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Is There Reason for Hope in Paraguay?

By John G. HealeyJohn G. Healey is executive director of Amnesty International USA. / May 24, 1989



THE scene was a historic one on May 1 as Paraguayans headed to the polls to choose a new president. As predicted, the victor was Gen. Andr'es Rodr'iguez, who received an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote. General Rodr'iguez led the coup on Feb. 3 which, in a matter of hours, brought the downfall of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, whose three decades in power made him one of the world's longest ruling dictators. When General Stroessner took charge in 1954, he inherited a nation of coups, countercoups, and revolutions. During a 40-year period shortly after the turn of the century, Paraguay saw three dozen coups and 39 presidents come and go.

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But Paraguay's 3.6 million citizens paid a high price for stability under Stroessner. During the Stroessner years, human rights were low on the government's agenda. For more than half a century, Paraguay was ruled by state of siege legislation. While increasing the powers of the security forces, these decrees restricted the rights of individuals. Dissent was strangled in the name of peace and public order. By labeling his opponents ``subversives,'' Stroessner exploited a prevailing fear that, without him, the country would revert to chaos.

Thousands of Paraguayans passed through Stroessner's jails during his 34 years. Scores of others were tortured in police custody, and some died as a result. In early April, human remains were found in a town outside the capital. Residents of the area speculate that the bodies of 30 to 40 peasants killed by Stroessner's police may be buried in mass graves at the same site.

When Rodr'iguez took center stage in early February, a new chapter in Paraguayan history began. The question that must be asked these days is whether Paraguay has seen the last of the days of the dictator, and if human rights under Rodr'iguez will be any more secure than under the strong man he replaced.

As second in command of the armed forces under Stroessner, Rodr'iguez controlled the lion's share of Paraguay's military firepower. He was known for three decades as a strong supporter of the dictatorship and a key figure in keeping Stroessner in power. Recent months, however, found the two generals at odds, with Rodr'iguez sympathizing with the ``traditionalist'' faction of the ruling Colorado Party, which sought to distance itself from the aging dictator. Rodr'iguez has pledged to lead Paraguay into a new era.

Prospects for human rights in Paraguay these days look better than they have in decades. In the months since the fall of Stroessner, the doors of Paraguay's opposition press have reopened. Freedom of assembly has been fully exercised. Political exiles have been welcomed home. Forty-two criminal suits have been filed against police officials in Paraguayan courts. The interior minister has pledged to abolish torture centers used by Paraguay's police and to prosecute officials accused of human rights abuses.

In March, a symbolic act took place in a province 235 miles east of the capital. On the orders of Paraguay's then-provisional president, a public swimming pool formerly used for torture was destroyed. In a symbolic display of the government's commitment to end torture, a local official, joined by a Roman Catholic bishop and former political prisoners, lifted a sledgehammer to deliver the first blow.

These events are in stark contrast to the dark days of Paraguay's past. Hope and optimism have been hard to come by in this small country with a history of human rights violations. It is a nation in which street demonstrations have been met with clubs, sticks, and electric prods, and where the military has ruled with an iron hand for over three decades.

Some Paraguayans never dreamed they would see election day. Modesto Napole'on Ortigoza is one of them. He languished for 25 years in Stroessner's jails; much of the time he was tortured and kept in solitary confinement. Recently released and forced to seek safety in a neighboring country, Mr. Ortigoza was one of scores of Paraguayans who faced repeated brutality.

Ortigoza is now a free man, but Remigio Gim'enez Gamarra is not. He did not vote on election day. He is serving a 30-year prison sentence for crimes that allegedly occurred 21 years before trial proceedings were initiated. The only evidence used at the trial was his own torture-induced confession. From his prison cell in Paraguay, Mr. Gim'enez cannot yet be optimistic about the future. Like many other Paraguayans who have lived under Stroessner's heavy-handed repression, he dare not yet believe that change will come quickly.

If Rodr'iguez is really serious about human rights, he could begin by demanding a new trial for Gim'enez as a first step in fulfilling his promise ``to respect human rights ... [and] to make democracy a reality.'' It would send a sure signal to all Paraguayans that they have reason to hope.