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Lawmakers Vote to Impeach Paraguay President

Latin America: Nation is in turmoil after assassination of vice president. Legislators allege abuse of authority.

March 25, 1999|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — Paraguayan legislators voted Wednesday to impeach President Raul Cubas Grau, expressing the anger of an increasingly unstable democracy convulsed by the assassination of its vice president.

The rapid decision by the Chamber of Deputies reflected the gravity of the political turmoil set off by the ambush killing Tuesday of Vice President Luis Maria Argana.

The slain vice president was a bitter rival of Cubas and his political godfather, former Gen. Lino Oviedo, who are under public suspicion in the crime because of the longtime political feud.

Trying to defuse a fast-moving crisis, Cubas announced Wednesday that Oviedo had surrendered earlier in the day to the presidential guard, capitulating after three months of defiance to a Supreme Court order that he serve a 10-year sentence for attempting a military coup in 1996.

Critics dismissed the move as an empty gesture because Oviedo promptly declared that he was not under arrest, merely consulting on his legal situation.

The Senate pressed forward with impeachment proceedings, ordering Cubas to respond to charges of abuse of authority by today.

Although Paraguay remained isolated because of a border shutdown that authorities imposed to aid the hunt for the killers, the repercussions of the assassination were felt far beyond the confines of this landlocked nation of 5 million.

Paraguay's slide into violence is another sign of spreading troubles in Latin America, according to regional leaders and commentators.

The first assassination in modern Paraguayan history came as nations, including Brazil and Ecuador, are struggling with crippling economic problems. The enduring power of militaristic, authoritarian leaders in Venezuela, Peru, Chile and other nations fuels concern about the health of democracy in Latin America. And Colombia and Mexico offer only the most extreme examples of the intertwined and regionwide menace of drugs, corruption and murderous organized crime.

"The 10 gunshots that ended the life of Luis Maria Argana were the gravest, but not the only, warning about regional political stability," wrote J. M. Pasquini Duran of Argentina's Pagina 12 newspaper.

The sense of a region adrift has gathered force recently.

While President Clinton and other leaders hailed the advances of democracy in the Americas at last year's hemispheric summit in Chile, U.S. policymakers more quietly said they worry that the lack of strong institutions puts some nations at risk of sliding backward both politically and economically.

In some ways, Paraguay is symptomatic of Washington's top concerns.

The State Department recently gave Paraguay a failing grade on its anti-drug performance, citing the dominance of criminal mafias that have turned the nation, especially the lawless border with Argentina and Brazil, into a haven for smuggling, money laundering and even international terrorists.

Oviedo is a product of a military hierarchy that enriched itself on those criminal industries.

Ever since his attempted coup, U.S. diplomats have warned that his rise endangers a democracy that was reinstated less than a decade ago.

In a television interview, the gravelly voiced ex-general denied that he is the power behind the throne of Cubas, who ordered Oviedo's release from prison days after taking office last year.

Asked about widespread accusations that he was behind the assassination of Argana, he insisted that he had done no wrong.

On Wednesday, Argana's funeral was held in the crowded patio of ruling-party headquarters. At one point during the impassioned ceremony, mourners opened the coffin and wrapped the body in the party's flag.

Pro-Argana forces dominate the Senate, making a vote to remove the president likely to succeed after a process that could take at least a week.

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