Crisis seen for fledgling democracy in Paraguay Peaceful ,, transition to its second civilian government is at stake


ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Fearing that a general who tried to seize power two years ago could win the presidential election in May, the governing party is maneuvering to bar his candidacy, plunging this country into the worst political crisis of its fledgling democracy.

What is at stake in Paraguay -- home of one of Latin America's longest-running military dictatorships, until 1989 -- is the country's first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another.

The Colorado Party, which has run Paraguay uninterrupted for the past half-century, has been trying to block the election of Lino Oviedo, a retired general, since his unexpected victory in the party's primary in September.

Oviedo has been at odds with President Juan Carlos Wasmosy since April 1996, when the president ordered him dismissed and the general defied the order and made a bid for power before stepping down. After the general's primary victory in September, the president ordered his arrest on charges of insubordination -- based on the 1996 dispute, and picked the members of a special military tribunal to try him.

On March 9, the tribunal sentenced Oviedo to 10 years in prison, and the Colorado Party named Oviedo's running mate, Raul Cubas, as its presidential candidate. Oviedo, who brought a civil suit challenging his incarceration, has vowed to continue his campaign from prison.

The drama -- which pits a would-be strongman who was legitimately chosen to run for president against a civilian president accused of using dictatorial tactics to eliminate his enemy -- has confused and disoriented people here. As the scrambling continues to redraw terms of the coming election, voters appear engrossed in putting together a jigsaw puzzle whose picture changes daily.

At a special convention this month, the party leadership made accusations of fraud in the primary and suggested delaying elections 60 days so it could field a new candidate. Party leaders warned darkly of a conspiracy by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which monitors electoral rolls and has stood firm by the constitutionally mandated timetable for elections.

The machinations of the Colorado Party to engineer delayed elections with a replacement candidate have caused concern among foreign governments.

"If the world community lets it happen, two months down the line, what guarantees do we have that the delay won't extend longer?" asked a Western diplomat. But Bernardo Pericas, the Brazilian ambassador to Paraguay, said that Wasmosy assured him that he would leave office Aug. 15. The president also promised the Organization of American States that the elections would occur May 10, as scheduled.

As they warned Oviedo in April 1996, the United States, Brazil and Argentina are now threatening Wasmosy with severe consequences should the country scuttle democracy outright.

Oviedo has been a central figure in Paraguay's recent history, leading the conspiracy that overthrew Gen. Alfredo Stroessner in 1989, and growing to become a powerful figure at Wasmosy's side.

Some analysts attribute Oviedo's primary victory to tireless legwork and an ability to speak the peasants' language.

But others see in his victory democracy's failure to address the problems of a poor, uneducated electorate. And critics say that he used vast personal sums whose origins have never been explained to finance roads, bridges, schools and other projects in poor towns.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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