Paraguay’s Leader Risks His Presidency by Turning His Back on Former Supporters

  • But President Nicanor Duarte Frutos has attempted to calm a recent wave of peasant protests by encouraging last-minute talks between campesino leaders and the government.
  • Some critics believe that Duarte’s populist rhetoric triggered the land invasions by campesinos, while other government observers suspect that leftist leaders are behind the campesino movement.
  • Constitutional constraints have stalled Duarte’s ability to hand out land.

Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos is performing a dangerously delicate balancing act which has been described by some as exercising a populist style of leadership. Since November 16, some 4,500 protestors have taken to the streets causing major road blockages, mostly in Asunción. His critics accuse Duarte of failing to provide the $10 million allocation that he promised would be used to advance land reform programs. Leaders of Paraguay’s landless campesino movement are demanding that more resources be made available for the purchase of 62,000 acres of land to satisfy a minimum of 1,300 peasant families. The president tried to put the brakes on what many feared would be a more violent round of protests, by calling upon the movement’s leaders to rein in their followers and resume dialogue. Despite these ostensibly conciliatory efforts, it now appears that the September 18 agreement with campesino leaders representing the Coordinating Table of National Campesino Organizations (MCNOC) and the National Federation of Campesinos (FNC) has come apart. Some conservative critics blame Duarte’s own populist rhetoric for inspiring the land invasions he later refused to honor.

“Big Problems”
Though the campesino movement began in response to the country’s prevailing skewed agricultural system which emphasizes inequality and which was a hallmark of the Stroessner dictatorship, now the problem appears to be imbedded in the country’s infrastructure. Duarte, who hails from humble origins, must have in mind the bitter fate of Bolivia’s Sanchez de Lozada, who was pressured out of office after turning to his troops in his dealings with the indigenous leadership. Duarte claims to represent the common man, (having won 37.1 percent of Paraguay’s popular vote in the 2003 presidential elections, much of it probably coming from the more than one-third of the country living below the poverty line). Some are blaming him for inciting the land invasions beginning last April, following several speeches laden with populist rhetoric. As a result, campesinos nationwide began large-scale land invasions, especially in the interior of the country. In a phone interview with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a high-ranking Paraguayan diplomat to the United Nations said: “When President Duarte assumed power, he did so as an enthusiastic populist. However, many took his speeches too seriously to the point that they invaded lands legitimately owned by others. Since then, the president has had to tone down his populist rhetoric.” Some would even go so far as too argue that Duarte has gone beyond this point by reneging on his promises to distribute land to the landless.

Outdated Communist Conspiracy Theory
Now the president finds himself caught between the prospect of unleashing the military as so many of his predecessors have (done to their loss), or watching the country lapse into anarchy. In response to illegal land invasions, Duarte dramatically altered his position, stating on November 4 that, if needed, force would be used for those “breakers of democratic law.” Bolstering the police with military personnel, the president has radically changed from his pre-land invasion approach. Moreover, the president called upon the judicial branch to act “vigorously” to adjudicate present and future land invasions. When asked about the unfolding crisis, a senior Paraguayan diplomat in Washington understatedly told COHA that, “We are having big problems.” The diplomat also speculated about who is behind the campesino organizations, using perhaps rather conventional terms of reference. “Who is organizing the movement? Who is coordinating demonstrations throughout the country? There is not a problem with the land; rather a problem with the distribution of land,” he said. Suggesting the movement is being guided by “communists” in hopes of destroying Paraguay’s tenuous democracy, the diplomat argued that without the restraint provided by utilizing the military, Paraguay could easily be converted into what he termed as “another Cuba or Nicaragua.”

Separation of Powers
Conversely, the peasant leaders’ demands for a prompter government response on the land question have been stalled by legitimate constitutional issues. Paraguay’s 1992 constitution separates the powers of the president and those of the judiciary branch. The MCNOC’s insistence that Duarte order the release of 205 incarcerated campesinos technically does not fall under his jurisdiction, thus leaving the president with his hands tied and an easy excuse at hand.

Another major reason for the delay in land distribution stems from fact that many peasants who presently hold land parcels lack conventional legal entitlement to their land. Asunción’s most highly regarded newspaper, ABC Color, reported on November 13 that over half of the peasants seeking lands designated for distribution have not properly registered, thus disqualifying them from receiving direct government assistance.

A Conciliatory Future?
To his credit, President Duarte up to this point has avoided the heavy-handed approach of his predecessors; rather he has endeavored to return the land dispute to the negotiating table. After dispatching the military to the streets (a duty usually assigned to the police forces) Duarte offered to return the troops to their barracks on the condition that the planned road blockages would be lifted. After turning to the Catholic Church as a mediator between the executive branch and the MCNOC and FNC, Duarte met behind closed doors with campesino leaders to try to identify a short-term solution. However, the rising turnout for the protests in recent days and Duarte’s merely conditional offer to withdraw the military may not lead to land for the campesinos and peace for the rest of the country.