Demilitarisation and Remilitarisation in Paraguay

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Marchers holding banners and photos walk through a city street filling the road.
A march in Asunción denouncing the dismissal of President Lugo and demanding the truth about the Marinakue massacre on International Human Rights Day 2012. Photo credit: Mateuverte.
Author(s)
Pelao Carvallo

After the military coup that ended the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner in February 1989, Paraguay went through a period of social and institutional demilitarisation.  This process began early in the last decade of the last century and accelerated towards the end of that decade and the start of the next, its pace set by the national political context.  Four components define this process of demilitarisation:

  1. The ending of the institutional triad made up of the government, the armed forces and the Colorado Party (which was the majority party and in government), incorporating the abolition of the requirement to be affiliated to this party in order to enroll in the Military Academy.
  2. Progressive cuts to the military budget and the estates and properties of the armed forces so that by 2003, the percentage of GDP represented by the military budget had fallen to 0.9% from 1.4% in 1998.  Military properties were vacated to the benefit of powerful civilians, as happened with the lands of Marinakue.
  3. The discrediting of the armed forces due to the fear that the military coup attempts linked to the general Lino Oviedo would be successful and fear of the support that he counted on within the armed forces and the Colorado Party.
  4. The discrediting of military service due to the death of conscripts, the existence of child soldiers and the use of soldiers as free labour for officials and non-commissioned officers, as well as by the success of the struggle for the legal recognition and use of the right to conscientious objection, in which Paraguayan social and youth movements played an outstanding role.

Following on from this process of demilitarisation, Paraguay has lived through a process of remilitarisation for more than a decade, which continues into the present.

Militarisation, demilitarisation, remilitarisation and transarmament

An important debate exists around militarisation, especially concerning the forms that it takes in Latin America and the Caribbean, but not around the concepts of demilitarisation and remilitarisation.  Here, militarisation is understood:

as the projection of two distinct but constitutive processes: one in which military institutions set themselves up as central actors across the whole field of public security policy and another in which civil institutions belonging to that field acquire a military ethos through the triggering of isomorphic institutional change mechanisms.  Militarisation is a process in which the logic of the military paradigm is adopted, accompanied by a process of change in the distribution of power with regard to the structuring of state violence in favour of military institutions (Morales & Pérez, 2014).

Militarism is understood as:

a system, a logic and a set of norms, that perpetuates and recreates our societies and our daily lives, that perpetuates rigid gender norms and is rooted in hetero-sexist ideas about gender which define masculinity as physically powerful and aggressive and femininity as week and passive.  Ultimately, militarism depends on and recreates a racist and hierarchical world order which tells us whose life is worth defending and whose is not (Andersson, 2012).

Meanwhile, remilitarisation:

shows itself in the increase in the strength of troops and military spending; new purchases of equipment and weapons, the construction of new facilities, the appointment of active or retired officers to the Ministry of the Interior (Security), the higher ranks of the police and other public offices; the militarisation of the police; the creation of military units within the police force; the passing of laws and decrees which grant greater quotas of power and functional autonomy to the army, and joint army-police operations (Cajina, 2014).

Disarmament is understood as a “process of reducing armaments, military spending and the capacity to launch a military offensive which allows for the elimination of the harshest demonstrations of direct violence but which upholds elitism and militarism as well as civil delegation on matters of defence (Utopía Contagiosa, 2012).

Instead of disarmament, antimilitarism puts forward transarmament as a proposal for a paradigm shift on defence, which entails “progressively reducing the power of the military, reconverting that which is military to civilian ends and progressively increasing the power of the nonviolent; necessitating a paradigm shift in society and the participation of grassroots movements in the design of defence policies” (Utopía Contagiosa, 2012).

These concepts will allow an antimilitarist analysis of the process of demilitarisation and remilitarisation in Paraguay in recent decades to be carried out.

The process of demilitarisation in post-dictatorial Paraguay

The fall of the dictator Stroessner did not immediately spell the break-down of the triad of the government / armed forces / Colorado Party but did signify the start of its disintegration.  Social and institutional advances began to open the way to question the cultural predominance of militarism in Paraguayan society and it was to be the civilian responses to the threats of a military coup by General Lino Oviedo that would accelerate the process of demilitarisation in Paraguay.  Lino Oviedo, already general, led or actively participated in attempted coups in 1996 (the events of April), 1999 (the Paraguayan March) and 2000.  The decision in April 1996 of the president Juan Carlos Wasmosy to dismiss Lino Oviedo and twenty-seven commanders, chiefs, prefects and directors of the armed forces, reinforced the path of institutional demilitarisation.  With this action – supported by the United States and the Organisation of American States (OAS) – Wasmosy positioned civil leadership as dominant relative to military leadership although not without dissent from within the armed forces, especially the army, which was embodied in Lino Ovieda.  The signing of the Protocol of Ushuaia, which gave powers to Mercosur to suspend all relations in the event of a breakdown of democracy, can also be understood within the process of institutional demilitarisation in Paraguay.

The process of demilitarisation reached its peak under the government of the Colorado President Nicanor Duarte (2003 – 2008); symbolically it would be Duarte who, for the first time in the transition to democracy, did not have a military or ex-military man in the position of the Minister of Defence throughout the whole of his mandate.

Under the government of Nicanor Duarte, the process of remilitarisation that we are currently living through began.  This can be observed from the moment when the both the government and the Paraguayan political elite felt that the threat of military autocracy represented by Lino Oviedo had been overcome, or was at least manageable politically and electorally, and an institutional normality that ensured governability had been established.  Lino Oviedo had been transformed into a “democratic” political actor whose direct influence on the military had been removed.  Furthermore, with the reduction in military spending, the military had been warned about the consequences of further coup adventures.  Lino Oviedo, the symbol of military autocracy, was so reduced and rehabilitated that he was able to launch his candidacy for the presidency in 2008.  Without success.

Remilitarisation in Paraguay

The government of Nicanor Duarte restored civil rights to Lino Oviedo and, in doing so, symbolically bolstered the power and impunity of the military.  In the case of the seven youths murdered during the Paraguayan March, the perpetrators not only went unpunished but the families of the victims were punished by the judicial system.

It would be the government of Fernando Lugo (2008 – 2012) which would give impetus to the remilitarisation of the country.  Symbolically, at institutional level, once again a military man – a retired general – was put in charge of the Ministry of National Defence and the defence budget was significantly increased, reaching 1.4% of GDP by the year 2012 according to data from the World Bank.

Fernando Lugo, using the excuse of the existence of the EPP (Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo or Paraguayan People’s Army), declared a state of emergency and carried out joint police and military operations in the northern zone of the country (San Pedro, Concepción and Amambay).  During the period 2009 – 2011, this part of the country saw five joint operations and the declaration of two states of emergency.  At the same time, Lugo’s government issued the law 4013/2010 regulating conscientious objection, which unconstitutionally brought in mandatory civil service (with retroactive effect).

Marinakue and remilitarisation in Paraguay

The ultimate expression of the dynamic of remilitarisation was found in the parliamentary coup d’état following the Marinakue massacre of June 2012 in which two militarised units of the National Police played a role: the GEO (Grupo Especial de Operaciones or Special Operations Group) and the FOPE (Fuerza Operativa Policial Especializada or Specialised Police Task Force).  Landless farm workers occupying land that had belonged to the state before Stroessner passed it to its new owner, the politician and businessman Blas Riquelme, were evicted by a large number of heavily-armed and militarised police officers in a raid that resulted in the deaths of eleven workers and six police officers.  The participation of military forces in operations carried out at the site of the massacre has also been confirmed.

The massacre that occurred in Marinakue was the justification used by the parliament to overthrow President Lugo.  It fell to the National Police to take charge of implementing the coup, repressing those who demonstrated against the deposition of Lugo as an attack on democracy, both in Asunción and in the other departments of the country.

The Marinakue massacre was a fatal, but not logical, consequence of the process of remilitarisation that Paraguay was and still is living, under the gentle auspices of the United States’ militaristic agenda.

Militarised policing

The way in which the different specialised groupings of the National Police acted in Marinakue can be seen to conform fully to the military forms and procedures on the use of force and its consequences adopted by the police command.  These forms and procedures are:

  1. The excessive and disproportionate use of force with the aim of annihilating any resistance before it occurs.  This means the use of a force six times greater than the maximum number of farmers present in the area or more than ten times greater than the number of those that National Police considers as having the capacity to resist.  The excessive use of force is amplified through the use of automatic and lethal weapons and means of aerial surveillance, monitoring and intimidation: in this case, a helicopter.
  2. The farmers settled in the locality are conceived of as "enemies" to be erradicated from the territory, which must be invaded and cleared out.  The farmers are not treated as citizens, as local inhabitants or as civilians with rights.  The police assumed a discourse of friend / enemy reflected in the epithets of “invaders” and “supposed farmers”.
  3. The planning of the police intervention to involve an encircling movement, a pincer-action, attacks by the rear-guard and the vanguard, the use of militarised grouping of National Police at the front and back and the presence of not yet mlitarised groupings (Orden y Seguridad or Order and Security) as a way of experientially involving them in the process of militarisation.
  4. The complete abandonment of the protocol of intervention in mass occuptions based on human rights and introduced by the Interior Ministry,

The results of the intervention denote strategic planning on the part of military staff: the massacre achieved results in at least four areas:

  1. The total annihilation of the occupation resulting in deaths and injuries, legal charges and detentions amongst the farmers, as well as the total loss of their property and assets.
  2. The discrediting and defeat in the media of the landless farmer movement.  It was not possible to reoccupy Marinakue until three years later.  The landless movement has had little subsequent impact nationally.
  3. The overthrow of the "human rights sector" within the National Police and the Interior Ministry.  The protocol of intervention in mass occupations was annulled and the minister fell.  The commanders involved in the massacre were promoted.
  4. The overthrow of the centre-left government and the recovery of power by right-wing militaristic elements, at first by the PLRA (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico or Authentic Radical Liberal Party) and then by the Colorado Party with the administration of Horacio Cartes, who promotes a powerful agenda of remilitarisation.

Ongoing remilitarisation

The post-coup governments of the PRLA vice-president Federico Franco (2012 – 2013) and of the Colorado Horacio Cartes (2013 until present) have continued and deepened the process of remilitarisation.  Under the Cartes administration, the military budget has been increased (to 1.4% of GDP for 2014, according to the World Bank) and powers regarding the control of military operations have been removed from Congress.  In order to be able to do this, President Cartes has achieved the amendment of Law 1337/99 on Defence and National Security, granting the executive the legal power to decide on the deployment of the armed forces in internal combat by simple presidential decree.  At the same time, he obtained the sanction of Congress for Law 5036/13 which enables the armed forces to fight the EPP.

For seven years now, police and military operations have been carried out and states of emergency declared in the north of the country, cumulating in the establishment of the FTC (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta or Joint Task Force), composed of the armed forces, the National Police and SENAD (Secretaria Nacional Antidrogas or National Anti-Drug Secretariat) by President Cartes, whose administration has meant years of human rights violations, restrictions on civil liberties, constant looting and infringements of the rights of the poorest in that area.

Conclusions

Demilitarisation in Paraguay was not an expression of an antimilitarist strategy as it did not question militarism in its fundamental aspects: elitism and the delegation of defence issues by citizens.  The militaristic status quo, although superficially acted upon during the Oviedo emergency, was maintained.  The foundations that support militarism in Paraguay were left untouched and the process of remilitarisation has not encountered many difficulties in establishing itself and recovering by 2014 a level of institutional power equal or greater to that which it had in 1993.  Remilitarisation is a lived reality in Paraguay, especially the intervention zones of the Joint Task Force, and in the rest of the country where military logic is used to resolve any conflict or popular demand and deal with emergencies.

This article is an extract from a paper originally presented at the IX Workshop of the Paraguay Social Studies Group, “Paraguay in the Social Sciences”, Asunción, June 2016.

Author information

Pelao is a Chilean writer and organizer based in based in Asunción, Paraguay, and a member of the War Resisters' International Council.  He is part of the afinity group GAAA! (Group de Afinidad Antimilitarista de Asunción), the Latin American antimilitarist magazine Periférica and the library and social centre La Comuna de Emma, Chana y Todas las Demás.  In Chile, he was a founder member of the antimilitarist group Ni Casco Ni Uniforme.

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About the authors

Pelao is a Chilean writer and organizer based in based in Asunción, Paraguay, and a member of the War Resisters' International Council.  He is part of the afinity group GAAA! (Group de Afinidad Antimilitarista de Asunción), the Latin American antimilitarist magazine Periférica and the library and social centre La Comuna de Emma, Chana y Todas las Demás.  In Chile, he was a founder member of the antimilitarist group Ni Casco Ni Uniforme.

Pelao is a Chilean writer and organizer based in based in Asunción, Paraguay, and a member of the War Resisters' International Council.  He is part of the afinity group GAAA! (Group de Afinidad Antimilitarista de Asunción), the Latin American antimilitarist magazine Periférica and the library and social centre La Comuna de Emma, Chana y Todas las Demás.  In Chile, he was a founder member of the antimilitarist group Ni Casco Ni Uniforme.

Pelao is a Chilean writer and organizer based in based in Asunción, Paraguay, and a member of the War Resisters' International Council.  He is part of the afinity group GAAA! (Group de Afinidad Antimilitarista de Asunción), the Latin American antimilitarist magazine Periférica and the library and social centre La Comuna de Emma, Chana y Todas las Demás.  In Chile, he was a founder member of the antimilitarist group Ni Casco Ni Uniforme.