Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country

Wikipedia’s “list of on-going armed conflicts” (see the previous post) had some surprises for me, as it includes a few insurgencies that I had thought were over. One example is that of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EEP Rebellion (from the Spanish label, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). Wikipedia gives a 2023 death toll of seven for this conflict, and a cumulative count of 145+ since its beginning in 2005. These figures do not seem to be reliable, however, as the listed source for the 2023 figure is from 2022. I was not able to find any information on deaths this year in an admittedly cursory internet search. The Wikipedia article on the EEP, however, emphasizes its continuing activity, claiming that it can field up to 1,000 militants. As the article notes:

[T]he EPP has millions of dollars collected in kidnappings, extortion, expropriations and even contributions from neighbors and supporters. To this day, they continue to gain followers in the area, given the void left by the Paraguayan State.

The EEP is in many respects a typical Latin American Marxist-Leninist insurgency. It aims its attacks on wealthy landowners and security official, both private and public. Its operations have been focused in the central-eastern part of the country not far from the boundary with Brazil (see the map below), a restive region that has seen the development of large, mechanized farms over the past few decades. A few years ago, the EEP gained some global notoriety for kidnapping Mennonite farmers, one of whom was killed when his family was unable to come up with the $500,000 demanded for his release.

Conflict over land use and ownership in eastern Paraguay is an issue of the political far-right as well as the far-left. In Paraguay’s April 2023 general election, the populist and self-described nationalist-anarchist candidate of the National Crusade Party, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, surprised many observers by coming in third place, taking almost a quarter of the votes cast. In 2019, then-senator Cubas was impeached after he called for the genocide of Brazilians living in his country. As reported by Folha de São Paulo:

Brazilian bandits, bandits! Invaders! Now deforesting the country,” he shouts. “At least 100,000 Brazilians must be killed here,” he continued, mentioning that 2 million Brazilians are living in the country. The Brazilian government estimates that there are 350 thousand.

Following his failed bid for the presidency, Cubas was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after he refused to accept the election results and led anti-governmental protests. This was not the first time that he found himself in legal trouble. In 2016, Cubas was arrested “after hitting a judge with a belt and defecating in the office of the judge’s secretary.”

The large Brazilian presence in eastern Paraguay dates to the 1960s. These so-called “Brasiguayos” (“Brasiguaios” in Portuguese), many of whom were born in Paraguay, are now thought to number around half a million, a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population. They form the dominant group in several border towns, which are now mostly Portuguese speaking. This fact is almost never noted on language maps of Paraguay, although I did find one somewhat dated example (posted below). This map, not surprisingly, comes from the extensive archives of Reddit’s “Map Porn” community.

The initial Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay were mostly landless peasants who cleared the land for agriculture. They were later followed by well-off farmers who developed mechanized, commercial agriculture, usually focusing on soybeans. As commercial farmers moved in, many of the earlier migrants were forced back to Brazil, where they often found themselves unwelcome. Settling mostly in the new agricultural areas of Matto Grosso do Sul, their plight gained the attention of Amnesty International, which claimed in a 1992 report that were the victims of “illegal detentions, allegations of excessive use of force by the police, intimidation and a possible extra judicial execution.” The irony inherent in the situation has been noted. As one author put it, “Brazilians living in Paraguay wound up being expelled by their own countrymen.”

Anti-Brazilian agitation in Paraguay over the past few decades has generally focused on landownership issues. It seems to have reached a peak between 2008 and 2012, when Paraguay was under a leftwing government, an unusual condition in that country. As noted in a 2012 article in Gazeta do Povo:

The epicenter of the most recent agrarian conflict in Paraguay is located 75 kilometers from Foz do Iguaçu, in the department of Alto Paraná. A group of 6,000 landless Paraguayans, called “carperos”, have been camped for almost a year in the municipality of Ñacunday, on the border between two rural properties owned by producers of Brazilian descent. They threaten to take by force an area of 167,000 hectares spread across the departments of Alto Paraná, Canindeyú and Itapúa on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Armed and willing to radicalize the movement, they claim that the lands occupied by Brazilians belong to the Paraguayan government and should serve the agrarian reform project undertaken by President Fernando Lugo.

Cultural and even racial issue are also at play. As reported in a 2001 New York Times article:

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil’s national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní [Note: Paraguay is almost completely bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní].

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto’s 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor. …

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil’s three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of [indigenous] Indian stock.

Finally, geopolitical implications further complicate the situation. A 2019 scholarly paper by Andrew Nickson warns that Paraguay might be a Brazilian “protectorate in the making,” which seem a bit exaggerated. A big up-coming issue in this regard is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Treaty, which covers the shared Itaipú dam, the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.