Hugo Chavez

Problems in Paraguay


On April 24, 2010, Paraguay’s Congress granted its president emergency powers to combat the Paraguayan Peoples Army (EPP; Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). The decree, which covered five of Paraguay’s departments for one month, allowed arrests without warrants and joint police-army raids. Several commentators on the left denounced the move as an over-reaction to a tiny rebellion, as the EPP apparently consists of fewer than 100 fighters. As recently as 2009, some reporters expressed skepticism about its very existence. But EPP kidnappings and other forms violence have been increasing, and new reports link the group to Colombia’s notorious FARC. In April 2010, an EPP ambush killed several police officers, prompting the current crackdown. In the ensuing Operation Py’a Guapy (“tranquility” in Guarani), 3,300 armed men were deployed against the rebel forces.

In several respects, the insurgency follows a typical Latin American script. The Marxist-Leninist EEP idolizes Che Guevara and seeks to replace the government of Paraguay with a revolutionary regime. It finds support in an impoverished region where landless campesinos struggle against large land owners who, according to one recent report, “regularly hire death squads to kill peasants.” Trained EPP fighters, including women, are well equipped. They finance their operations through kidnapping and the drug trade, and perhaps through their connections with other insurgent organizations. As is true of several other Latin American far-left groups, the EPP melds Marxism with the so-called liberation theology advocated by leftist Catholics in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to one report, the group’s origins can be traced to 1992, “when some trainee priests were thrown out of the seminary for their radical views.”

The timing of the EPP insurgency is telling. In 2008, as the group intensified its attacks, Paraguay put an end to its long heritage of authoritarian, one-party rule, electing leftist Fernando Lugo to its presidency. A former priest of the liberation theology school, Lugo shared a platform with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez soon after becoming president. (At the time Chavez announced, “For the first time, I feel wanted in Paraguay.”) Upon assuming office, Lugo renounced his own presidential salary, claiming that it belonged to the people of Paraguay. Lugo’s campaign, moreover, did especially well in the poor northeast, the EPP’s stronghold (see maps).

Why did the EPP ramp up its attacks precisely when a leftist came to power? For the extreme left, Lugo has been a major disappointment. Although he has made friendly gestures to Hugo Chavez, he has refused to join the Venezuelan-led “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.” Instead, he has sought good relations with all of Paraguay’s neighbors – and with the United States. As Lugo was elected with less than 50 percent of the vote, and as his party does not control the Paraguayan Congress, he has not been able to pursue radical change. As a result, he was not given a chance by the extreme left; almost as soon as Lugo assumed the presidency in 2008, EPP leaders announced that they would begin “massive land occupations with violence,” because the government of Fernando Lugo “will not enact comprehensive agrarian reform.”

The political situation in Paraguay is interesting and troubling, meriting more attention than it has received. The country’s transition from a hard-core authoritarian state to a multi-party democracy is significant and little noted. The surge of EPP violence, however, shows that a democratic transition, even when it brings in a leftist government, will not necessarily forestall revolutionary forces. With drug money added to the mix, Paraguay may experience more troubled times in the months to come. Lugo now fears that the Paraguayan military will put a premature end to his presidency, warning fellow South American leaders that he faces a coup threat. Lugo has also endured some revealing personal scandals, as we shall see tomorrow.

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Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia

Although Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been able to secure relatively high levels of electoral support, his campaigns have faltered in the northwest. In the Andean highland zone, closely linked to neighboring Colombia, the states of Táchira and Mérida both voted “no” on Chavez’s constitutional referendum in 2009. Anti-Chavez sentiments also run strong in the northwestern lowland state of Zulia, which brackets Lake Maracaibo. The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has deep connections with the United States. But even beyond economics, the culture of the Maracaibo region is at odds with that of the rest of the country.

The differences between the Maracuchos—the people of the Maracaibo lowlands—and other Venezuelans are considerable. Maracaibo speech is distinctive in intonation and especially in its use of “vos” for “you.” The region’s folk music—La Gaita Zuliana—is unique, and its coconut-heavy cuisine is unlike that found elsewhere in the country. Behavior differs as well. As Edward Teveris reports, “A question in the survey my company conducted a few years back asked: “Te consideras un ‘parandero’?” (“Do you consider yourself a ‘showoff’?” Meaning: lots of gold watches, necklaces, and other high machista behaviors.) The ‘Maracuchos’ responded at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the country. When we showed that slide to our clients they laughed in agreement.”

The Maracuchos seem to have embraced an oppositional culture so pronounced that it is even reflected in consumer choices. Brands that do well in Caracas and elsewhere in the country often fail in Zulia. While most Venezuelan smokers like Belmont cigarettes, the Astor Azul brand is preferred in Maracaibo; while Polar beer is favored elsewhere, regional brews are more popular in Zulia. Perhaps most tellingly, other Venezuelans drink Coca-Cola, but Maracuchos drink Pepsi. (See “A Psychographic Profiling of Venezuelan Consumers and Society,” by Jacobo Riquelme and Edward Teveris).

The same oppositional sensibility is also encountered in politics. It is thus not surprising that in 2008 leaders in Zulia proposed launching a campaign for autonomy, modeling their proposal on efforts made in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region. Nor is it surprising that such designs met concerted opposition from pro-Chavez forces. As one local representative responded, “we [pro-Chavez government] legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” adding that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight”(from “Autonomy Proposed in State Legislature of Venezuelan Oil State Zulia,” by James Suggett, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3423).

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