elite – the latter predominantly members of the Colorado Party. Agribusiness has since pushed up land prices at a dizzying rate. Under intense pressure, many small-scale farmers and indigenous communities have abandoned what little land they had left, moving to lives of extreme poverty in the city. Others have resisted, meeting a frequently violent response. Since 1990, 129 land activists have been assassinated.

Paraguay: a street scene on Calle Mallorquin in Encarnacion.
A street scene on Calle Mallorquin in Encarnación. Photo: Thomas Cockrem / Alamy Stock Photo

An emblematic clash took place during a land occupation near the town of Curuguaty in 2012. In circumstances that remain unclear, gunshots left 11 farmers and 6 police dead. The massacre prompted the impeachment of a left-leaning President, Fernando Lugo, elected on a platform of land reform. In a trial riddled with inconsistencies – four videos of the massacre vanished before proceedings began and the main defence witness was assassinated – 11 farmers were given jail sentences of up to 35 years. The UN’s human rights chief said he was ‘deeply troubled’ by the convictions.

Back in Asunción, the growing middle classes are winning some victories. Since student protests erupted in 2015, 200 UNA staff have been sacked and 42 imprisoned. And Cartes has backed down and will not stand for re-election in 2018.

the Panteón de los Héroes at dusk in the capital, Asunción
The Panteón de los Héroes at dusk in the capital, Asunción. Photo:  robertharding / Alamy Stock Photos

But in Paraguay’s agricultural heartlands, human rights groups document beatings, killings, death threats and torture. The dark days of dictatorship may seem distant to the Mayor and his fellow dancers in Asunción, but for the farming and indigenous communities fighting to defend their livelihoods, the memory feels a lot closer.