Paraguay: Two Years After Stroessner

With dictator gone, opposition can speak out, but ruling party interests retain grip on nation

TAKE a look at the 1991 Paraguayan telephone directory and there under "S" is the phone number of Alfredo Stroessner. The listing is a bit of a surprise since General Stroessner has been unavailable to take calls for two years. A coup on Feb. 3,1989, ended his 35 years as Paraguay's generalissimo and dispatched him to exile in Brazil.

Look under "R," and there is as yet no entry for Gen. Andr 142>s Rodriguez Pedotti, the man who led the coup and the country's current president. It is, some say, an all-too-obvious sign of the political paralysis left by Stroessner's iron-fisted rule. Opposition party leaders complain that Stroessner's dominant National Republican Association-Colorado Party is still cemented in power.

"The Rodriguez coup basically happened to adapt the Stroessner system to modern times," observes Rafael Saguier, a leading member of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), Paraguay's main opposition party. "Stroessner was way out of date."

Yet there have been changes in the last two years, some of them significant.

Gone, of course, are the ubiquitous, smiling portraits of Stroessner, used to promote a personality cult - and his political longevity. In his time, Stroessner was the longest-surviving head of state in the Western hemisphere. He came to power in May 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and nearly five years before Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution.

The country's main airport, formerly the Presidente Stroessner, has been renamed after Paraguay's first pilot. And the second city, formerly (you've guessed it) Presidente Stroessner, is now Ciudad del Este (City of the East).

More important to Paraguayans, General Rodr 146>guez has broken with tradition and promised to hand power to an elected successor in August 1993. In 180 years of post-independence history, no president has ever given the sash to the opposition by way of the ballot box.

Coaxed along by his regular tennis partner, US Ambassador Timothy Towell, Rodriguez has mostly stuck to his post-coup promise of respecting human rights. A notable exception has been his harsh treatment of peasant protesters.

Yet opposition politicians accustomed to plotting from exile or prison now openly criticize the regime - without getting arrested. The press has also been unmuzzled.

"The Rodriguez government has achieved 20 percent of what it promised. Its worst error is that the process of democratization hasn't been planned," says Euclides Acevedo, head of the opposition social-democratic February Revolutionary Party. "The protagonists of the democratic process, the popular movement and social organizations, have not been asked to take part. Everything remains in the hands of the government and the Colorado Party."

Although the opposition is outspoken, its effectiveness has been hampered by the tendency of parties to devolve into grupitos - small groups where personal ambition far outweighs ideological or policy differences.

Two Paraguayan political sociologists interviewed about party splits spent an hour arguing whether the governing Colorado Party had broken into nine or 10 factions. The main opposition party, the PLRA, also has four factions at last count, political analysts say. Even the Christian Democratic Party, with just 3,000 members, is split into four distinct groups.

What has not changed is the pervasive corruption. "Corruption threatens our nation and those who want to construct a really democratic state," says Domingo Laino, of the PLRA. (See related story).

"The people at the top have changed, but not the system," agrees Esther Prieto, director of Paraguay's Center for Humanitarian Studies, a human rights group. "The new clique has got hold of the possessions of the old one."

GUSTAVO SABA, who is married to Rodriguez's second daughter, Mirtha, is now owner of Channel 9, the country's largest television chain, formerly owned by Stroessner's elder son, Gustavo. And the talk on the streets and in Western embassies is that Gen. Humberto Gacete, the current head of the Army, has the new lease on the luxury Hotel Guarani in downtown Asuncion - which was also Gustavo Stroessner's.

"Gacete has shown a remarkable aptitude for business," says a Western diplomat.

"There's plenty of historical precedents for this," says Line Bareiro, a senior researcher at the Center for Documentation and Studies, a political research group. "When new rulers emerge in Paraguay, they take over the ranches and other possessions of the people they ousted."

Generals close to Rodriguez are also accused of joining Paraguay's class of large landowners in a country where land ownership is skewed, even by Latin American standards. The last agrarian census in 1981 showed less than 1 percent of property holders own more than three-quarters of the cultivable land. Between 60,000 and 100,000 peasant families are landless, making land tenure an explosive issue.

Since Rodriguez's coup, nearly 3,000 peasants have been detained for short periods as a result of 179 land occupations by the peasants. Six peasants have been killed.

Roman Catholic Bishop Mario Medina's efforts to find land for about 1,000 parishioners have been stymied by one of the new generals. A $4 million grant from an Italian development fund to provide housing and services for peasants has also been held up because the state's agrarian reform institute, the IBR, has been unable to come up with land to put up as Paraguay's contribution.

When Monsignor Medina made inquiries about the land to IBR officials, he was told that Gen. Lino Oviedo, the new head of the first cavalry regiment and a key player in Rodriguez's coup "was taking wood out of the zone," Medina says.

The land previously was part of the empire of Gen. Alcibiades Britez, Stroessner's ex-chief of police, who lawyers say owns 250,000 acres of land and 80 mansions.

"The reason why the IBR cannot provide the land is that the land belongs to the 'untouchables' - great friends of the people in power," complains Medina. "In Paraguay, if someone is a friend, you have to save him. But if he's an enemy, you have to ruin him. That practice still persists."

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