Paraguay’s Election: Opportunity & Danger

Berkeley Daily Planet

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

April 25, 2008

The recent victory of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay’s presidential election not only broke the right-wing Colorado Party’s 61 year monopoly on power, according to journalist and author Richard Gott, it signals “that the new mood in Latin America is not just a creation of a competent economist in Ecuador, a charismatic colonel in Venezuela, or a couple of union leaders in Brazil and Bolivia, but the result of a heartfelt and deep-rooted desire for change.”

But the “pink tide” that has swept leftists and reformers into power throughout the region is hardly going unnoticed in Washington. Journalist and researcher Raul Zibechi, a member of the Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, says the U.S. has stepped up destabilization efforts in Venezuela and, according to a recent study by the Brazilian magazine, Military Power Review, is turning the Bush Administration’s last reliable ally in South America, Colombia, into a military juggernaut.

Lugo’s decisive win against Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar and former general Lino Oviedo will, says Paraguayan farmer union leader Tomas Zayas, “open a door for more change for the future, but that’s all. We will take what we can get.”

Certainly Lugo is no leftist in the mold of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Indeed, he describes himself as a “centrist.” But in the context of Paraguay’s long history of military dictatorships and savage repression, Lugo—a former Catholic Bishop—represents a sea change for the landlocked country of 6.7 million people.

Heading up a 10-party coalition of unions, rural farmers, liberal reformers, socialists and leftists called the Patriotic Alliance for Change, Lugo ran on a platform of land reform, reducing poverty, investing in education, and ending corruption. The new president also plans to renegotiate energy agreements with Brazil and Argentina for a bigger piece of the hydroelectric energy pie.

More than a third of Paraguayans live on less than $2 a day, and in recent years, enormous agribusiness corporations and Brazilian soy giants have turned the country into the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Huge companies, like Monsanto, Cargill, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge are producing soy, corn, wheat, sunflower and rapeseed at industrial levels.

The losers in all this have been small farmers and indigenous people forced off their land though a campaign of intimidation, violence, and chemical warfare. According to the United Nation’s Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities.”

Benjamin Dangl and April Howard of “Upside Down World” say that, in the four departments where soy cultivation is the highest, “78 percent of families in rural communities” had health problems from the frequent spraying of crops.

Much of Lugo’s base is among these small farmers and rural communities where he has championed the plight of the poor and landless. “There are too many differences between the small group of 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery,” he says. Every Paraguayan “has the right to be settled on his own land.”

But what that means in practice is by no means clear, particularly given that his opposition will not only be Paraguay’s traditional elites, but the multinationals as well.

Lugo has pledged to increase his country’s slice of the energy pie. Brazil currently pays Paraguay $100 million for energy from Italpu Dam, which is jointly owned by both countries. But the electricity is worth 10 times that amount. Brazil says it won’t renegotiate the 1973 energy treaty, and Lugo is threatening to take the issue before the World Court.

Argentina also has a below-market agreement for electricity generated by the Yaycreta Dam, which it jointly owns with Paraguay.

At the same time, Lugo is hardly spoiling for a fight with Brazil and Argentina. Like them, he is critical of free trade agreements with the U.S. and says he would rather work through South America’s MERCOSUR, the continent’s common market.

The southern trade bloc includes Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members.

Zibechi argues that the first stage of the U.S. counter stroke against the growth of South American independence was Plan Colombia. While the Plan has long been sold as a drug interdiction strategy, much of the program’s $5 billion in aid has in fact gone toward beefing up Bogota’s military.

In stage two, Colombia began spilling its civil war into neighboring countries. Finally, on Mar. 1, Colombia launched a “pre-emptive” strike against FARC insurgents in Ecuador. In the aftermath of the raid, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Venezuela of supporting of supporting FARC, a charge the Chavez government denies.

Plan Colombia has certainly turned Bogota into the big dog on the block. Colombia has 210,000 soldiers compared to 190,000 in Brazil, which has four times Colombia’s population and seven times its territory. At 6.5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, Colombia now has the highest military spending on the continent. In comparison, U.S. military spending is 4 percent of its GDP, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 2 percent, and the rest of South America 1.5 to 2 percent.

Added to Colombia’s 210,000 army troops are 60,000 other uniformed forces, plus 142,000 police. The U.S. has supplied Black Hawk helicopters, and Bogotá just purchased fighter planes from Israel and Brazil.

According to Zibechi, U.S. strategy is aimed at “altering the military balance in the region,” with Venezuelan and Ecuadorian oil “in the crosshairs.” A subsidiary goal is to check the emergence of Brazil as a regional power.

Venezuela currently supplies 15 percent of the U.S.’s oil needs. Colombia also ships oil to the U.S. but its estimated reserves of 20 billion barrels are dwarfed by Venezuela’s 240 billion.

According to Venezuelan Senator Julio Garcia Jarpa, rightwing Colombian paramilitaries are infiltrating Tachira, Apure, Zulia, and Merida states, where most of Venezuela’s oil is located. Garcia, who represents Tachira, says the paramilitaries are not only intimidating local communities, they are active in supporting a plan for the four states—an area constituting one-third of Venezuela—to succeed.

The breakaway plot is similar to one by right wingers in Bolivia who are trying to break off the gas-rich eastern provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija from the central government

Brazil and Venezuela have joined hands to counter some of these moves. Both have proposed a South American Defense Council, similar to NATO, to coordinate defense policies and deal with internal conflicts. Venezuela has been pushing for such a body for some time, but Colombia’s recent attack on Ecuador appears to have crystallized the idea.

Ecuador’s Defense Minister, Javier Ponce, endorsed the plan on April 17.

According to journalist Cyril Mychalejko, Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that the U.S. “should keep its distance” from the organization. Speaking in Caracas on April 21, Jobim said “This is a South American council and we have no obligation to ask for a license from the United States to do it.”

Indeed the winds of change are blowing through the Southern Cone these days, but armies of the night, and their patrons in Washington, are likewise on the move.

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