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In Stroessner's Wake, a Chance for Democracy : Ouster of Long-Time Paraguayan Dictator Gives U.S. an Opening to Push for Rights

February 05, 1989|ABRAHAM F. LOWENTHAL and DIEGO ABENTE | Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at USC, is executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue. Diego Abente, a native of Paraguay, teaches political science at Miami University (Ohio)

The overthrow of Paraguayan tyrant Alfredo Stroessner provides George Bush's new Administration with an early opportunity to score a significant foreign-policy success by helping to advanced democracy in a long-repressed nation.

For 35 years, Paraguay has been ruled by the iron hand of the last of South America's traditional despots. "Reelected" in 1988 with 89% of the vote, Gen. Stroessner was due to complete his eighth term in 1993. Seventy-six years old and in ill health, he might well not have lasted that long. Now he has been pushed aside by elements of Paraguay's armed forces, led by Gen. Andres Rodriguez, Stroessner's erstwhile second-in-command.

Claiming to preside over a "democracy without communism," Stroessner held periodic elections and sustained an ornamental political "opposition." But all this was pure facade. Freedom of assembly and of the press were virtually outlawed in Paraguay, independent organizations were suppressed, the Catholic Church was harassed. Stroessner's Orwellian regime portrayed repressive measures as necessary to protect human rights, billed corruption as the price of peace, and depicted electoral fraud as genuine democracy. Stroessner imposed order, but it was based on intimidation, contraband and cynical manipulation.

Opposition to Stroessner was mounting in recent months as rumors of his failing health gained credence, but the repression became harsher. Peaceful street demonstrations were brutally disrupted. Prominent citizens were jailed for commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the church-owned radio station, the only one that dared criticize the regime, was forced to reduce its broadcast range drastically.

Hard-line members of Stroessner's inner circle were positioning themselves to inherit and perpetuate the authoritarian regime, resorting to increasingly violent tactics. Leaders of the opposition also had been lining up to test their strength in the twilight of Stroessner's rule. The stage was set for confrontation in a country with weak institutions and little experience at peaceably resolving political conflicts. Rather than wait for a predictably unattractive situation to emerge, Rodriguez and his supporters in the armed forces have now deposed Stroessner by force.

Paraguay's isolation as the last unchallenged autocracy in South America, Rodriguez's initial statements favoring democracy, and the new president's lack of an independent power base may make it possible for external actors now to press effectively for a prompt transition to democracy. The Bush Administration should take the lead in doing so.

In cooperation with other democracies in the Americas, the United States should call on Gen. Rodriguez to fully and unconditionally protect civil and political rights, including freedom of organization and the press, and to permit a genuinely independent judiciary. Rodriguez should be urged to set an early date for national elections, and broadly participatory negotiations should begin among Paraguay's political and social movements to reform the country's electoral law and the constitution. As a final step, free, fair and internationally supervised presidential and congressional elections should be held.

The Reagan Administration laid the basis for such a democratic initiative by progressively toughening its criticism of Stroessner's blatant violations of human rights. Under Ambassador Clyde Taylor, the U.S. Embassy conveyed Washington's belief that participatory democracy is the best defense against all forms of extremism.

President Bush should make it clear that the United States wants to see a democratic post-Stroessner Paraguay. It is essential, however, that Washington support a real and effective democratic process, rather than back any particular candidate or party. It is also important that the United States work closely with the Latin American democracies; Brazil, in particular, has considerable potential influence in neighboring Paraguay. The Catholic Church should be encouraged to play a mediating role in the transition plan; Paraguay's Bishop's Conference has already made a tentative start by sponsoring a national dialogue.

There is a broad bipartisan consensus in the United States that the protection of fundamental human rights and the promotion of democratic politics are legitimate priorities for U.S. foreign policy. The steady support given by both the Reagan Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress for a free and fair plebiscite in Chile--and for pressure on Gen. Augusto Pinochet to accept its outcome--shows how that consensus can be drawn upon by skillful U.S. diplomats to help nurture a democratic transition.

No one in Washington has ever assigned much priority to Paraguay--a resolutely anti-communist, land-locked little country of 4 million citizens. But Paraguay may now offer President Bush a special chance to express strong U.S. support for Latin American democracy and take its development an important step further.

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