Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

1984 Revisited: Welcome To Paraguay

Penny Lernoux
October 11, 1976

Fellowship Year

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Travel posters and guidebooks notwithstanding, Paraguay’s much-touted Jesuit missions are no place for a tourist. Not nowadays at least, with military checkpoints on every road and whole villages under siege.

So frightened are the people in the region of the missions that few will talk about anything more incriminating than the weather. Diacussion of the local political situation is confined to whispered conversations in locked rooms or the middle of a forest.

There is a deja vu atmosphere about these rural towns and churches, for the current repression is a replay of the 18th century. Then as now, the Jesuits were much censored by the large landowners because of their influence over the Indian peasants and their refusal to provide the Spanish haciendas with slave labor. Called “reductions,” these Jesuit missions proved an unusual and successful experiment in Indian socialism that at one time included seven towns with 150,000 Guarani Indians on the red plains of southeastern Paraguay.

The conflict with the Spanish colonists lasted a century and a half until 1767 when the Spanish crown, under pressure from the large landowners, expelled the Jesuits from Paraguay and closed the reductions. Their refuge destroyed, the Guarani Indians soon were slaughtered or enslaved. Only 30,000 survive today.

The mission buildings fell into ruin, too, but with the return of the Jesuits to Paraguay early in this century they have gradually been restored to their colonial splendor. The churches at Yaguaron and San Ignacio boast some of the finest colonial art in South America.

While everyone now agrees on the need to preserve these churches because of their value as a tourist attraction, the Jesuits themselves are again under attack, as are the region’s peasants. Twelve Jesuits have been expelled from Paraguay in the past two years. At least four peasants in the villages of Santa Rosa, San Ignacio, San Juan and Santa Maria were killed during a military roundup in April and several dozen arrested. “The soldiers took advantage of the opportunity to steal whatever they could from the peasants — animals, furniture, clothes, food, money,” said a local teacher. “Then they arrested other peasants and charged them with the stealing.”

“The situation has reached the point,” admitted a village housewife, “where you can be imprisoned for having been born in this area. One of our friends, a young woman, recently went to Asuncion to arrange her identity papers and was arrested just because she said she came from Santa Rosa.”

Unlike the 18th century when treason to the crown was the usual excuse for repression, the rationale today in Paraguay is “communist subversion.” But after 22 years of “institutional monarcy,” as critics describe the long-lived regime of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the phrase is beginning to wear thin. In a country where “communist” has become a catch-all for anyone who voices an objection, even about the results of a local soccer match or the price of eggs, “we must be swarming with traitors, conspirators, cowards and opportunists,” reported the Catholic bishops’ weekly newspaper “Sendero.”

In reality, few Paraguayans understand what the word means, least of all the soldiers arresting “communist” peasants and priests. When asked what exactly communism is, a security agent faltered, “Well … it’s … it’s something very complicated, and I wouldn’t know what to tell you exactly.”

Paraguayan Peasants: "Prisoners of Fear"
Paraguayan Peasants: “Prisoners of Fear”

Because fear is the principal factor in Paraguayan life, as amply documented by local sociologists, few dare to question the reasons given by the government for its actions. Police agents and soldiers carry out orders robot-like in a tropical Orwellian nightmare. No one, even the leaders of the government party, is immune from suspicion under the widespread system of the “pyragueis,” or Stroessner’s spies. “Whoever has had the sad experience of feeling controlled by government spies at a party with friends, at work, at home or on the telephone soon becomes a prisoner of fear,” wrote Father Ramon Juste in an article in the Catholic monthly magazine “Accion,” for which he was threatened with expulsion from the country.

“Don’t write anything in a letter and don’t say anything on the telephone,” was the warning I heard repeatedly in Paraguay.

While the 2.5 million population is dominated by fear, this does not mean that everyone is silent; a few have the courage to state publicly what is whispered in locked rooms. One such was Msgr. Ramon Bogarin, the bishop of San Juan Bautista de Misiones, where the Jesuit reductions are located. Feared and despised by the government, Bogarin was greatly beloved by the poverty-stricken Paraguayans he defended. When he died of a heart attack last September, 5,000 peasants attended his funeral in defiance of military checkpoints and police suspension of all transport in the area. As the equally outspoken bishop of Concepcion put it, “Peasants and pastors know that our lives are less important than the cause of justice and truth.”

A tall, stooped aristocrat who lived in a bare, three-room “palace,” Bogarin was typical of the battle-scarred Catholic hierarchy that has taken on the job of “the nation’s moral conscience” in an escalating conflict with the Stroessner regime. Though viciously persecuted, the Church remains the only institution in Paraguay capable of such a challenge. Moreover, it has reversed its earlier defensive position by taking the initiative in the ongoing fight.

Frequently threatened by the police, Bogarin was for years in the vanguard of this battle. Church sources report that he would have been named archbishop of Asuncion had the Vatican not given in to government pressure in the 1960’s when Stroessner demanded his removal from the capital. Bogarin incurred official wrath while auxiliary bishop of Asuncion because of his work in promoting Catholic reform groups among workers and students. In a compromise move the Paraguayan Church created a diocese for Bogarin in Misiones. The defiant prelate would not be silenced, however, and the large landowners in the region soon were complaining to the capital about his work among the peasants.

“They sent the local police chief to kill me, but when I confronted him he didn’t have the courage to shoot,” Msgr. Bogarin told me a few weeks before his death. “The government makes a serious mistake in believing that my death will end the Church’s criticisms. I am only one of 12 bishops, and all of us are united in our opposition to the government. My death will change nothing.”

The nephew of Archbishop Juan Sinforiano Bogarin, who rebuilt Paraguay’a Catholic Church after a series of ruinous wars in the 19th century, Bogarin came from a long line of Catholic militants whose legacy is the most courageous, united and progressive Church in Latin America.

That the Church is the only institution to have withstood 22 years of military dictatorship is due in part to its historical experience of conflicts with the state, the opening salvo of which was the long struggle between the Jesuit reductions and the Spanish colonists. Following independence, the first of an unending line of Paraguayan dictators, Jose Rodriguez Francia (1814-1840), closed all the foreign religious orders and expelled their members, insisting that only Paraguayan nationals could be priests or bishops. The Paraguayan Church was just beginning to recover from this blow when another dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez (1862-1870), opened hostilities against Argentina and Brazil in the costly Triple Alliance War. When Solano Lopez discovered that Asuncion’s Bishop Manuel Antonio Palacios and other members of the Church were involved in a civilian conspiracy to overthrow him, he ordered the Churchmen arrested and shot. By the end of the war there were only 33 priests left in Paraguay, and of these only 15 were in a position to exercise their ministry. With Archbishop Bogarin’s appointment in 1895, the survivors once again set out to rebuild the Church, a task at which they were remarkably successful during Bogarin’s 55 years in office.

It was under this remarkable prelate’s rule that the local Church began to experience a more democratic form of government. In 1942, long before the reforms of the Vatican’s Council II, annual meetings were initiated between religious and bishops to enable priests and nuns to communicate their criticisms and recommendations to the hierarchy. The meetings were continued for eight years and formed the historical basis of the Church’s exceptionally united front in the current conflict with the Stroessner regime.

Although Church-state relations are the worst in Latin America, Paraguay’s hierarchy was not always at war with the Stroessner government. Like most Paraguayans, local Churchmen were relieved when the burly, red-haired general seized power in 1954 to enforce the peace after years of political bloodletting. Centuries of war, against the Indians, the Spanish crown, three of Paraguay’s neighbors and various internal factions, had conditioned the populace to a strong military “caudillo.” While Stroessner’s regular reelection was arranged through various legal ploys, such as changing the constitution, he was genuinely popular for most of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Even had the legally constrained opposition parties been allowed to campaign freely, foreign and local political observers agree that Stroessner still would have won landslide victories in the 1958, 1963 and 1968 presidential elections.

But like all things that endure too long, Stroesener’s government began to lose support by the end of the decade. Historians pinpoint Nelson Rockefeller’s visit to Paraguay in 1969 as the beginning of the disillusionment when popular frustration boiled over into violent street demonstrations. With or without Rockefeller however, some sort of outburst was bound to have occurred because of the increasing government repression and corruption.

The Church was drawn into the conflict largely because of the liberalizing influence of Vatican II and the Latin American bishops’ strong stand on social justice at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. However, it was Stroessner who pushed the Church over the brink in 1969 by closing the bishops’ newspaper and expelling Jesuit Francisco Oliva for preaching in favor of social justice and human rights. Both Oliva and the newspaper’s editor, Gilberto Gimenez, were charged with the now-familiar crime of “communist subversion.”

Systematic repression of peasant organizations also began in the same year with a clampdown on Catholic- and Protestant-sponsored agrarian leagues. War was not declared, however, until the bishops in a plenary session agreed to accede to the pleas of the families of political prisoners to intervene with Stroessner on their behalf.

Political prisoners is not a subject Stroessner will discuss. Indeed the very idea makes him apoplectic. “There are only common delinquents in Paraguayan jails,” he shouted at me during an interview which had proceeded pleasantly enough until I asked the fatal question, after which I was abruptly shown out of the presidential palace. The bishops experienced a similar response when they pressed their written requests on behalf of political prisoners in an interview with the president. (Whatever Stroessner wants to call them, there are now 600 people in Paraguayan jails who have been imprisoned because of their political beliefs. Three have been in jail for 18 years, five for 15 years and twenty for 8 to 12 years — the oldest “common delinquents” in Latin America.)

The Church-state conflict escalated in 1971 when Uberfil Monzon, an Uruguayan priest in charge of the Department of Laymen of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), was kidnapped by the police and brutally tortured for 30 days. As usual the charge was “subversion.” When Uruguayan Bishop Andres Rubio flew to Paraguay to intervene on Monzon’s behalf, he was assaulted by 22 rock-throwing women at the Asuncion airport while the Paraguayan bishops stood helplessly outside the locked gates. According to one of the women who later confessed to the bishops, they had been drugged and then ordered by the police to attack Rubio. The Paraguayan Bishops Conference responded by excommunicating the interior minister, the police chief and the chief of police investigations.

As a result of this drastic action, there was a two-year lull in animosities although two priests were expelled in 1972 and 1973 because of their work with the agrarian leagues. During this period the peasants’ organizations were virtually eliminated by the government. According to members of the U.S. Disciples of Christ Protestant mission, “the government’s objective is to suppress any person or organization that strives to help those living in miserable poverty, that is to say 80 percent of the population.”

In another effort to help the impoverished peasants various bishops sponsored the formation of Christian communities in new agricultural colonies, a type of Catholic kibbutz in which the colonists work and pray together. While small and inoffensive, these communities were and are looked upon by the Iarge landowners and the government as the seed of future problems. Although the members of the community own private property, including homes and livestock, they work together on communal lands and own marketing cooperatives. Cooperatives and communal lands are considered “communist” in Paraguay because they weaken the economic control of the large landowners over the largely landless peasants. Worse, they are the means of forging peasant solidarity. Were farm labor organized in Paraguay, it would be impossible for the country’s cattle barons to maintain large tracts of poorly farmed land and still make huge profits. But with daily wages costing less than 50 cents, it hardly matters that only one percent of the country’s 102 million acres of arable land are efficiently cultivated (International Labor Organization statistics).

So skewered is land distribution in Paraguay that 87 percent of the arable land is occupied by 1.1 percent of the farms. The rest of the rural population is crowded onto minute parcels of land known as “minifundia” or work as peons on the ranches where “they have less value than a horse or a cow,” according to Msgr. Anibal Maricevich, bishop of Concepcion.

Annual per capita income of these peasant families is a bare $85. Nine-tenths of the children never finish primary school. Even the simplest medical services are nonexistent. Nutritional deficiencies cause 86 percent of the deaths.

Unable to survive the feudal conditions imposed by the landlords, thousands have fled the country in search of a better life. One out of three Paraguayans has migrated to neighboring countries; there are 800,000 Paraguayans in Buenos Aires alone.

Most of those who stay behind accept their lot with fatalistic submission. “Mboriahu clamor ha campana yvyra avave nohendui” is a familiar Guarani expression of these Indian peasants. Or: “No one listens to the cry of the poor or the sound of a wooden bell.”

Like the agrarian leagues, the peasants’ Christian communities were strongly criticized by the large landowners, and in 1975 government troops began to harass the colonies. The worst repression occurred at Jejui 200 miles northeast of Asuncion where 24 families were besieged by 70 soldiers after the government charged that the community was the headquarters of a guerrilla unit. Among those arrested were two Americans, Msgr. Roland Bordelon, Latin American director of the Catholic Relief Service, and Kevin Cahalan, executive director of the service in Paraguay; two French priests from the Little Brothers of Jesus; a Spanish nun; a Paraguayan diaconate; and five peasants. The local priest, Father Braulio Maciel, was shot in the leg and repeatedly beaten. When the nun tried to intervene on Maciel’s behalf, she, too, was beaten. That same week a Trinidadian priest and an Italian religious were arrested as well as two Paraguayan disconates during a military roundup of peasants in 10 other communities.

Efforts by the local bishop, Msgr. Maricevich, to reach Jejui repeatedly were rebuffed by the military. The bishop’s life was threatened and he was told that Pastor Coronel, chief of police investigations, had declared him persona non grata.

The community’s fields, houses and livestock were destroyed. The soldiers also stole $7,942, which had been donated by European Catholic organizations to enable the peasants to buy land.

All this in the name of “communist subversion.” Yet as “Sendero” pointed out, no guerrillas or guns were found at the colony, only Bibles and peasant prayer books and “a priest whose mission is to pardon. ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,’ cried Father Maciel after they shot him.”

“These communities’ only crime is that they are Christian,” stated the Paraguayan Bishops Conference.

If the government’s rationale seems questionable, that is not surprising in a country where double-talk is the norm. There is no conflict between the government and the Church, says President Stroessner. Nor are there any political prisoners. Charges by international organizations and local anthropologists notwithstanding, there is no Indian genocide in Paraguay because killing Indians is not a premeditated crime, according to the Ministry of Defense. “Peace, Work and Well-Being with Stroessner,” announces the red neon sign overlooking Asuncion’s Plaza Independencia, yet a few blocks away, in the Police Department of Investigations, peasants, teachers, workers, students and religious are being tortured with electric shock and beatings.

Severe as repression has been in the past, it was mild compared to the reign of terror this year when whole areas of the country such as Misiones were placed under military rule. Using the usual excuse of “communist subversion,” the government intervened the Jesuits’ Cristo Rey primary and high school in Asuncion, the capital’s largest, most prestigious school. Ten priests from Cristo Rey, the missions and the Paraguayan Bishops Conference, including Father Bartomeu Melia, one of the country’s foremost anthropologists, were arrested and expelled. The Jesuits were singled out for persecution, explained the government, because of Jesuit Miguel Sanmarti’s supposed participation in a Paraguayan guerrilla front with Argentina’s Popular Revolutionary Army. However, Church documents and statements notarized in Barcelona show that Sanmarti left Paraguay in 1974 and has been in Spain ever since.

Also intervened were the Salesians’ Carlos Pfanni Agricultural School, the Asuncion seminary and the Jesuit provincial house. In the city of Villarrica the Maria Auxiliadora High School, the local seminary and the diocese’s rural development institute were invaded by the police.

Ten members of the Friendship Mission of the Disciples of Christ were arrested and two expelled, their rural projects with Indian peasants forcibly ended. The Marandu Project for Indian education sponsored by the Catholic University of Asuncion and the Inter-American Foundation of Arlington, Va., also was closed. Its director, Miguel Chase-Sardi, one of the hemisphere’s most prominent anthropologists, was imprisoned for seven months and so brutally tortured that his hearing may be permanently damaged. Chase-Sardi’s release was secured only through the intervention of the U.S. ambassador, whom Stroessner refers to as an ex-officio member of his cabinet.

Some 1,100 people were arrested during the first five months of this year. Several were killed under torture, including Mario Arzamenda, 61, a newspaper vendor who distributed “Sendero,” the bishops’ newspaper, and Arturo Bernal, head of a peasants’ cooperative in Piribebuy and the father of five children aged 8 to 14.

The bloodletting undoubtedly would have continued had the Bishops Conference not published a document in June entitled “Between the Persecutions of the World and the Consolation of God” in which the hierarchy denounced indiscriminate repression against students, peasants and lay and religious leaders. “In these times of repression everyone is put in the same bag and those who are not communists are, at the very least, naive idiots who are preparing the way for communism.”

Likening the repression to the persecution of the early Christian communities, the bishops asked Paraguayan Catholics to pray for Church martyrs and to overcome their fear. “The government cannot kill your soul,” they said.

The document was signed by all the Paraguayan bishops, including the military vicar, Msgr. Juan Moleon, an honorary brigadier general who is highly regarded by the armed forces. The day after its publication Bishop Moleon read the riot act to the generals at a religious service at the military’s Stella Maris Chapel.

At a Te Deium Mass at Asuncion’s cathedral Archbishop Ismael Rolon, who is an ex-officio member of Stroessner’s Council of State, told the president and his cabinet that “the Paraguayan people live in a lamentable state of insecurity and fear.” He also reminded Stroessner that under the constitution Catholicism is the official religion of Paraguay and its ministers guaranteed safeguards in recognition of “important services in education, Indian missions and charitable works.”

Msgr. Demetrio Aquino, bishop of the national shrine of the Virgin of Caacupe, Paraguay’s equivalent of Lourdes, followed this up with a fire-and-brimstone letter to Interior Minister Sabino Montanaro in which he stated that Montanaro had lied to him in promising his intervention on behalf of Bernal and other peasants arrested in Piribebuy.

“Is this your answer?” he demanded. “The corpse of Arturo Bernal, the mourning of a peasant family, the desperation of a widow with five small, fatherless children? You undoubtedly have the tremendous responsibility for the cruel death of yet another citizen in the prisons of the ministry of which you are in charge. Mr. Minister, I am sure that the Virgin of Caacupe and Christ Our Lord will make those responsible for this unnecessary cruelty regret their act and that the Venerated Mother of all Paraguayans will demonstrate her authority with exemplary punishment.”

In a country as Catholic as Paraguay, where failure to attend the family rosary is cause for social ostracism, no matter what the military rank of the sinner, the bishops’ denunciations have been an acute embarrassment to the government. Military intervention of Catholic schools also has boomeranged since most of the children of the civilian and military elite are enrolled in these institutions.

Not only did the government make no comment on “Persecutions.” Within days of its publication several hundred political prisoners were quietly released.

Government sources privately admit that they do not want trouble with the Church. Opposition politicians concur, suggesting that the recent reign of terror was the result of a bad case of nerves.

Stroessner, 63, currently is pushing through a reform of the 1967 constitution to enable him to continue in office until 1983 when his son Gustavo, an army pilot, will succeed him. But the going is not as easy as it was a decade ago.

“Twenty-two years is long enough,” said Fernando Levi Ruffinelli, head of the Liberal Party which has patched up a 13-year quarrel with the Liberal Radicals to oppose Stroessner’s reelection. The smaller Febrista and Christian Democratic parties also are opposed. Not that their combined forces will prevent the government Colorado Party from ramming through a constitutional amendment. But the opposition’s unity is a sign of growing discontent in a period of economic and social change. “Stroessner can no longer rule Paraguay as if it were a big cattle ranch,” commented a Paraguayan engineer.

The primary cause of this change has been the decision to harness the country’s enormous hydroelectrical resources in a series of multibillion-dollar projects on the mighty Parana River. The biggest and most controversial project, the $7 billion Itaipu complex, is a virtual sell-out to the Brazilians, giving Paraguay’s powerful neighbor administrative control over the binational project, 75 percent of construction profits and a 50-year contract during which the price per kilowatt paid by Brazil to Paraguay will remain unchanged.

Similar juicy contracts have been handed out to other foreign companies such as the Anschutz Corp. of Denver, Colo., which recently received 40-year rights to all mineral deposits in the 61,710-sq.-mi. eastern half of the country in return for an investment of $1.4 million over a period of nine years and government royalties of three percent.

These contracts are small-time, however, in comparison to Itaipu. Brazilian bribes to Paraguayan negotiators were over $1 million, according to inside sources, and that was just the down payment in the pay-offs that must be made during the decade in which Itaipu is in construction. Even the Brazilians are beginning to worry about what they have wrought. “It could be our equivalent of the Panama Canal,” warned Marcones Ferraz, former head of the Brazilian state electrical company Electrobras.

While corruption has always been a factor of Paraguayan life, it has never reached such a scale. “People who used to be satisfied with a contraband jeep now want a fleet of airplanes, explained a Paraguayan executive. “But even with these bigger stakes there is only room st the top for a few to make a good killing.

“The Colorado Party section chief wants his piece of the pie. So does the colonel. But they are not getting it and they are dissatisfied.

“At the same time there has been a shift in power, particularly in the new frontier towns where the money is pouring in. These new foreign investors don’t give a damn about political favors from the local party chief. If they have a problem they go straight to the capital. This means that one of the party’s principal weapons , local control over jobs and economic power, is eroding.”

Religious sources agree. “One of the reasons for government repression is that the Colorado Party cannot get the peasants to go to its meetings any more,” said a Paraguayan priest.

The government’s worries about peasant rebellions are nothing compared to dissent within its own ranks, however. Stroessner’s “pyragueis” recently uncovered a conspiracy that for once was genuine. It was not publicized because the conspirators included the nephews of the foreign minister and the commander of the First Military Region.

While corruption, repression and the dictatorship’s longevity have combined to produce unprecedented discontent, few Paraguayans believe Stroessner can be dislodged unless the U.S. and Brazilian governments withdraw their support. In the meantime, the Catholic Church continues to go forward with long-term programs to educate peasants and workers while encouraging a more enlightened attitude among the youth of the elite in the belief that all things, even the Stroessner regime, eventually must end. Although the bishops realize this work is bound to cause more persecution, they insist that “we are determined to fulfill this mandate even at the cost of our own lives.”

“We will eat dirt before we betray our people,” said Bishop Maricevich.

Received in New York on October 11, 1976

©1976 Penny Lernoux

Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.