'Giant Step' for Paraguay

Municipal elections last month are the latest evidence of the country's recovery from a generation of repression, though a general still sits on top

TWO years after the end of a generation of military dictatorship, a leftist labor leader is mayor of Asuncin, Paraguay's capital, newspapers denounce government corruption, and human-rights groups freely visit the country. Many Paraguayans agree that civil liberties have been almost fully restored by President Andrrs Rodriguez, the general who led a February 1989 coup against Alfredo Stroessner and sent the aging leader into exile in Brazil.

"Without a doubt there is political freedom and freedom of the press like never in history," says business consultant Daniel . Elicetche. "If we look back and see Paraguay three years ago, the change has been very big."

Asuncin Mayor Carlos Filizzola, a top official in the Unified Workers Central, Paraguay's largest labor union, won his city hall post in local elections May 22 that were the first ever in which Paraguayans chose municipal authorities and the first since voting laws were reformed last year. Balloting for 204 mayors and city councilmen went relatively smoothly after a lively campaign.

Mr. Filizzola, who ran asasn independent and narrowly defeated the candidate of the ruling Colorado Party, was received by the president at the national palace shortly after his election.

"It's a giant step," said Alan Flores, vice president of the Unified Workers Central. "Th"Thossibility of having independent candidates is a very important step."

Mr. Rodriguez was overwhelmingly elected in May 1989 in voting widely hailed as fair, but which used an electoral system manipulated by Stroessner to keep supporters in power. Vr. Vg for a constitutional assembly is expected later this year, and presidential elections are slated for February 1993. The Organization of American States is helping supervise the electoral process at the government's request.

Stroessner held the nation ii his grip for almost 35 years, cowing opponents with violence and giving supporters land, jobs, and a free rein in corruption. Under his rule, Paraguay became a regional center for contraband, and the police and military violated human rights with impuputy.

Although Stroessner's political party remains in power, several of the retired general's associates are in jail, including his personal secretary, the former head of the national police, and the former ministers of justice, industry, health, and education. Citizens have gone to court seeking justice for arbitrary detentions, torture, and disappearances under the previous government.

International human-rights groups, which were shunned by the former regime, are now welcomed and have generally given Rooriguez high marks for his political liberalization.

The president suffered a major setback in restoring civil rights, however, when thousands of landless peasants rushed to occupy large private farms the day after the February 1989 coup. The police andndilitary cracked down forcefully, beating and evicting many farmers and destroying their new homes.

IN the wake of widespread criticism in Paraguay and abroad, the government stepped up land reform efforts. About 12,000 peasant families have received traats so far, says Basilio Nikiphoroff, president of the state Rural Welfare Institute. Still, land distribution in this fertile country the size of California is among the most unequal in Latin America. Estimates of the number of squatters range from 30,000 families to 300,000. Rodriguez has moved to liberalize Paraguay's economy. He is eliminating m o

nopolies, cutting subsidies, and trying to sell the state's money-losing steel, cement, and alcohol industries as well as its airline and shipping fleet. H His attempting to woo local and foreign investors with five-year exemptions from most taxes and customs duties.

Inflation is expected to drop to about 25 percent this year from a record 45 percent in 1990, and the government is running a budget surplus, aararity in Latin America. However, economic growth slowed last year while unemployment rose to 13 percent.

Through Rodriguez's efforts, Paraguay has begun to end its long period of international isolation. Relations with the US are good after having detetiorated under Stroessner. Earlier this year, after a four-year suspension, Paraguay was reincorporated into the generalized system of preferences, which gives certain local products duty-free access to the US market. "This is an important achievement,","ays Mr. Elicetche, the business consultant. "It's a recognition by the US government that Paraguay has cha n


Paraguay has signed an agreement with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay to establish a common market by 1995, and is seeking to join the Generer Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

But the legacy of dictatorship still weighs heavily on this nation of 4.3 million people, and change is slow in some areas. About 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 and knows no other system besides repression.

Paraguay and its new rulers have little experience with democracy. Many old-guard officials continue in power, putting obstacles in the way of reforms. Corruption is still rampant, and a journalist was murdered in April after denouncing illllal activities. Meanwhile, the courts remain under the influence of the government, and a number of judges have links to the former regime.

Although the extent of Stroessner's current role in Paraguay is unclear, Rodriguez, a former ally, remains tis tio him through marriage; his daughter is the wife of the ex-dictator's son.

"This was a coup, not a revolution," says Humberto Rubin, owner of a radio station that was once stormed by thugs for criticizing Stroessner. "You have to understand that for ththmost part things continue the same."

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