What Went Wrong in Paraguay?

This article was originally posted on The Protest. It’s a rough translation of the original in Spanish, with an expanded background and English language references.

He doesn’t look that happy any more.

As you may have heard, Paraguay’s leftist president Fernando Lugo was impeached a couple of weeks ago, on June 22. Our parliament charged him with various ‘crimes,’ ranging from not fixing the insecurity problem, to being supposedly at fault for a bloody land seizure in Curuguaty just days prior to the trial, an unfortunate episode that culminated in 17 deaths. They gave him a speedy trial, with a meager 24 hours to prepare his defense. Due to the speed of his trial, a plethora of countries and international organizations condemned the impeachment as unfair. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated, “it is highly questionable that this could be done within 24 hours while still respecting the due process guarantees necessary for an impartial trial.”

Red: Countries that withdrew their ambassadors; Orange: countries that recalled their ambassadors for consultations; Yellow: countries not recognising the new government; Green: other positions. (Aqua: offered asylum to Lugo, Grey: no embassy in Paraguay.)

Governments of Latin America, regardless of ideology, almost universally condemned the impeachment as unfair. As did governments of Europe. The only notable though unsurprising exceptions—given their traditional penchant for suppressing the left at home and abroad—were the governments of the US and Canada, that chose to issue bland statements to the effect that they hope democracy is respected.

The reaction at home was more varied. The entire capitalist class is in favor of the impeachment, for obvious reasons. In fact, as WikiLeaks cables show, right-wing politicians had been planning it since at least 2009; they were just waiting for the right time, provided by the massacre of Curuguaty. A fraction of the educated petty bourgeoisie is against the impeachment because they see it as a violation of due process, though they too have no love for Lugo. The left is almost universally in support of Lugo, and a faction even refuses to recognize the new government. They are outraged by what they recognize as a mere show trial, and condemn the impeachment as a “parliamentary coup.” However, here I will argue that the right is not to blame, that this type of attack should have been expected, and that in fact Lugo is to blame for giving free rein to his grave-diggers through his attempt to compromise and moderate his position. But first, a bit of background.

The Economy

Paraguay is and has always been a largely agricultural nation. There was an attempt to industrialize in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was quickly crushed by a triple war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, an alliance that received material support from the British Empire. Although there is a now a slowly growing industrial sector, the motor of our economy is agricultural exports. There is also a large ‘informal’ sector, including minor sales done under the table, but also major drug operations, contraband and arms trades; though its true size is hard to estimate.

Land disputes have been a constant feature of life in Paraguay since the arrival of the Spanish five centuries ago. The trend has always been towards increasing concentration of land in the hands of a few aristocrats: first the Spanish, then criollos, and now Paraguayans, Brazilians, and multi-national corporations—with the exception of the decades long dictatorship of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, who collectivized land ownership in the early nineteenth century.

This trend has been exacerbated in recent years by a soy boom driven by foreign corporations. As a letter to the editor of the New York Times points out:

Paraguay’s agricultural landscape has altered dramatically on the back of this boom. Since 1996, more than 1.2 million hectares of forest have been cut down to grow soy rather than food and other crops. Brazilian settlers — the brasiguayos — have set up large-scale soy farms, provoking a prolonged conflict over what locals say is “earth robbery.” Over the last 20 years 100,000 small-scale local farmers have migrated to city slums or to other countries or have become landless. Each year in Paraguay 9,000 rural families are evicted by soy production and nearly half a million hectares of land are turned into soy fields.

This boom in soy production, while a boon to the Paraguayan macro-economy, has driven our already unequal land distribution to absurd proportions. It is estimated that “eighty percent of fertile lands in the country are in the hands of one percent of the population, while eighty-five percent of farmers only have access to six percent of all the land.” This explains why land reform was one of Lugo’s lead campaign promises, though, alas, a promise that he could not fulfill.


Dictator Alfredo Stroessner

Before Lugo, Paraguay’s politics had been dominated by the conservative Asociación Nacional Republicana (National Republican Association), otherwise known as the Partido Colorado (Red Party), for 61 years. This period includes the 35-year-long dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, whose regime involved widespread torture, imprisonment, and murder of entire families of political opponents. At the time he bragged that, along with Taiwan, Paraguay was “the most anti-communist country in the world.” In such circumstances, something like a leftist party was unimaginable, and it is quite impressive that we ended up with a supposedly socialist president a mere 20 years after Stroessner was ousted.

Of course, this did not happen from one day to another. Stroessner was overthrown by a coup masterminded by one of his closest allies, Andrés Rodríguez. After that, Rodríguez became president and the constitution was re-written to support a presidential democracy with significant checks from parliament. It was one of these checks that would provide the legal basis for Lugo’s impeachment.

The liberalization of the country’s politics gave rise to the slow but steady resurgence of the Paraguayan left. Peasant movements, civil organizations, and fragmentary leftists parties soon became abundant, and they began to develop closer ties.

The first time I heard of Fernando Lugo, then the Catholic bishop of San Pedro, was around 2006. Our president at the time, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, had violated the constitution when he took the helm of the Colorado Party while still in office. This would be nothing special in Paraguayan politics, had it not provided the spark for a mobilization of forty thousand people from all sectors of the opposition. Lugo brought a contingent from San Pedro, and gave a speech at the march. From these events the Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio (Patriotic Alliance for Change) was born.

The largest faction within this alliance was the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (Authentic Radical Liberal Party), the rest of it was a cornucopia of small socialist and social democratic parties. It was always an uncomfortable alliance, but thanks to it the opposition ended the hegemony of the Colorado Party for the first time in over sixty years.

Lugo’s government

Lugo started his first day in office with the noose of the bourgeoisie already around his neck. There were a mere 4/45 leftists in senate, 2/80 in the chamber of deputies. All of the most popular media is bourgeois, the judicial system is controlled by the bourgeoisie, and there is still plenty of residue of Stroessner’s anti-communism in the popular ideology. Even his vice-president, Federico Franco, is a member of the Liberal Party. In such dire conditions, it is a miracle that he even lasted three years in office. What probably saved him was the hatred that the right-wing parties have for each other, since all of them but the Colorado Party were also heavily repressed during Stroessner’s dictatorship.

It is clear that Lugo had a very narrow political space to navigate. We could perhaps say that it was so narrow that the Paraguayan left was in what Alain Badiou calls a point, that is, “a moment within a truth procedure (such as a sequence of emancipatory politics) when a binary choice (do this or that) decides the future of the entire process” (The Communist Hypothesis). He could either cede to the demands of the right and moderate his politics, or he could advance with his leftist politics using the same forces that got him into office: non-institutional forces, the force of popular movements. Lugo picked the first option, and it was this decision that sealed his fate.

It is true, he attempted to implement a few “progressive” policies, such as his reform of the health system. But declaring universal healthcare is quite useless without a reform of the tax system to pay for it. He didn’t even mention agrarian reform after his first year in office. That is, he gave up on all reforms that would attack the interests of the bourgeoisie, for he realized that his ability to stay in office depended on their consent. As we say in Paraguay, he positioned himself mbytetépe poncho jurúicha (in the center, like a poncho’s mouth). Even if he really did want reform, the form of politics that he chose removed all possibility of defying the status quo. Not only that, but as many have said, his attempts to appease the bourgeoisie merely emboldened them, as tends to happen in these cases. Lugo’s appeasement gave the right the confidence that was necessary to overthrow him. The liberals abandoned their tenuous alliance with the left and Lugo’s point turned to failure, because instead of trying to get rid of his noose, he merely loosened it. The bourgeosie only needed a nudge to kick the platform that kept him from hanging.

And now, what is to be done?

As if waking from a slumber, the Paraguayan left is now doing what they should have been doing throughout Lugo’s rule. They formed the Frente Nacional por la Defensa de la Democracia (National Front for the Defense of Democracy), and they are protesting the new government of Franco, the liberal who served as Lugo’s vice-president. But it’s too late for that. Franco is president, and there is little chance that Lugo will ever recover his power.

For the future, we have learned that by conceding to the demands of the right we will never achieve our goals. And that despite taking control of the bourgeois state machinery, we can never forget the true base of socialist power: the people. As Bartomeu Melià, a Paraguayan linguist and anthropologist said, Paraguay will be saved by the peasant class. Lugo himself once said that “change will never come from the rich, the people whose faces we see in magazines.” Well, now we know that change can’t come from the bourgeois state either, no matter who’s in power.

The best thing to come out of Lugo’s government is without a doubt the new-found unity of the Paraguayan left, inside the Frente Guasu (Wide/Big Front). They recently announced a united list for the next parliamentary elections. But we must always remember that electoral politics is not enough; we must continue organizing from below, and fight for a socialism with a true popular base. A socialism that can resist any president and any parliament, and whose power does not depend on the complacence of the bourgeoisie or the charisma of any political figure. Building that socialism is our task.