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A thorn in the side of Paraguay regime

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1986

Asunci'on, Paraguay

THERE'S a bit of Paraguayan paradox in the life of Aldo Zuccolillo. He owns what is said to be this nation's most popular newspaper, ABC Color. But it hasn't been permitted to print for two years.

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His wealth and family ties would ordinarily make him a privileged intimate of the 32-year regime of strong man Alfredo Stroessner. Yet Mr. Zuccolillo is one of the government's most outspoken critics.

He was jailed twice for his newspaper's reports on government corruption. But Zuccolillo admits that he or almost any other Paraguayan businessman must be a willing accomplice in that corruption to succeed here.

The newspaper publisher is considered a sort of bellwether of establishment thinking, which is turning increasingly toward support of an unprecedented, broad-based opposition to General Stroessner's regime.

Zuccolillo was the first among those who traditionally benefited from the right-wing authoritarian government to join the opposition, says United States Ambassador Clyde Taylor. (The publisher opened ABC Color with General Stroessner's approval in 1967 and had made it the nation's largest newspaper by 1984, when Stroessner closed it.)

``He's done a self-analysis, found the need to confess his sins, and acknowledge that it's time for these people to be responsible [for turning the country around],'' says the ambassador, who has himself cut a controversial profile here for his encouragement of the opposition.

For years, the opposition has consisted of center and leftist political parties outlawed by the regime. They want a return to civilian rule and an end to arbitrary arrests, press censorship, and restrictions on unions and political parties. But this year even some members of Stroessner's ruling right-wing Colorado Party, disturbed about corruption, have joined in dissent. Paraguay's deteriorating economy, a further spur to opposition growth, is believed connected to government neglect and corruption.

The opposition's morale, Zuccolillo says, has been boosted considerably by US pressure on Stroessner to liberalize politics here and also by the US role in the fall of authoritarian regimes in Haiti and the Philippines.

Paraguay's authoritarian military rule has such a grip on the population that citizens fearfully halt their conversations when they pass military officials on the streets. In this context, the uninhibited Zuccolillo ``has become a social hero,'' says journalist and historian, Ricardo Caballero Aquino. But he was a national hero even before there was serious opposition to the regime. In the 1950s, he was a world-class long-jumper known as ``Mr. Steel.'' His long-jump record has not been broken in 30 years -- a situation he says unfortunately parallels the general lack of progress here.

Zuccolillo remains as sharp a thorn in the side of the regime with his paper under censorship as he was when it was printing expos'es of government corruption. He keeps up opposition to the government on radio talk shows and in conversations with visiting foreign journalists, diplomats, and human rights officials. International human rights groups and Washington constantly use ABC Color's closure as a pressure point to promote change here.

Because the closure of another newspaper would be unacceptable internationally, observers say, operating newspapers and the opposition station Radio Nanduti have been able to expand their reporting without being closed. But the radio's signals are jammed whenever anything remotely political is said on the air. (The government says it is not responsible for the jamming.) A certain level of self-censorship prevails among the nation's half-dozen dailies, several of which are owned by friends of Stroessner.