The Agribusiness Coup in Paraguay: Monsanto’s latest assault on democracy
By Idilio Méndez Grimaldi*, June 24, 2012
On Friday June 15, 2012, police officers were sent to Curuguaty in the department of Canindeyú, Paraguay near the Brazilian border, to evict a group of peasants peacefully occupying a parcel of land. Upon arrival, another group of police snipers ambushed the officers and peasants, killing seventeen people: 6 police officers and 11 peasants, with dozens of people seriously injured.
The consequences of this baffling incident? The impeachment of the weak government of president Fernando Lugo by the right-wing controlled congress; a hard blow to the left, social movements and peasants, accused by the landed elite of instigating peasant occupations; the increased power of translational agribusiness firms like Monsanto; the continued persecution and eviction of peasants from their land; and finally, the stage set for the right’s triumphal return to power in the 2013 presidential elections.
On October 21, 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Enzo Cardozo, illegally approved Bollgard BT cotton, a product of Monsanto, for commercial planting in Paraguay. Peasants and environmental organizations immediately protested. The cotton seed’s genetic material is crossed with the gene Bacillus thurigensis (Bt), a toxic bacterium that kills certain pests, such as the larvae of the weevil, a beetle that lays its eggs in the plant’s cocoon.
The National Service of Plant Health, Quality and Seeds (SENAVE), a government agency headed by Miguel Lovera, had not included the Bt variety in the official record of seed cultivars, since reports from the Ministries of Heath and Environment had not been submitted, as required by law.
In the following months, Monsanto, through the Association of Production Unions (UGP), an agribusiness lobby closely linked to the Zuccolillo Group, publisher of the newspaper ABC Color, attacked SENAVE and its president for failing to register Monsanto's GM seed for commercial use in Paraguay.
Another attack came on June 7th when Silvia Martínez accused Lovera in ABC Color of corruption and nepotism within SENAVE. Martínez is the wife of Roberto Cáceres, a representative for various agribusiness firms including Agrosán, recently acquired by Syngenta for US$120 million.
Martinez is the wife of Roberto Caceres, technical representative for various agricultural enterprises, including Agrosán, recently acquired by $ 120 million by Syngenta, another UGP member.
The next day, Friday June 8, the UGP published six editorials in ABD Color, including: “Twelve Reasons to Fire Lovera.” These arguments were presented to the Vice President Federico Franco, at the time serving as President in the absence of Lugo, who was traveling in Asia.
On Friday June 15, during an annual exhibition organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, the Minister Enzo Cardozo made a comment to the press that a group of Indian investors from the agrochemical sector had canceled its investment in Paraguay because of the alleged corruption in SENAVE. Cardozo never specified the name of the company. The tragic events of Curuguaty occurred that same day.
As part of the exhibition, Monsanto presented another cotton variety, this one doubly transgenic, both Bt and RR (resistant to Roundup, an herbicide manufactured and patented by Monsanto). Monsanto’s goal is the official registration of the GM seed in Paraguay, as has already occurred in neighboring Argentina.
Prior to these events, the newspaper ABC Color had systematically denounced the corruption of two public officials—Health Minister Esperanza Martínez and Environment Minister Oscar Rivas—both of whom had declined to approve Monsanto’s seed. Last year, Monsanto made US$30 million, tax free, in royalties alone (for the use of GM soybeans) in the country. Approximately 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of GM soy are grown in Paraguay, producing 7 million tones in 2010.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives approved a draft biosafety law, which includes creating a new Director of Biosecurity within the Ministry of Agriculture, with broad authority to approve GM seeds for commercial cultivation, be it soybean, corn, rice, cotton or vegetables. This would abolish the current Biosafety Commission, a body made up of Paraguayan technicians.
While these events occurred, the UGP was preparing an action of national protest against the government of Fernando Lugo slated for June 25. The protest was to use tractors to blockade roads throughout the country. One of the demands of so-called "tractorazo" was the removal of Miguel Lovera from SENAVE as well as the approval of all GM seeds for commercial cultivation.
UGP is headed by Hector Cristaldo, with the support of numerous agribusiness representatives. Cristaldo works with several companies that are part of the Zuccolillo Group, whose main shareholder is Aldo Zuccolillo. Zuccolillo is also owner of the newspaper ABC Color, which was founded 1967 under the Stroessner dictatorship.
The Zuccolillo Group is a leading partner in Cargill-Paraguay. The company built one of the largest bulk ports of Paraguay, called Union Port, 500 meters from the water supply of the state-owned water utility Aguatera on the Paraguay River without any restrictions.
Agribusiness corporations in Paraguay hardly pay any taxes because of the strong support they have in the right wing congress. Landowners do not pay taxes. Property taxes account for only 0.04% of the tax burden, some $5 million, according to a recent World Bank study. This despite the fact that agribusiness makes up around 30% of GDP, representing about US$6 billion annually.
Paraguay is one of the most unequal countries in the world. 85 percent of its lands, around 30 million hectares, are in the hands of 2 percent of landowners. These landowners use the land almost exclusively for industrial agriculture and, in some cases, merely for speculation. Most of these oligarchs have mansions in the coastal Uruguayan town of Punta del Este or in Miami and are closely linked to transnationals and the financial sector. They keep their ill-gotten assets in tax havens or invest them abroad. These agribusiness elites dominate national politics, with heavy influence on the three branches of government.
The Massacre at Curuguaty
Curuguaty is a town located in the Eastern Region of Paraguay, about 200 km from the capital Asunción. The Morombí farm, a 70,000-hectare property a few miles outside Curuguaty, is owned by the landowner Blas Riquelme. Riquelme comes from the heart of the Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) under whose regime he amassed an immense fortune.
Riquelme, who served as senator and president of the Colorado Party for many years, owns several supermarkets and ranches, and is said to have appropriated some 2,000 hectares of lands belonging to Paraguayan state. Landless peasants occupied this tract of land, demanding that it be redistributed by President Lugo. A judge and a district attorney ordered the eviction of the peasants, through the Special Operations Group (GEO) of the National Police, whose elite members received counter-insurgency training in Colombia under the Uribe administration.
The ambush that killed six policemen during the peasant eviction on June 15 can only be explained by an internal police sabotage. It is incomprehensible how highly skilled police officers trained by Plan Colombia could fall into a trap laid by peasants, as alleged by the elite-controlled press. Police fired back killing 11 peasants, and injuring 50. Among the dead were the chief of the GEO and commissioner Erven Lovera, brother of Lieutenant Colonel Alcides Lovera, president Lugo’s chief of security.
The plan is to criminalize and foster an extreme hatred to all peasants’ organizations, to push the peasants off their lands for the exclusive use of agribusiness. This painful process of de-peasantization of the Paraguayan countryside directly undermines the food sovereignty and food culture of the Paraguayan people, tied to peasant producers and the Guaraní indigenous culture.
The Attorney General, the Judiciary and the National Police, as well as various government agencies, are controlled by cooperation agreements with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The killing of the brother of President Lugo’s chief of security was a direct message to the president, who would obviously be the next target.
As a result of the Curuguaty events, Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola was forced to step down. His replacement Rubén Candia Amarilla came from the opposition Colorado Party—the party that had been in power for 60 years of dictatorship until Lugo’s election in 2008.
Candia, who served as Minister of Justice under the Colorado government of Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008), is accused of promoting the repression of peasant leaders and grassroots movements. His nomination for Attorney General in 2005 was approved by the then U.S. ambassador, John F. Keen. Candia was responsible for increasing USAID’s control over the Public Ministry. He was also charged with conspiring to have Lugo removed from office.
After replacing Filizzola as Interior Minister, Candia immediately announced the end of all dialogue with peasant movements who occupied lands, sending a clear message about willingness to use of repressive force. Two days later, Hector Cristaldo and other members of the UGP paid a visit to the new Interior Minister, asking for approval of the “tractorazo” protest. Cristaldo offered to suspend the strike in exchange for “signs of hope” (read: the approval of GM seeds; removal of Lovera and other Ministers; and other actions favoring agribusiness and large landowners).
Cristaldo is a candidate for deputy in the 2013 elections, on a Colorado Party ticket headed by Horacio Cartes, a businessman recently investigated by the United States for money laundering and drug trafficking. The ABC Color newspaper itself covered this story, citing several U.S. State Department cables (published by WikiLeaks) including one that referred to Cartes by name, dated November 15, 2011.
As of the writing this article, the UGP, members of the Colorado Party and individual members of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) led by Senator Blas Llano threatened Fernando Lugo with impeachment, and removal from presidential office.
To continue as president, Lugo depends on the whim of the Colorado Party and their Liberal allies, who now threaten him with impeachment, surely looking to expand their power and wealth. The Colorado Party, allied with other minority parties of the opposition, has the majority needed to impeach the president. Perhaps they hope to receive the “hopeful signs” that the UGP is seeking, in the name of Monsanto and the oligarchy. Otherwise, they will move to the next stage of taking over a government that was born as progressive, and slowly died off as conservative, controlled by powerful interests.
Among his “achievements,” Lugo is responsible for the approval of the Terrorism Act, promoted by the United States around the world after the 9/11. In 2011, he authorized the implementation of the Northern Zone Initiative, consisting of the installation and deployment of American troops in the North Eastern Region near Brazil under the pretext of providing development to rural communities.
The Guazú Front, a left coalition supporting Lugo, cannot speak with one voice. Infiltrated by USAID, many members of the Guazú Front have succumbed to the siren song of consumerism and neoliberalism.
The massacre at Curuguaty sent a message to the region, especially Brazil, on whose border these bloody events occur, led by warlords akin to those seen in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. Brazil is building global hegemony with Russia, India and China, known as BRIC. However, the Untied States has not become powerless in the face of the South American giant. The U.S. has strong commercial power in Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru and Chile. It acts as a retaining wall to Brazil’s expansionist desires towards the Pacific.
Meanwhile, Washington continues its diplomatic offensive in Brasilia, trying to convince President Dilma Rousseff to strengthen commercial, technological and military ties. Meanwhile, the Fourth Fleet of the United States, reactivated a few years ago after being decommissioned after World War II, monitors the entire South Atlantic, as if to warn Brazil of the consequences of not yielding to diplomatic persuasion.
So, Paraguay is in dispute between these two foreign powers. This is why Curuguaty is a small but important signal to Brazil that Paraguay is a powder keg that could blow up Brazil’s development plans.
But above all, the massacre at Curuguaty is a sign of the expansion of capital, plundering the planet in the name of development. Fortunately, the world’s peoples are resisting and rising up to provide alternatives based in dignity and respect for life.
Idilio Méndez Grimaldi is a journalist, researcher and member of the Political Economy Association of Paraguay (SEPPY) Méndez is author of the book Los Herederos de Stroessner (The Heirs to Stroessner), Arandurã Editorial, 2007.
Translated from Spanish by Tanya Kerssen, Food First.