On June 15, 2012 a violent eviction of campesinos from occupied land in the Curuguaty region of Paraguay left 17 people dead, including 6 police officers. A week later, President Fernando Lugo was impeached without due process by an opposition controlled legislature, in what most of the rest of the region would regard as a coup. The reason given was Lugo’s poor handling of the situation in Curuguaty.
Next Sunday Paraguay will hold presidential elections, the first since the removal of Lugo. The election pits the Colorado party, which ruled Paraguay for 61 years until the 2008 election of Lugo, versus the Liberal party of current President (and Lugo’s Vice President) Federico Franco. Yet, 6 months after the clash in Curuguaty, and on the eve of presidential elections the Paraguayan government has done little to investigate what happened on June 15. As Natalia Viana of Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil writes in this week’s edition of The Nation, “As Paraguay prepares to elect a new president on April 21, a growing number of citizens believe that answering the question of what happened in Curuguaty is the key to the truth behind Lugo's impeachment.” What’s more, Viana notes, is that “it is increasingly clear that his ouster was facilitated by entities in Paraguay who not only wanted him gone from the moment he was elected, but who enjoyed financial support from the United States.”
For some time about 70 landless people had been occupying 2,000 hectares of land. Viana notes that the “supposed owner of the land, Blas Riquelme, was a known land grabber and former president of Paraguay's conservative opposition party, the Partido Colorado (Colorado Party). But it was Riquelme who was occupying the land unlawfully; its rightful owner was the Instituto Nacional de Desarollo Rural y Tierra—the Paraguayan Land Institute—which tried to fight the eviction, only to be ignored by the local courts.” Paraguay has long been dominated by large landholders and is the fourth largest exporter of soy in the world; according to Viana two percent of the population controls over 75 percent of the land. Eventually, 14 of the landless Paraguayans were arrested. Then in December, Vidal Vega, who was a key witness in the investigation into the violent eviction, was assassinated.
Since June, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Amnesty International and the UN have all called on Paraguayan authorities to investigate the events in Curuguaty and the assassination of Vega. Yet the official investigation has been riddled with problems, according to Viana. For one, “policemen manipulated the crime scene, throwing bullet shells on top of corpses to make them look like criminals;” and further, the prosecutor was Jalil Rachid, “whose father, like Blas Riquelme, the supposed landowner, was once president of the Colorado Party.”
As Viana explains, “It is no coincidence that the eviction of the residents of Curuguaty was supported by the same lawmakers who would oust Lugo almost immediately afterward. Six months before Lugo's impeachment, the Colorado-dominated House issued a statement urging Lugo's administration to move forward with the operation.”
Role of the United States
The fact that opposition forces were looking for a way to oust Lugo did not come as a surprise to the United States government. As Viana points out, a diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks noted that “Many believe that political actors...are waiting for Lugo to make a big mistake that could serve as grounds for impeachment sometime in the next four years.”
After the election of Lugo, USAID increased their investments in Paraguay, which according to Paraguayan Base Investigaciones Sociales, was “to prevent his policies from becoming too leftist—and to prevent his administration from becoming too close to Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Cuba.” Through USAID’s largest program in Paraguay, they would end up supporting “some of the very institutions that would play a central role in impeaching Lugo six years later, including not just the police force but the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court,” Viana reports.
The Chief of Police, Paulino Rojas, who led the eviction in Curuguaty worked closely with the USAID funded-program. According to e-mails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Rojas and other were “are people we [U.S.] would call allies!" Just three months before the eviction, Rojas “bestowed a badge of honor on another USAID director, Matthew Langhenry.” At the event, Langhenry touted their work with the police, “together, we wrote the first manual for the use of force for the Paraguayan National Police.”
In e-mails, USAID officials expressed “eagerness to work” with the new government. In one e-mail, from the day of the coup, Michael Eschleman, director of the Democracy and Threshold Programs at USAID wrote about the need to figure out “how we can best approach new leadership to ensure not only stability in programming, but ability to march forward.” As Viana writes, even before the actual “impeachment” took place, Eschleman was thinking about how to best work with the Franco government. "Have begun internal meetings to assess and strategize how to best maintain momentum of both Democracy and Threshold programs with new Franco gov't," Eschleman wrote.
The Supreme Court, which rejected Lugo’s appeal following his ouster, also received financial support from the U.S. Three months prior to the ouster of Lugo, Mark Feierstein, USAID's assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean met with the Court, touting their efforts to reform the justice system as “an example for other countries.”
The U.S. support for those involved in the coup extended beyond just financial aid, to diplomatic support as well. While Latin American grouping like UNASUR and MERCOSUR rejected the coup and did not recognize the new government, the OAS, long-dominated by Washington, sent a fact-finding mission, which according to Viana “had US fingerprints all over it.” After the report was issued, the Obama administration was quick to recognize the Franco government.
Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told the press, “The most important thing at this point is to look for constructive ways...to engage with the Paraguayans, including with the Franco government, to get to the elections next year.”
And, if pre-election polls are accurate, next weekend the Colorado party – after a four year hiatus - and its candidate, Horacio Cartes, a millionaire businessman, will likely return to power.