Promised land

Paraguay and the Moonies - A town owned by a cult seeks liberation

The Economist/August 11, 2005

One day in 2000 the people of Puerto Casado, a small town in Paraguay's inhospitable Chaco region, were shocked to learn that the ground had been sold under their feet—and that their new lord and master was the Rev Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who leads the Unification cult, better known as the Moonies. Mr Moon's acolytes soothed locals' fears by promising all sorts of grand projects to make the town rich, from a meat-packing plant to an eco-tourism resort.

Five years on, with little sign of these promises being kept, hundreds of the town's people recently travelled 400 miles (640km) to the capital, Asunción, to lobby Congress to free them from the cult.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved a bill to seize some buildings and a slice of the Moonies' land, to share among the locals. Backing the bill, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos accused the Moonies of paying their local workers "starvation" wages (they say they pay the legal minimum). His Colorado party should muster enough votes to pass the bill in the lower house.

The Moonies claim the row has been whipped up by local politicians to extort money from them. This week they began selling their cattle and laying off workers, forcing Mr Duarte to announce an emergency aid package for the town.

Mr Duarte says the townsfolk are living in "semi-feudal" conditions. But things remain much as they were long before Mr Moon came along. The town was part of a vast estate that Carlos Casado, a swashbuckling Spaniard, bought from a desperate Paraguayan government in the late 19th century, after it had lost much of its territory and people in a calamitous war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

The town once made a good living from quebracho, a hardwood used to make tannin for the leather industry. By the 1990s, with the quebracho trees almost gone, the Casado company was looking to sell.

At this time, Mr Moon began buying land either side of the Paraguay river, on which the town lies. After discovering the region on a fishing trip, he decided that the future of his declining movement lay in this South American "Garden of Eden".

Demands for fairer distribution of land are not unusual in Paraguay: most of it is owned by a tiny fraction of the population. The bill in Congress proposes seizing less than a tenth of the 600,000 hectares ( 1.5m acres) the Moonies own around Puerto Casado, for which they should get compensation—assuming the government can scrape together the money.

Though small in scale, the proposed seizure has caused a huge fuss. Paraguay's business federation laments that the country will never attract foreign investors if it mistreats the few, such as the Moonies, that it already has. The bill's congressional backers talk darkly of Mr Moon trying to build a "state within a state".

Puerto Casado may be just another of Mr Moon's over-ambitious South American money-spinning ventures. Directly across the river in Brazil, his plans to build a model town, with new roads, hotels and classrooms, have had similarly underwhelming results. Late last year, Brazil's Movement of Landless Rural Workers led a mass invasion, claiming much of the project's land was lying idle. A bank bought by Mr Moon in Uruguay went into liquidation and his plans to redevelop a port there have been stymied by local opposition. For a would-be messiah, not much sign of miracle-working.

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