- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CAPIIBARY, Paraguay (AP) — Just outside the rickety wire fence that guards the rich, red soil of this vast hacienda, dozens of peasants have camped for weeks under a patchwork of thatched shelters and tarpaulin-covered tents.

They are demanding a slice of the wealthy landowner’s property to grow food for their families. And if Paraguay President-elect Fernando Lugo doesn’t help them get it, they plan to swarm the private property, just as thousands of other landless farmers have done throughout the country.

“The Paraguayan people are awakening,” said Salomon Ruiz Diaz, 29, a protest leader.

Land reform is the single biggest issue in this tiny nation of just under 7 million people, where 1 percent of the population controls 77 percent of the arable fields. It is also the biggest challenge facing Mr. Lugo, a bearded, sandal-clad former Roman Catholic bishop who won election in April when Paraguay joined the continent’s swing to the left and ended six decades of conservative single-party rule.

With the Friday inauguration of the man known as “the bishop of the poor,” peasants such as Mr. Ruiz Diaz see Paraguay’s first real chance to address an age-old land dilemma. The way that Mr. Lugo deals with the land issue will go a long way toward determining whether he will govern as a revolutionary leftist, like President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or as more of a middle-of-the-road pragmatist, like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Across Latin America, land reform has been the battle cry of generations of populist leaders. But results have generally been modest, as in Mexico and Brazil. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has provoked a constitutional crisis with his efforts to seize land from large agribusiness for the poor indigenous majority.

In Paraguay, South America’s second-poorest nation after Bolivia, land ownership is the key to wealth, or even survival. The country has very little industry, and as much as 42 percent of its people live in poverty.

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By most accounts, the land gap dates back nearly 140 years to a war that Paraguay lost to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Devastated and saddled with crushing war debt, Paraguay began selling off its government holdings that at the time amounted to 95 percent of the country. Over the years, the most fertile parcels went to political cronies, and many profited by reselling land to wealthy foreigners.

Privatization accelerated under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989 and into the early 1990s. A 2004 government study found that about 17 million acres ended up in the hands of just 1,877 people.

The hope of land reform helped drive Mr. Lugo’s election, and now the pressure is on him to deliver. In dozens of land invasions since the election, peasant groups have burned tractors, briefly taken hostages and helped themselves to tools and cell phones before retreating.

Nationwide, an estimated 150,000 to 225,000 Paraguayans claim some affiliation with the various, scattered land groups, and some 50,000 are camped illegally on soy farms and ranches.

So far, Mr. Lugo has managed to balance both sides. He has persuaded most peasant leaders to stop invading property by promising priority for land relief. He also has assured private landowners that he will respect their holdings.

And he has studiously avoided the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that elevated class tensions and spooked investors in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, taking pains to say that both landowners and the landless have legitimate claims.

“The constitution guarantees private property,” Mr. Lugo said shortly after the election, “but it also guarantees the right of all Paraguayans to have access to a piece of land.”

Mr. Lugo, who has spent many years ministering to poor farmers, has asked for patience. He says he plans to buy or expropriate abandoned or illegally acquired land and redistribute it to peasant farmers, along with property the government already holds. His supporters plan a national survey to determine who owns what land - a project that would take at least two years and require help from international lending organizations.

But actually pushing through land reform is a different matter.

Mr. Lugo will have to contend with government bureaucracies still dominated by political patronage hires and avoid alienating the soy growers and cattle ranchers who keep Paraguay’s economy sputtering along. Land redistribution has been the law in Paraguay for decades, but the agencies charged with carrying it out have been accused of inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Lugo has also given few specifics, other than promising loans, technical assistance, schools and public health programs - all of which already are government policy.

“The law isn’t the problem,” said Sen. Emilio Camacho, a Lugo ally. “It’s the political will.”

Mr. Camacho predicted that Mr. Lugo would not take radical action because he is essentially a pragmatic man.

Mr. Lugo also will be hampered by having only a tenuous majority coalition in Congress, which by law must approve all land expropriations. And landowners can appeal takeovers, but the courts are dominated by judges appointed by the long-ruling Colorado Party.

So despite his best intentions, Paraguay’s political establishment likely will allow only conservative land reform, said Miguel Carter, an American University expert on land issues in South America.

“There is a pent-up demand in Paraguay that has been barely satisfied,” Mr. Carter said. “I’m concerned there may be a little wishful thinking as to how easily it can be done.”

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Along a highway outside the sweltering rural town of Capiibary - “straw juice” in the indigenous Guarani language still spoken by most Paraguayans - that demand is clear. Under a thatched shelter, people listen to a young man in a red Che Guevara beret explain their claim to the fertile land, saying it should be redistributed because it is unproductive and possibly ill-gotten.

The estate is controlled by Jose Raimundo Bogarin, a large soy grower with an auto-import business who is known as a collector of antique cars. Attempts by the Associated Press to reach Mr. Bogarin for comment were unsuccessful.

There are “no original documents” describing the title history of the land, according to Belarmino Balbuena, a leader of a coalition of Paraguayan landless groups. Mr. Balbuena said that of the hacienda’s estimated 100,000 acres, there’s enough acreage in questionable ownership to satisfy the protesters’ demands for about 20,000 acres to divide among themselves for subsistence farming.

What happens next will depend on Mr. Lugo.

“If a month passes, or a month and a half, or two months … ” Mr. Ruiz Diaz said, his voice trailing off as he leaned on the wire fence. “We’ve heard his speeches, but we’re waiting for results.”

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