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Ruling Party Candidate Leads in Paraguay

Elections: The power behind the likely new president is a general jailed after a failed coup.

May 11, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were only scattered reports of the thuggish tactics of the past, when the Colorado machine routinely bribed opposition voters to stay away from the polls and used military trucks and hordes of government employees to get the faithful to the voting booths.

This landlocked nation has been an island of underdevelopment and isolation during years when foreign investment and economic reform pumped up the growth rates of most South American nations.

Paraguay's inequities are among the hemisphere's worst: 20% of the population controls 62% of the wealth, 351 landowners control 40% of the cultivable land, and a third of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Education levels are especially low in the countryside, an Oviedo stronghold where many peasants speak only the indigenous Guarani language.

Underground Economy

And Stroessner's kleptocracy has by no means been dismantled. The federal comptroller's office estimates the profits generated by corruption at $2.3 billion. The underground economy, which encompasses everything from cocaine to money laundering to the manufacture and smuggling of pirated CDs, rivals the gross national product of $10 billion. The "triple border" with Brazil and Argentina is a hotbed of outlaw activity.

"We have to clean up the border and get rid of this image of corruption," said Carlos Filizzola, the Democratic Alliance's 38-year-old vice presidential candidate, who epitomizes the opposition's appeal to younger, urban voters. "We are not connected with corruption the way the ruling party is."

That debate pales by comparison with the feud in the ruling party ranks that landed Oviedo behind bars. Oviedo has been an enemy of President Juan Carlos Wasmosy ever since the general attempted a coup in 1996.

After Oviedo's victory in last year's primary made him the clear favorite for the presidency, Wasmosy unleashed a judicial onslaught with the support of the military brass, who fear Oviedo will seek revenge on them.

During the months leading up to Oviedo's conviction, the military periodically deployed tanks and planes in so-called maneuvers that were seen as efforts to intimidate the justice system and Oviedo's forces. Wasmosy's rhetoric seemed to encourage military intervention.

That tension could revive because Cubas will undoubtedly comply with enormous pressure to engineer Oviedo's release. The military is troubled by his campaign slogan, "Cubas in the government, Oviedo in power," which mimics the motto used in Argentina by strongman Juan Domingo Peron when he returned from exile in 1973 and ran an ally for president.

The manner in which Cubas proceeds will determine the level of conflict with the military and Wasmosy, who is scheduled to step down Aug. 15. Back-room negotiations within the party and with the opposition are likely.

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