“Tierra malhabida” or “Ill-gotten Land” in Paraguay

In my last post on Paraguay, I referred to grass-roots movements in Paraguay and their role in bringing about change in that country. I recently wrote a review of an anthropological monograph on peasant movements in Paraguay called Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay (Duke 2011) by Kregg Hetherington. Hetherington describes peasant “audits”–peasant claims on land through direct negotiation with technocrats–of the bureaucracy that handles the titling of land in Paraguay. In an age of supposed transparency and bureaucratic efficiency, the Instituto de Bienestar Rural (or IBR), a bureaucracy created under General Alfredo Stroessner (r. 1954-89) is one of the last tangible throwbacks to the hellish days of Stronato. At least, this is the narrative that “new democrats”–proponents of neoliberalism and transparency in Paraguay’s democracy–assert with regards to the IBR. But to peasants who for decades have worked with and within this bureaucracy to attain the status of title holders in Paraguay, it is the only viable non-violent method for attaining legal ownership of the land.

Hetherington describes the historicity of land redistribution and land claims in this way. He finds the rifts between campesinos and new democrats in the recent authoritarian past, under General Stroessner’s heavy-handed rule (1954 to 1989). In the 70s and 80s, Stroessner promoted a massive land re-distribution campaign that seemed to favor would-be small landholders. Ostensibly, the land reform proposed to build a new nation and modern economy on the shoulders of campesinos as they developed redistributed land. But receiving a land title was the last step in a long bureaucratic process for campesinos, which involved demonstrating that they had sufficiently developed a homestead. (There were three legal categories of landholding what culminated in “title” and only this last one was legally viable in courts). In this way, Stroessner’s Cold War land reform propaganda suggested that rights were material goods acquired through labor, linking the idea of political subjectivity to the development of uncultivated land (105).

Hetherington argues that in the transition years after the 1989 coup that removed Stroessner from power, campesinos (formerly Stroessner’s political base) and new democrats (the opposition to Stroessner and the ruling Colorado Party) articulated increasingly divergent goals for national development. Given campesino’s connection with Stroessner and his land reform, new democrats see campesinos as anachronisms in the new democratic age. Campesino interests do not fit into neoliberal goals of market rationality, which involve selling thousands of acres of land to Brazilian soy farmers.

Hetherington’s analysis of the Stroessner years needs further development and clarification, but is still one of the only recent analyses that sheds light on Stroessner’s land policy. In the Stronato historiography, Stroessner is cast as an enemy to land rights in Paraguay, with emphasis on his violent repression of several libertion-theology-inspired campesino movements. Hetherington shows, on the other hand that many campesinos look to Stroessner with fondness because he provided them with land and ostensibly served as their political patron.

In Stroessner’s framing of the situation in the 70s, campesinos were the answer to settling Paraguay’s “frontier” or vast tracts of unused and thereby “uncivilized” land still inhabited by Guarani gatherer/hunters. He envisioned (and partially realized) the settling of the land through massive handouts to would-be small landholders organized in small farming communities. These campesinos could ultimately achieve title status once they demonstrated that they had sufficiently “settled” the land, a process that became very messy and corrupt, as Hetherington describes. At the same time, Stroessner redistributed hundreds of thousands of acres to his fellow Colorado generals and clients. This land would turn into vast tracts of soy fields sold to and developed by a variety of large Brazilian agro companies.

This narrative demonstrates that peasants have had a complicated relationship with Stroessner, that their alliance with Stroessner and the Colorado party have been contingent upon their ability to come through with land. This then brings us back to the recent killings in Canindeyu, the event that prompted the parliament to impeach and oust Lugo. The media coverage of the conflicts in Canindeyu suggested that peasants were moved to violence after a long struggle to regain “tierra malhabida” or “ill-gotten land” given out by Stroessner’s to one of his generals. The use of this term “tierra malhabida” is interesting since it is not normally used to describe land acquired by large landholders. New democrats have dominated the use of the term when referring to peasants supposedly squatting on land that isn’t theirs. Many of these peasants would claim that they have ownership of the land because it was distributed to them under Stroessner’s land reform.

For many, Stroessner and his land bureaucracy are the only thing giving them a bit of legitimacy to their claims on land. This knowledge should cause us to question the historical significance of the Stronato on land in Paraguay and complicate portrayals of land struggles in Paraguay today.


About Shawn

ABD Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of New Mexico. I study Early Latin America and am currently working on a dissertation on racial relations, the many iterations of encomienda, and frontier societies in the Rio de la Plata during the 16th and 17th centuries.
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