SIX poorly dressed peasants nursed bruises and cracked bones as they sat in a church room on the outskirts of the capital here. They had been hurriedly brought to Asunci'on to recuperate after a 500-strong special police force had three days earlier violently broken up a land occupation in the central department of San Pedro. The six were just the latest victims of a government ``get tough'' campaign on a resurgent peasant movement that is proving to be the greatest popular challenge to Gen. Andr'es Pedotti Rodr'iguez's 10-month-old rule.
``When General Rodr'iguez promised democracy and human rights, we understood that to mean the right to a piece of land,'' explained Pedro Gamarra, the general secretary of a recently formed coordinating body of landless peasants.
``But despite his promises, the military response to land occupations has been worse than under [President Alfredo] Stroessner,'' he said.
Since the coup of Feb. 3, 1989, at least 20,000 peasant families have taken part in about 90 new land occupations. The root cause is Paraguay's highly skewed land distribution, for decades one of the worst in Latin America, with 1 percent of the population owning 80 percent of the farm land. In recent years, the competition for land has intensified with the return to the land of 20,000 workers laid off as the huge Itaipu dam nears completion, and the increase in foreign companies wanting land to grow soya and other crops.
But what has caused the post-coup upsurge in occupations is the emergence of a confident peasant movement taking advantage of the new political space available for grass-roots organization. In one of the most conflictive weekends on Nov. 11 and 12, the special forces broke up four separate occupations in San Pedro and temporarily detained over 200 peasants.
The government has been forced to set up a new state body, CONCODER, to address the land problem, and to publish an official report which admitted the existence of 110,000 landless families - well under the 300,000 the peasant unions claim.
But government critics say its response so far has ranged from the halfhearted to the absurd. Last September, the police called a press conference only to hold up a can of Russian shrimp, apparently eaten by peasants, supposedly proving that international subversives were behind the land occupations. The government's case was weakened by the availability of the shrimp in Asunci'on supermarkets.
The government has also carried out a few expropriations, and promised to transfer to peasants the goods taken by former government officials under President Stroessner. But according to Bishop Medina of the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference, ``The government does not have a global solution - it is only putting out local explosions. It should confiscate some of the estates without compensation.''
General Rodr'iguez, himself a major landowner, has criticized the peasants for violating the absolute right to private property. Some political observers say this is in line with his keenness to attract foreign investment into the countryside. But peasants and development experts say that the law also demands a social function for land and puts limits of between 25,000 and 50,000 acres on unproductive estates.
Many generals and close colleagues of Stroessner's, they say, hold huge tracts of land for speculation, not production.