Convulsion in Paraguay

Democracy fails: Coup attempt, murder, resignation, exile mar transition, could undermine region.

April 01, 1999

IT IS a poor little country far away, but the political convulsions in Paraguay are bad news for the hemisphere. Sympathetic help is needed from Paraguay's neighbors -- Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay -- to nurture the fragile democracy and prevent its failure from undermining theirs.

The four countries are linked in a customs union -- Mercosur -- that has jump-started their economies. South America has made a wonderful transition from military dictatorship to democracy in recent decades. Paraguay, a land-locked country of some 5 million people kept backward by the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, didn't get the hang of the new system.

The overthrow of General Stroessner in 1989 paved the way for democracy. He lives quietly in Brazil. The corruption-laden Colorado Party still rules Paraguay.

Army chief Gen. Lino Oviedo launched a coup against elected government in 1996, failed and was jailed. If he had been allowed to run, he would have won last year's election.

His protege Raul Cubas did, becoming the first elected civilian president to succeed an elected civilian. He sprang General Oviedo from prison.

Vice President Luis Maria Argana began impeachment proceedings for that, and was murdered. General Oviedo was suspected. President Cubas stood to be impeached. Mobs demanded his ouster. He resigned. General Oviedo flew his family to Argentina. The Brazilian air force flew President Cubas to Brazil. Both were granted asylum.

The senate chief, Luis Gonzalez Macchi, succeeded to the presidential term ending in 2003. The army and the people support him. All these men are in the Colorado Party.

The opposition Liberal Party supports President Gonzalez Macchi's legitimacy for six months, demanding elections then. He must decide how long his mandate is good.

His first act was to promise to end crime and corruption. Given how those grew in the Stroessner years and the decade of General Oviedo's domination behind the scenes, that is a tall order.

Thanks to Mercosur, Paraguay is not isolated. Its economic partners, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, must help Paraguay cure its body politic.

This requires keeping General Oviedo under wraps, discouraging coups, fighting crime, mentoring on political and economic freedoms. Otherwise, these neighboring nations might find themselves infected by Paraguay's ailment.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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