Paraguay 2016, the year in human rights

A new report details human rights challenges in the heart of South America.

An actor performs during the launch of the new report on Human Rights in Paraguay. Photo by Caleb O’Brien.

The struggle over land in Paraguay is closely linked to the country’s worst human rights abuses this year, according to an annual review of rights in Paraguay. Forced evictions and the troubling conclusion of the emblematic Curuguaty Massacre trials represent two of the most important violations.

The 500 page book, published this week by an umbrella organization of human rights groups in Paraguay called CODEHUPY, explores issues of equality and freedom from discrimination; social, political, economic, generational and cultural rights; the right to life liberty, and personal integrity; and the challenges facing rights-protection mechanisms in Paraguay.

CODEHUPY released the report during an evening ceremony on Monday, December 12 in the Plaza de los Desaparecidos, or “Plaza of the Missing,” a small park in downtown Asuncion dedicated to the victims of Latin America’s longest running dictatorship. After a theatrical representation of the struggle between powerful interests and Paraguay’s poor and disenfranchised, three members of CODEHUPY spoke to the audience. The evening concluded with a dance and percussion performance by the Afro-Paraguayan group Kamba Kua.

Paraguay, a small, landlocked country of roughly 7 million citizens, suffers from persistent inequality in spite of sustained economic growth in recent years. Over the past five years, the country’s GDP has grown at an annual rate of 5 percent. But in 2013, Paraguay was the only country in Latin America where income inequality worsened.

The GINI index, which measures inequality on a scale of 0 to 1 (where 0 represents perfect equality and 1 represents perfect inequality), placed Paraguay at .93 for concentration of land, making it among the most unequal countries in the world with respect to land ownership. Much of that inequality dates back to the Stroessner dictatorship, when millions of hectares — comprising an area larger than the entire country of Panama — were inappropriately given to the president’s friends and cronies during a corrupt land-reform effort.

Forced Evictions

Forced evictions, one of report’s themes of the year, can be linked to that inequality. Paraguayan authorities regularly mobilize hundreds of police officers and other agents to eject groups of landless peasants from large landholdings or urban settlements. Óscar Ayala, the executive secretary of COEDHUPY, said “It seems the only right that needs to be protected is to property.”

By evicting peasants with little concern for their shelter, belongings (police often burn houses and crops to prevent the peasants from returning) and the community’s children’s schooling, the state prioritizes safeguarding the property of large landholders over the rights of those being evicted. The report highlights two cases from this year.

Guahory

In the case of Guahory, a community in central Paraguay, some 1,200 police officers ejected roughly 200 families from their homes, located on property belonging to Brazilian and Paraguayan-Brazilian farmers. The officers destroyed the families crops and houses, CODEHUPY reports, without judicial approval or plans to house and school the families. The families were subjected to “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment during the process.”

Sauce

The report also focuses on the case of an Avá Guarani community in eastern Paraguay known as Sauce. The group, originally expelled from their homes during the creation of the Itaipu Dam megaproject, were ejected again this year when police removed them from their community and burned their homes on September 30. The Paraguayan constitution explicitly forbids removing indigenous communities from their lands without their consent.

The supposed landowner — a industrial soybean farmer named Germán Hutz — is the father-in-law of the vice-president’s sister.

Industrialized farming operations in northeastern Paraguay run by Brazilian landowners. Wheat on the left and soybean on the right. Motorcycles and weeds in the middle. Photo by Caleb O’Brien.

Curuguaty Massacre Trials

The second theme of the year is the resolution of the Curuguaty massacre trials, which Clyde Soto, an author of the report, described on Monday as “a paradigmatic case for our country… with due process violations, disproportionate punishment and immunity.”

The case began in 2012, when a land eviction in northeastern Paraguay went awry, leaving 17 dead — six police officers and 11 peasants. In the immediate aftermath, the massacre was leveraged to implement a so-called parliamentary coup against then president Fernando Lugo. Eleven survivors, all peasants, were charged with crimes related to the massacre, and the verdicts were handed down in July of 2016, and all were sentenced to between 4 and 35 years in prison, despite international concerns about the fairness of the trials.

In 2013, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee stated that “The State party should institute an immediate, independent and impartial investigation into the deaths of 17 people during the police raid in Curuguaty on 15 June 2012, and also into all the related incidents reported by the victims, particularly torture, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions and possible violations of due process, including in the case of the young person who was convicted and the two heavily pregnant women held in pretrial detention.”

That investigation did not occur.

At the conclusion of the ceremony on Monday, the audience released dozens of orange and white helium balloons, which rose into the warm evening air, wafted slowly south over Asuncion’s jagged skyline, and vanished into the darkness.