Haunted by authoritarian past

By Robert Plummer, BBC News, Friday 26 March 1999, Published at 22:54 GMT

It has been 10 years since military rule ended in Paraguay with the ousting of General Alfredo Stroessner, but the country is still struggling to escape its infamous authoritarian past.

The main problem is that although the general himself was forced to leave Paraguay, the organisation that served as his political vehicle during his 35-year rule—the Colorado Party—still has a firm grip on the levers of power.

Despite the best efforts of two significant opposition parties, whoever controls the Colorados controls Paraguay.

Hence the bitter factional feuding within the party that has now culminated in the murder of Vice-President Luis Maria Argana and moves to impeach the president, Raul Cubas.

President-General pact

The catalyst for the current crisis in Paraguay is the former army commander Lino Oviedo, who is closely linked to Mr Cubas.

In 1996, General Oviedo defied orders to resign his command and staged an unsuccessful coup attempt, but he still managed to win the Colorados' nomination for last year's presidential election before being both disqualified and jailed.

Mr Cubas came to power promising to free the ex-general, which he duly did, despite a Supreme Court ruling that this was unconstitutional.

The victory of the Cubas-Oviedo faction was a blow for Mr Argana, who had been a key figure in the Colorados since the Stroessner years and had expected to clinch the presidential nomination himself.

In the event, he settled for the vice-presidency, but remained a fierce rival until he was assassinated on Tuesday.

Unrest on the streets

With supporters of both factions increasingly taking to the streets, Paraguay's fragile democracy is now in danger of coming apart at the seams.

The consequences of any renewed lapse into authoritarian ways would draw an immediate response from Paraguay's trading partners in the Mercosur economic bloc: Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Following General Oviedo's coup attempt three years ago, Mercosur changed its rules to state that all member countries must be democracies.

Any moves to dissolve the Paraguayan Congress would lead to the country's expulsion from the trade alliance.