Fugitive Overshadows Paraguayan Politics
By Stephen Buckley
Washington Post Foreign Service
ASUNCION, Paraguay, May 20 –– Lino Cesar Oviedo, a former army general,
former coup plotter and alleged planner of at
least one political killing, has never been elected to office, but his presence hangs over Paraguay's political scene like a fog.
Despite his history, Oviedo, an allegedly corrupt authoritarian who
swears by his populist principles, has been "the most
important political protagonist in this country" over the past decade, according to one political analyst, and a lightning rod for
popular frustrations with Paraguay's political system.
Oviedo's name was back at the top of the news this week as the alleged
inspiration for a military faction's failed attempt to
overthrow the government of Luis Gonzalez Macchi late Thursday night. The government on Friday ordered the arrest of at
least three members of Congress known to be connected to Oviedo, and more of his allies could be detained during a 30-day
state of emergency declared by the president.
What Oviedo has come to symbolize in this poor, landlocked country is
Paraguay's continuing struggle, which many analysts
here call a losing battle, to solidify its 11-year-old democracy in the face of entrenched corruption, deepening poverty and
weak political leadership. His history is in some ways similar to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also a populist
military officer who was jailed for leading a coup attempt.
Oviedo's appeal can be explained because "people think of him as something
of a messiah," said Carlos Martini, a prominent
political analyst here. "We've got a lot of corruption, a lot of poverty, a stagnant economy, and no democratic tradition."
Oviedo, who as a colonel participated in the coup that ended Alfredo
Stroessner's 34-year military dictatorship in 1989, is in
hiding. He fled Paraguay after being accused of complicity in the assassination of Vice President Luis Maria Argana on March
23 of last year, an event that also led to the resignation of President Raul Cubas, an Oviedo ally. The former general has denied
any involvement in the assassination.
Analysts here say no one can say definitively whether Oviedo was involved
in Thursday's attempted coup, which lasted about
four hours, ending early Friday. But they say his name has come to symbolize the frustrations of Paraguay's 5.4 million people.
"Oviedo is not this government's problem," said Jose Luis Simon, another
political analyst. "This unrest is really a sign of how
much our political system has deteriorated. It's a sign of how dysfunctional our socioeconomic system has become."
Economic stagnation is at the heart of Paraguay's current difficulties.
The country, with an annual per capita income of roughly
$1,500, has staggered through a recession since 1995. An estimated 34 percent of urban Paraguayans live in poverty.
Unemployment stands at 16 percent.
Paraguayans have become so unhappy that 80 percent of the respondents
in one recent poll said they thought life was better
under Stroessner's dictatorship. The weariness with ordinary politicians has made the appeal of a leader with a military pedigree
especially appealing in a country where the army has historically been the strongest institution.
"He's seen as an outsider, an authoritarian outsider," Martini said
of Oviedo. "And there is just enormous dissatisfaction with
Oviedo was battling for the presidency in late 1997 when authorities
arrested him for his alleged involvement in a 1996 attempt
to overthrow the government of then-President Juan Carlos Wasmosy. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in
prison, but Cubas pardoned him upon taking office in 1998.
Like other strongman populists in Latin America's history, Oviedo is
known for his charismatic touch with his nation's most
disaffected people, despite a career in which he has repeatedly dodged charges of corruption. Analysts, as well as his political
opponents, have alleged that he amassed a fortune during his career in the army by participating in a host of illegal activities,
including drug trafficking.
And allegations of fraud dogged his presidential campaign. When authorities
threatened to nullify his campaign, he turned to his
characteristic fire-breathing rhetoric. "The voice of the people is the voice of God," he said.
Some analysts say Oviedo's popularity has withered since he was accused
of being behind the murder of Argana. That is not
clear. But what is clear, the analysts said, is that Gonzalez Macchi must act quickly to ease the suffering of Paraguayans, or face
the prospect of the kind of unrest that could make Oviedo, or someone like him, an increasingly viable option for many