Land at heart of Paraguay’s political turmoil

Unrest between landless peasants and landowners a key factor in impeachment of a president seen as champion of the poor.

They are living in small tents made of plastic bags. Landless peasents holding on to their only chance of survival.

We arrived at this place located in the middle of a ranch in Curuguaty. The land, of course, is not theirs. They told us it belongs to a wealthy businessman. Initially nobody wanted to talk to us, they were afraid.

This is the place where two weeks ago 11 poor peasants and six police officers were killed during a forced eviction.

It is not clear yet what happened and there is an ongoing investigation. The farmers were armed with old rifles and homemade weapons. Apparently they resisted the police assault, but there are many continuing rumours.

The land they tried to take is located right next to the a ranch owned by Blas Riqueleme, referred to by many as the “Carlos Slim” of Paraguay.

He is a former senator of the Colorado party who owns 80,000 hectares of land. People in the area say that the land that was occupied belongs to the state and that Riqueleme was using it but that it did not own it. That is why they took it.

Social tensions between landless peasants and landowners have intensified in the last years. In fact a group known as the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) has started a series of small scale attacks against people and infrastructure in the area.

The tension has a reason, around 80 per cent of the land is owned by only two per cent of the population.

Paraguay has very little industry so there is no work for people in the area. “We need to take land so we can grow food for our families”, Carmelo Arevalo said. And when you see the way they live you believe them.

The clashes that took place in the area were used by the opposition to dismiss Fernando Lugo, the president, through an impeachment trial. He took office in 2008 and was seen as a champion of the poor.

Now with Lugo gone, there is little chance that somebody will try to put an end to the enormous inequality that exists in Paraguay today, where over 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

This does not mean that Lugo achieved a lot while he was in power. The former bishop has little political experience and was easily played by Paraguay’s traditional parties. Every law that he tried to pass to help the poor was blocked by them.

Lugo has vowed to continue fighting to make it back to the presidency. He told me that he was going to run in next year’s presidential elections. But he probably would not be allowed to do so.

Now opposition senators are saying they will sue him for the meeting that took place between Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s foreign minister, and the Paraguayan military.

They claim that Maduro was trying to get the military to prevent Lugo from being removed from office. If the opposition gets what they want, they will ban Lugo from public office for years.

Paraguay’s new president told me they have plans for land reform to help the thousands of people that are struggling to survive in rural areas.

But the problem is that as things look political, congress has the power to block any moves that will challenge the country’s elite. And what happened to Lugo is an example of what happens to a president when they do exactly that.

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