Comparative Studies in Society and History

Struggles over Representation

“Unleashing the Fury”: The Cultural Discourse of Rural Violence and Land Rights in Paraguay

a1 Carleton College


In February 1989, General Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay's longtime dictator, was deposed in a coup led by one of his top generals. During the first days after the coup, hundreds of rural Paraguayans swept onto unused lands claimed by the state, the Stroessner family and its cronies, and foreign investors, to set up ramshackle huts and clear plots to grow manioc and corn. They were soon followed by thousands more. By mid-1990, observers and representatives of the occupants estimated that roughly 19,000 families had claimed lands totaling over 360,000 hectares. 1 Most of the occupations occurred in the eastern and northern border departments, a frontier zone that had been rapidly developed for commercial agriculture during the preceding decades. But small farmers and rural workers throughout the nation mobilized to demand direct participation in their new government, more favorable agricultural policies, and restitution for past abuses. For Paraguay, then a nation of only 4.1 million persons, 2.06 million of them rural, this mobilization represented a considerable proportion of the population. Although land occupations were not new to Paraguay, his wave of rural activism was exceptional. Coinciding with Paraguay's first hesitant steps toward democracy, the occupations expressed the hopes of the rural poor for a more democratic rural society and for their own voice in the new political system.


1 These figures are derived from information provided by several organizations involved with the occupants and from data collected by the Centro de Documentación y Estudios and published in its monthly Informativo Campesino. For more information, see note 4.