- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Paraguay repression

One of Paraguay’s top politicians is warning that deep-rooted political corruption in his country will destroy any move toward free and fair elections next year.

“The whole country is in a state of alert,” Sen. Enrique Gonzalez told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Mr. Gonzalez, president of the Chamber of Senators, traveled to Washington last week to focus international attention on his South American country in time to influence the outcome of the April elections for president and both houses of Congress.

He met with officials at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank as part of a delegation that represented most of Paraguay’s political parties.

Mr. Gonzalez said those officials, as well as members of the Organization of American States, are aware of the political situation in Paraguay, where President Nicanor Duarte of the ruling Colorado Party is trying to push through a constitutional amendment to allow him to seek re-election to a second term.

Mr. Gonzalez, who opposes the constitutional change, is a former vice president of the Colorado Party, which has held power in Paraguay for more than 60 years. He broke with Mr. Duarte’s party to form the Movement of the National Union of Ethical Citizens and has joined a coalition of opposition parties to try to end the Colorado Party’s grip on government.

“We’re trying a new style of political life,” he said of the coalition.

The Colorado Party controls the judiciary and maintains its power through patronage and smear campaigns, he said.

“We are considered No. 2 in the world in corruption,” he said. “Nobody is watching. Nobody is punished. All institutions are under the control of the Colorado Party. And anyone who is not part of the Colorado Party, they use the judicial system to discredit them.”

The most famous victim of the ruling party is a retired general, Lino Oviedo, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for an attempted coup in the mid-1990s. He also was accused of conspiracy in the 1999 assassination of Vice President Luis Maria Argana.

Mr. Gonzalez insisted that Gen. Oviedo is innocent of both charges. The general is a former presidential candidate of the Colorado Party and was leading in the polls before he was accused of involvement in the coup.

Mr. Gonzalez said Mr. Duarte’s associates proposed a deal to release Gen. Oviedo in return for opposition support for the constitutional change that would allow the president to run for a second term. Mr. Gonzalez said the general rejected the proposal from his prison cell.

Mr. Gonzalez also was accused of involvement in the Argana assassination and jailed for more than two years. He said he was tortured but refused to confess to any role in the killing.

The leading candidate in next year’s presidential race is a Catholic priest, the Rev. Fernando Lugo, who might be ineligible to run. Although he has renounced his priesthood, the church reportedly has not accepted his resignation. Paraguay’s constitution prohibits religious leaders from running for office.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of the poor are agitating for economic reform in a country with a 9.4 percent unemployment rate and a 12.5 percent inflation rate and where 32 percent of the population of 6 million lives below the poverty line.

“How can a country like ours, a poor country, get out of this mess, this quagmire?” Mr. Gonzalez asked.

He appealed for international election observers because “we don’t have faith in the system.”

“We ask for justice,” he added. “We are not asking for favors.”

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