Paraguay’s president sent 1 000 extra troops to hunt down members of the leftist guerrilla in the north of the country.
1. President Fernado Lugo gets extra powers to crackdown fighters from the leftist Paraguayan People’s Army. But usually some kind of martial law should only be the last resort. Do you think it was the necessary and helpful step, and why?
2. How strong is in your opinion the Paraguayan People’s Army? Does it have the potential to destabilize Paraguay?
Miguel Carter, Assistant Professor, School of International Service, American University
1. President Lugo’s request for added security powers to crackdown on the small guerrilla movement (known by the acronym EPP, for Ejército Paraguayo del Pueblo) operating in the northeastern part of Paraguay responds to a bloody incident last Wednesday, April 21, in which guerrilla members killed four people, including a police officer, at a cattle ranch near the town of Horqueta.
The EPP gained national notoriety last year after they kidnapped a cattle rancher, Fidel Zavala, for 94 days. During that time, a national campaign was created to demand Zavala’s freedom. Thanks to the government’s efforts, he was freed on January 17, 2010.
This situation put the Lugo administration under a lot of pressure to track down and arrest the EPP leaders, who have thus far largely eluded capture. Political opponents of the Lugo government, among them powerful media outlets, have made repeated use of this predicament to attack his presidency.
Lugo’s adversaries have threatened repeatedly to impeach him. They have a majority in both chambers of Congress, but are a few votes short of getting the two thirds needed to accomplish this.
This political context is crucial for understanding President Lugo’s response to this incident and his decision to use added security powers to strengthen the efforts to capture these guerrilla leaders.
The constitution allows the president to decree enhanced state security powers, provided these exceptional measures are approved by Congress. Lugo’s main argument for this is that he needs to use military forces to track down the guerrillas, given the weak capacities of the Paraguayan police. Others analysts, though, argue that he didn’t have to use these exceptional powers to increase the role of the military in this man-hunt.
I support Lugo’s efforts to capture this incipient guerrilla group and bring them to justice. I am not sure he required enhanced state security powers for this. But I understand the political tight-rope he is in and the need he has to show greater success in this and other security policies.
It’s important to note that he has not instituted a full-blown martial law. The measures taken do not restrict most individual freedoms. They apply to only certain portions of the country – not it’s most populous areas. Moreover, they must be approved by Congress.
2. The EPP is a very small guerrilla movement and poses no real, immediate threat to the Paraguayan state. There are probably no more than 100 people involved, including an estimated 20 armed combatants. All political parties and movements on the Paraguayan left have broadly repudiated the EPP and its tactics. It is, therefore, a very isolated movement. On the whole, their “psychological impact” on the country has been much larger than that which material capacity would suggest.
As I see it, the main problem with the EPP is that it sets a bad example in a country that, in many regards, would be ripe for this kind of insurgency. Paraguay, according to UNDP data, is the 14th most unequal country in the world in terms of income distribution. (By contrast, out of 142 countries, Slovakia is the 7th most equal – among other top ten nations such as the Scandinavian countries, Japan, Germany and the Czech Republic). Land distribution in Paraguay – a largely rural country – is among the worst in the entire planet: 1% of landholders control 77% of the land. As a result, rural poverty is very high. One in every four people living in the countryside is considered “extremely poor”. These conditions create inevitable societal tensions – much of it channeled through ordinary crime and peasant struggles for land reform.
Add to this mix the state’s very weak presence in the countryside and you have a scenario that is ripe for some kind of rural insurgency.
Over the last 21 years, Paraguay has undergone a significant transition to a political democracy. The quality of this democracy is not very high, due, in large part, to the nation’s huge societal gaps. Yet it is by far the best political regime the country has had in all its long years of autocratic rule.
If the EPP were to blossom, it would set off a bad example for other popular sector groups. Some of them would be tempted to imitate this group. If they do, I fear the conservative backlash would be much inclined to subvert or bring down the institutional features of an electoral democracy that many Paraguayans have so painfully crafted over the last two decades.
The EPP’s main menace to democracy in Paraguay, therefore, is not direct, but indirect – one intimately tied to the violent and authoritarian backlash it would provoke among sectors of the nation’s conservative elite.
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Associate Professor, Political Science, University of Pittsburgh
1. My understanding is that the Paraguayan Congress modified the initial proposal introduced by President Lugo, and finally approved the “state of exception” on April 24. This decision suspended constitutional guarantees for 30 days in five departments (Concepción, Amambay, San Pedro, Presidente Hayes, and Alto Paraguay). This is a region in which local landowners raise cattle and Brazilian investors produce soybeans. The trigger for the decision was the killing of a policeman and three rural workers by the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) on April 20.
2. For all we know, the Paraguayan People’s Army is not a serious threat to the country, but it poses a danger for landowners in that region, who are exposed to kidnappings, and it creates a political issue for President Lugo, who is accused by the right of being too lenient with the leftist guerrillas. I think that there is also some fear among local landowners and among some politicians in Asunción that the EPP could become a small version of the Colombian FARC, an endemic armed group well established in rural areas and financed through ransom and drug trafficking. (In fact, there have been rumors that the members of the EPP were trained by FARC, but I do not think that there is enough evidence of that.)
Human rights workers have denounced the measure as dangerous, and some politicians have claimed that it is unnecessary. They argue that the president can mobilize the military to fight internal threats based on the Domestic Security Law, without suspending constitutional guarantees in part of the territory. The Paraguayan constitution establishes in its article 288 that Congress or the President can declare the state of exception (but if the president does so, Congress can reject the measure within 48 hours) for a maximum of sixty days. Any extension to the 60-day period should be approved by an absolute majority of the Lower House and the Senate.
My sense is that this is a catch for the Lugo administration: if the police and the army fail to dismantle the EPP, the opposition will claim that the government is weak and ineffective. If the police and the army commit abuses in the repression of the EPP, the opposition will denounce the government for human rights violations.