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Lugo's fate highlights Paraguay land issue

25 june 2012, 11:07
0
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. ©AFP
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. ©AFP
The lightning quick removal of Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo over a land dispute underscores bitter resentments here over land ownership, poverty and staggering inequality, AFP reports.

What exactly happened during the ill-fated June 15 operation to remove squatters from a sprawling farm owned by Blas Riquelme, a wealthy businessman, former senator and Lugo opponent, remains unclear.

We do know that six police officers and 11 landless peasant farmers died, and that Lugo, a 61-year-old former Roman Catholic priest, was removed from office just eight days later after his political enemies united to oust him.

The replacement of Lugo -- seen as a "champion of the poor" when he ended more than six decades of Colorado Party rule in 2008 -- has left many Paraguayan farmers fearing their miserable lot is only going to get worse.

"We need land to earn our daily bread," said Martina Paredes, 33, who lost two of her brothers in the raid on this vast property at Curuguaty, which squatters say was acquired by political influence decades ago.

The tensions are unlikely to go away. The head of the movement of landless peasants that the squatters belonged to, Jose Rodriguez, on Sunday vowed to lead a campaign of civil disobedience to press for Lugo's reinstatement.

"This government is the product of a parliamentary assault. Our president continues being Lugo. We are going to demand that he be reinstated," he said.

Colorado Party supremo Alfredo Stroessner ruled with an iron fist from 1954 to 1989, treating Paraguay as his own personal fiefdom and routinely rewarding allies with land during a tenure marked by cronyism and corruption.

Party cronies have amassed so much property that 80 percent of Paraguay's arable land is now owned by just two percent of the population, according to the official government figures.

Paraguay is the world's fourth-largest soybean exporter, but poor farmers have profited little from the recent commodity price boom.

Campesinos worry that the snap impeachment of Lugo, who rose to power promising he would redistribute land, will also quash their hopes to finally get meaningful reform in this largely agricultural nation of 6.5 million.

"My father has 10 hectares (25 acres) and there are 11 of us" living off the sesame, corn and cotton crops on the land, Paredes said. Daily workers earn about 30,000 guarani (less than $8) a day.

In occupying land like Riquelme's estate, landless farmers hope to one day obtain a plot of land "to build a little house, run a small farm," Paredes explained.

And while the farmers had high hopes their situation would improve under leftist Lugo, "he lacked the necessary support anyway" in Congress to implement his promises, said Dario Acosta, a 50-year-old farmer.

He also worried about a possible backlash after Lugo was removed from office less than 48 hours after the lower house voted to begin the proceedings -- with much of Latin America decrying it as a political coup.

"As far as retaliation is concerned, small farmers will bear the brunt of it," said Acosta.

Small, colorful cottages line the stony path leading to the main road in this rural region, along with hastily built constructions -- a few boards nailed together with sheet metal roofs.

Housing concerns do not bother Julio Colman, a 59-year-old member of the Colorado Party who owns a radio station, a bakery and a gas station in Curuguaty.

The former lawmaker and city councilman sees in Lugo a man who "caused chaos" for Paraguay.

But political analyst and pollster Francisco Capli said the landless farmers have "lost a strategic ally" even if Lugo "resolved almost none of their problems."

The land inequality "dates back to the Alfredo Stroessner era, when he distributed deeds to reward his accomplices," said Capli.

During his first press conference after assuming office late Friday, new President Federico Franco pointed to a "terrible situation" with regards to land distribution and vowed to provide "new solutions to old problems."

He also promised to create a commission to investigate the Curuguaty killings, but Paraguay's poor farmers are not holding their breath.

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