On August 23, Paraguayans woke up to news that resembled more the days of Stroessner’s dictatorship than those of a developing democracy. On Aug. 22, Paraguay’s Congress had granted the newly inaugurated President Cartes power to unilaterally order military interventions inside the country.
The amendments of Law 1337/1399 of National Defense and Internal Security come after the latest attack of the Paraguayan People’s Army (Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP), a rebel group that has staged a number of armed operations, including bombings, arson attacks, shootings and kidnappings. In its deadliest attack to date, on August 17, the EPP captured and executed five security guards at the Brazilian-owned Lagunita cattle ranch, near Tacuatí in the Department of San Pedro, 370 kms north of Asunción. The attack was seen as a direct affront to the Cartes government, which in its inauguration on August 15, stated that it wouldn’t let the EPP set the agenda.
After the attack, Cartes requested from Congress the power to unilaterally send troops to fight the EPP in the northern jungles, without Congress having to declare a formal state of emergency. Paraguay’s Constitution stipulates that the military can be used only against foreign threats or to protect the government’s stability.
Under the new changes, Cartes can now send the military “to face any form of internal and external aggression that endangers the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the country.” Thus, the president can decide the use of members of the armed forces within the country any time he sees fit by a mere presidential decree. The only proviso is that the government must inform Congress of its decision within 48 hours after signing the decree and the legislature can still decide to halt an operation.
The modification of the law generated public outcry and is considered a backward step for a country still navigating its transition towards a full democracy and with a strong legacy of military dictatorship. Many are concerned that the situation will open up dangerous new terrain to the military and the police, both inexperienced and plagued with rampant accusations of corruption and violation of human rights, while leaving peasants unprotected and at the mercy of the armed forces. The government and the security forces insist that the militarization of the northern part of the country is essential and that the EPP is an aggressive force that currently controls the area. But there are grave concerns and several questions about the newly acquired presidential powers that remain unanswered.
The main question the population has been demanding clarification about is how do you define a "national threat." While today it might be the EPP, under the new law the president now can use the military against anything he considers a "national threat." Even worse, with an absolute majority in Congress, there is no way to stop what could potentially happen in the future. The new law could clearly be abused, especially considering the track record of Paraguay, a country where the overlap between national interest and political/personal interests is often blurred.
The second question is how do you avoid militarization of the country under the pretext of a national threat? Targeted killings of peasant leaders have increased considerably in the past few months, clear signs of the unrest the country is experiencing in rural areas. Are landless peasant leaders going to become the next ‘national threat’? The situation gets even worse if the new rumors of paramilitary groups funded by large landowners to secure their properties are true.
On Aug. 26, Cartes ordered the deployment of military forces in the departments of Concepción, San Pedro and Amambay, including 400 military personnel, 60 of which belong to Special Forces. Several human rights organizations have already noted that there have been arrests of numerous peasant leaders recognized for their activism regarding land tenure in Paraguay, accusing them of having links with the EPP.
The military recently stormed a local primary school asking the children if they knew where the EPP was. A local peasant who denounced the school raid to the press was later incarcerated for her supposed links with the armed group, in what could only be seen as a move to intimidate and silence the local population. The local population is worried and scared of what a large military presence could mean for them. “People who have their farm cannot even go get cassava because they are afraid. The economic situation here is ugly enough and will be worse if we cannot even go to our farm to work. Maybe that’s the goal–to create fear in the population and get us out of here” said a villager.
The third question that remains in this scenario, is how do you re-establish the checks and balances necessary for democracies to function? After the Stroessner dictatorship, Paraguay has been characterized by a strong division of power between the legislative and executive powers to avoid potential abuses. The amendments to Law 1337/1399 blur those divisions.
Stroessner’s 35-year rule was based on the well-documented “trilogy of power: state, party, military”. Stroessner managed to consolidate power by restoring the unity of the Colorado Party, its alliance with the military and his absolute grip of power over the state.
Today, the same trilogy has been reincarnated. Cartes managed to restore the unity of a divided Colorado Party, sealed his alliance with the military through the modification of the National Defense and Internal Security Law and has control of the state through his presidency with an absolute majority in both houses of Congress.
The problem of northern Paraguay, characterized by extreme poverty, isolation and complete absence of the state is not one that will be solved through military means and the use of guns, but one that can only be addressed by a strong presence of the state, the provision of basic services, and a long overdue land reform. As one resident of Tacuati pointed out “I was a victim under the dictatorship. Now I find myself to be a victim again under democracy.”