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Growing Opposition Challenging Paraguay’s Durable Dictator

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in recent memory, President Alfredo Stroessner is being openly challenged here from many sides by opponents who demand a negotiated transition to democratic rule.

Growing protest has left the government disconcerted and defensive. Stroessner, a stiff-necked army general who is one of the world’s most durable dictators, is responding with clubs. Three times in recent weeks truncheon-swinging police have broken up peaceful street demonstrations.

Stroessner, 73, has ruled Paraguay since 1954, and no one expects him to leave office anytime soon.

Direct and indirect pressures, however, are coming to bear on the government from such quarters as dissidents within Stroessner’s own ruling Colorado Party, the Paraguayan private sector, the Roman Catholic Church and an activist U.S. Embassy.

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No drive is being made against Stroessner as a person. Rather, independently motivated campaigns aim to deny the aging strongman an eighth term in elections scheduled for 1988 and to replace him with a civilian president chosen in authentically democratic balloting.

Seldom hard-pressed by traditional political opponents over the years, Stroessner has ruled Paraguay employing selective repression, exile of certain dissidents, censorship and a state of siege that has been in effect in part of the country, including this capital city, for most of the time since he came to power.

Current maneuvering, however, has brought a remarkable opening of political debate to a nation where prudence has usually dictated silence in the past.

‘Like a Different Country’

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“When I compare what is being said now against tapes of year-old broadcasts, it is like a different country,” said Humberto Rubin, head of an oft-harassed opposition radio station. “Most exciting of all, Paraguayans who seek change are reaching not for rifles, but for microphones.”

Officially, the government acknowledges some smoke but no fire.

“Nothing has changed,” said Carlos Arza, press secretary at the riverside presidential office building. “The noise is all form and no substance. Nobody opposes reelection (of Stroessner). Ask the people. Are they working? Do their children study in peace? That is what is important.”

In fact, there is a deep reservoir of good will toward Stroessner among the 3.6 million residents of this historically tumultuous nation that has never known democratic rule.

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Dozens of Revolutions

Between 1904 and 1946, Paraguay endured three dozen revolutions and 39 presidents. These past 32 years, Stroessner has brought unprecedented stability, and, with it, breathtaking modernization in the context of the landlocked backwater that Paraguay has always been.

Dissidents of impeccable credentials within the century-old Colorado Party portray Stroessner as a historic figure of epic proportions who should now cap his nation-building career by allowing necessary change to continue in a more open political system.

“When the president took office after so many years of chaos, some sort of authoritarianism was necessary,” Angel Roberto Seifart, a dissident Colorado congressman, said. “He was the man circumstances demanded, and he achieved the goal of growth and stability. Now, we need to recover the democratic ideals of the party and change the image of government. There is nothing that requires such strict authority to assure a peaceful national life.”

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Stroessner dismisses the dissidents as weak-willed “deserters.”

Will Patch Leak

“There are some who now want to go over to the other side, believing that this government is foundering and that the ship is taking on water,” Stroessner told a recent meeting of his Cabinet and armed forces leaders. “There may be a leak, but we are going to patch it.”

Outside the Colorado Party, which lists 1.3 million--a third of the population--on its membership rolls, Stroessner’s government is widely criticized as an inflexible gerontocracy, unable to cope with complex decisions demanded by modernization.

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Paraguayan businessmen, for example, are sharply critical of economic management, particularly of foreign currency exchange rate policies that they say are worsening an already prolonged recession.

“Living standards are declining, the new middle class is eroding,” said entrepreneur Ubaldo Scavone, president of the Paraguayan Industrial Union. “There is now social disquiet which could produce instability if it is not checked.”

Illegal Parties

Opposition political parties, some of which operate within a tame Congress and some of which the government says are illegal, are in full cry.

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“For 32 years, only Stroessner and his cronies have practiced politics,” said Miguel Abdon Saguier, an opposition leader who has twice been jailed briefly in recent weeks for leading protest marches. “It is time for a change. We want civilian candidates in ’88.”

Opposition rhetoric is not new. More unsettling from the government’s perspective are echoes beginning to sound in unexpected quarters.

Earlier this year, the Roman Catholic Church offered to mediate a “national dialogue” between the government and opposition. The government rejected the overture.

“It is not true, but there are people in the government today who think the church has joined the opposition,” said Bishop Jorge Livieres Banks, secretary of the Episcopal Conference which made the mediation offer in light of “the delicate situation in the country.”

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Press Raps U.S.

The government-controlled press also regularly lambastes the U.S. Embassy here, which maintains regular contacts with opposition forces.

“We want to encourage all democratic elements that seek a transition toward democracy as well as those sectors that are promoting appropriate economic and social change,” U.S. Ambassador Clyde D. Taylor said.

Amid the outcry, Stroessner is as active as ever, receiving visitors at his office, inaugurating public works. As ever, he enjoys the critical support of the armed forces which he has headed for more than three decades. Clearly, he will not move easily.

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“We are going to have some surprises yet,” the aging general promised supporters in a recent encounter. “We must be firm.”


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