A thorn in the side of Paraguay regime

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.

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.

Zuccolillo says of the Paraguayan press: ``They write just the facts and . . . this is an improvement [over the same newspapers in the past] because it shows the real situation.''

Though several newspapers here still print at least one flattering front-page photo of Stroessner daily, they also print news of controversial issues, opposition response to government actions, and opinion pieces.

(ABC Color introduced opinion pages and modern newspaper printing and marketing techniques to Paraguay. A modern marketing technique was used to name the newspaper. Paraguayans were polled on their reaction to names used by other papers in the Spanish-speaking world and the most popular one was ABC Color -- the name of a paper in Spain. Zuccolillo says it has no particular meaning.)

Zuccolillo -- who runs his own empire, from ranching and publishing to hardware and department stores -- maintains an office at ABC Color and keeps the paper open with a skeleton crew. ``It's a paper without the paper. . . . It's in training'' for the day that it can be published again, he says.

That isn't likely under the Stroessner regime.

Though no government officials answered formal requests for interviews, one minister of state caught informally at a public meeting said Zuccolillo should have joined a legal political party as a means for change, rather than ``subverting order with lies'' in his paper.

With the perpetually furrowed brow of a frustrated man, Zuccolillo says Paraguay's problems center on the government's corruption. Academics, diplomats, and the general population agree that the dedication to stronismo -- Stroessner's personality cult -- is based on the parceling out of lucrative moneymaking opportunites.

Before the closure, ABC Color investigated government-related scandals such as a prostitution business at the 1970s boomtown construction site of the huge Itaipu dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border; the feudal monopoly of sugar production; and the double-invoicing of Algerian oil sales here.

``All the businesses in this country are forced to follow the same rules of corruption . . . and that's the worst thing Stroessner has done,'' Zuccolillo says. (Heads of business and manufacturing associations here confirm that business success is usually tied to cooperation in corruption.)

Zuccolillo explains, for example, that in his business he typically understates the amount of goods imported to avoid paying taxes that would make him less competitive on the local market, full of cheap contraband. Though he admits this corruption and close connections to Stroessner -- his brother is ambassador to London; his brother-in-law is the highest civilian in the government; and his wife was even the President's chef -- he denies ever supporting Stroessner.

Zuccolillo says that before his arrests in 1982 and 1984 he received subtle suggestions to tone down ABC Color reporting. He received calls from the President and his reporters were given bribes from ministers of state (the money was turned over to charity). He also says that his delivery trucks in remote regions of the country were often detained overnight to delay newspaper delivery. But Zuccolillo laughs as he notes that the paper sold out even when it arrived a day late.

``Acceptance is whether they buy or not, and that was one of the reasons for our closure. The government was afraid because every morning citizens voted for ABC Color.''

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