Ben Dangl: President Lugo hasn't delivered on promises to the farmers who brought him to power, while transgenic soy farms expand
Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and a series of Brazilians agribusinesses are flexing their muscles in Paraguay, currently occupying 25% of all arable land for the production of genetically modified soy for export. The losers are Paraguay's peasant farmers, and they've mobilized to defend themselves, including getting a president into power who promised to help them. But as Ben Dangl reports, for a serious of reasons, President Lugo has converted into an enemy of the same farmers that got him into power in the first place.
Produced by Jesse Freeston.
Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America for the Guardian Unlimited, The Nation, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia(AK Press) and Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and co-founder of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Dangl teaches South American history and globalization at Burlington College. He can be reached by email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: In part one of our interview with author and journalist Ben Dangl, we discussed the conflicts between left-wing governments in South America and the social movements that helped bring them to power in the first place. One of these governments is that of the Patriotic Alliance for Change in Paraguay, an alliance of eight political parties whose leader, Fernando Lugo, won the presidency in 2008.
BENJAMIN DANGL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: He's a former bishop. And he was elected on a platform to confront the country's soy-agro industry, military human rights violators from the dictatorship, and the right-wing infrastructure and institutions of the Colorado Party. The Colorado Party had been in power for 60 years. It was part of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship, which was one of many dictatorships around the region during the Cold War, and collaborated with each other to torture, kidnap, and murder political dissidents and maintain their power over the region. So when Lugo was elected, it was largely a victory against this nightmare of a dictatorship and the shadow the Colorado Party had over the country.
FREESTON: In a country of farmers, the Colorado Party had maintained one of the most unequal land distributions in the world. The BBC reported that when Lugo came to power in 2008, 2 percent of landowners controlled 70 percent of the land.
PRES. FERNANDO LUGO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): In my first month as president, I will get comprehensive land reform.
DANGL: Many people were hopeful that he would transform the country and confront these institutions, but he hasn't shown the political will to do this. In Paraguay, one of the most powerful aspects of the economy is the soy industry. Soy in Paraguay largely goes to feed farm animals in Europe. And this industry is rapidly expanding. It's largely powered by Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Monsanto, and various Brazilian companies. Small farming communities, small farmers are having to migrate to the cities in a massive exodus from the countryside. They're doing this because of the repression they face from thugs hired by the soy owners, the terrible pesticides that are used in soy production that poison water sources, that kill livestock, that kill anything else but soy, and that create cancer, blindness, birth deformities among campesino farmers that are living side by side next to these seas of soy.
NICOLASA TRINIDAD, PEASANT FARMER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We've lost our health to the pesticides, and there are no hospitals, nothing.
ILSA CASTRO, PEASANT FARMER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Women are the ones who suffer the most from extreme poverty. Women are without access to health care or education, and every day the poverty and discrimination is getting worse.
FREESTON: As it stands, more than 25 percent of Paraguay's arable land is taken up by genetically modified soy farms. Peasant farmers, or campesinos, have organized to oppose this lucrative industry.
DANGL: Dozens of campesinos has been murdered outright by paramilitaries hired by soy companies, in collusion with the police and the military of Paraguay. And campesinos have fought against this heroically, with direct action, blockading roads, occupying land, cutting down soy crops, defending their communities with machetes, and in solidarity with other communities. In spite of this, the expansion continues, the pollution continues. And Lugo has not only allowed for this expansion to continue, but he's repressed campesino sectors, like, for example, last spring calling a state of emergency in the Paraguayan countryside in the most socially powerful departments, where there's the most organizing happening. And in this state of emergency, which hasn't been called since the Stroessner dictatorship, this outlawed any kind of political meeting of any kind and prevented any of the kind of building blocks that make up the campesino movement from working.
FREESTON: This kind of repression isn't new in Paraguay. It was here in 1992 where lawyer and former political prisoner Martín Almada uncovered the famous terror files of the Stroessner dictatorship. The files revealed the extent of Operation Condor, the CIA's program of installing, supporting, and organizing a whole series of South American military dictatorships. The files documented the level of coordination amongst the dictatorships themselves that were responsible for the overthrow of numerous elected presidents, and thousands of murders, tortures, and kidnappings. The US government position is that it was necessary in order to stop the spread of communism. Others point to the benefits that accrued to US corporations in the form of the land, low taxes, and low wages that were guaranteed by military rule. At the same time, the US military was training many of the offending military leaders and a total of 60,000 Latin American soldiers at the School of the Americas. That program remains operational today in Fort Benning, Georgia. But the US isn't the only foreign power that the region has to contend with.
DANGL: The analysis of campesinos largely looks to Brazil as the imperialism in their neighborhoods and their communities, the Brazilian soy farmers coming into the country and working against the self-determination of Paraguayan farmers. So when speaking about imperialism, they're usually talking about Brazil, not just—you know, instead of Washington. And this is a reality in Uruguay, in Bolivia, in Argentina, where the most powerful government in the region, the most powerful companies in the regions often come from Brazil.
FREESTON: Despite the relatively minor nature of his reform projects, President Lugo has been targeted for removal by the traditional elite and the Congress, which the opposition controls. He is currently facing demands for his resignation after he fired the commanders of the Army, Navy, and Air Force amidst fears of an impending military coup.
DANGL: Since Lugo's time in office, there have been many different rumors of coup attempts against him. None of them have played out. Lugo is also, unfortunately, sick with cancer right now. So there have been these various serious challenges that have faced his administration, both from the right, his health situation, and from the protests from the campesino sector. And I think that all these factors will contribute to the fact that he probably won't be reelected and may not even finish his term.
FREESTON: With so many farmers feeling abandoned, Dangl says that many have organized alternatives to the government.
DANGL: Families who are displaced by the pesticides, by the paramilitary violence, by the poverty of trying to work a small farm, arrive in cities penniless without any kinds of allies, often, and end up recycling cardboard from the streets to survive, and enter an oftentimes inescapable cycle of poverty and police criminalization, which is hard to escape. The Bañados, a poor neighborhood between the capital city and the river in Asunción, Paraguay, this has been expanding rapidly as more and more families leave the countryside. And one hopeful example in Paraguay of resistance to this poverty and exclusion is a certain neighborhood of the Bañados that has organized against the criminalization of their community, has worked to create their own health clinic, has worked as a kind of popular mayor's office to meet the needs of the community through years of organizing, and has—in spite of the negligence and repression of the Lugo administration, has worked to support small farmers there in the settlement, in the community, has worked to build trees to prevent flooding, because it's right next to the river, and has essentially worked, in the absence of the state and in the absence of a benevolent president, have worked to create a better society within this nightmarish scenario in Paraguay, and they've been successful. And there are many other examples around Paraguay and Latin America of people, when faced with these kind of challenges, working autonomously among neighbors, building close relationships over generations, and because of that, successfully building a better tomorrow and more opportunities for their kids and various generations.