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Paraguay’s Stroessner Hears Silent Footsteps of Church

Times Staff Writer

In a land where few have dared to stand up to President Alfredo Stroessner over the last 34 years, the silence that descended on downtown Asuncion one recent afternoon was thunderous.

About 40,000 people took to the streets on that Saturday and marched, silently, to the square facing the legislature.

The largest protest since Stroessner came to power in 1954 did not signify a sudden eruption by the political opposition, which remains virtually dormant--banned and throttled by Stroessner’s forces and riven by internal squabbles.

Rather, it was a display of strength by the one force able to muster any significant challenge to the 75-year-old dictator, and the only one not interested in taking his place: the Roman Catholic Church.

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Since Pope John Paul II’s visit in May, in which he firmly endorsed the church’s commitment to oppose social injustice, a decades-old conflict between the church and the government has escalated. Church leaders and political analysts agree that the confrontation has never been as pointed, nor reached so many levels of Paraguayan society.

Invoking an organizational muscle that has grown steadily since 1979, the church has campaigned against civil rights abuses, corruption and the hardships imposed on those who resist Stroessner’s authority.

The president’s forces have not hesitated to counterattack, and no one is predicting Stroessner’s downfall. But this time the president’s supporters are encountering a far more united and determined opponent.

If the level of government criticism of the clergy signifies the degree of concern within the regime, then Stroessner’s people are clearly worried. His machine, the ruling Colorado Party, has singled out priests and lay leaders alike in recent weeks in a near-daily stream of complaints.

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John Paul’s pointed declaration that “the church cannot stay secluded inside the temple” fortified Paraguay’s bishops. So instead of demanding that the church stay out of temporal affairs, Colorado leaders went on a new tack: that the clergy and lay organizations have been infiltrated by Marxists preaching “liberation theology.”

The Vatican upheld some of the ideas of that controversial theological movement in 1986, reiterating the church’s obligation to ease the suffering of the poor and accepting armed struggle “as a last resort to put an end to an obvious and prolonged tyranny.” But it rejected Marxist theory of class struggle for achieving social justice espoused by some liberation theologians, especially in Latin America.

An ongoing debate over liberation theology, which tended to subside in most of Latin America after publication of the Vatican’s 1986 document, arrived late in Paraguay, but it came with fervor.

On July 25, after weeks of Colorado Party intimations that “Marxist liberation theology” was at work, the government seized a little-known Spanish Jesuit priest, Juan de la Vega, and expelled him across the border to Argentina. The government said his address to a youth group on liberation theology had called for violence, which he and the church denied.

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The church chose to respond with more than verbal complaints to the 18th expulsion of a priest during Stroessner’s rule. Asuncion Archbishop Ismael Rolon, who earlier had called Stroessner’s election victory in February a fraud, canceled a Mass to mark the start of the president’s eighth five-year term on Aug. 15. And Paraguay’s 16 bishops organized the silent procession through the capital to demand De la Vega’s return.

Political protests are rare here, and the few dozen people who do turn up for one usually are quickly dispersed by police. Rolon, who had insisted that the procession remain nonpolitical, without banners or chanting, said afterward, “Silence is more eloquent than words.”

Government supporters profess not to be concerned.

“This is not going to affect the government,” Mario Abdo Benitez, vice president of the Council of Government and private secretary to Stroessner, told reporters. “A few bishops and priests want to get mixed up in politics, but they are few. The peace and freedom will continue unbroken with the backing of all good Coloradans and good Paraguayans.”

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The Paraguayan Bishops’ Conference has emphasized that the church seeks no political role and merely is campaigning to create a climate in which all can take part freely and fairly in the political process. Yet many Paraguayans see the church’s role as critical.

Luis Manuel Andrada, leader of the outlawed Christian Democratic Party, said, “The Paraguayan church has assumed the leadership of a society that needs urgently to believe in something in the search for truth and civic revitalization.” He acknowledged that the opposition parties themselves “have been unable to make compromises, still argue internally and with one another. We haven’t understood the clamor for unity that has emerged from the church’s preaching in recent years.”

The church’s influence flows not only from sermons. Its network of parochial schools, health clinics, aid programs for peasant farmers and lay organizations constitute a nationwide day-to-day force in Paraguayan life.

“I believe the church is an institution that identifies with the people, giving it a strong reality. Sharing the life of the people gives a moral force to the church,” Bishop Jorge Livieres Banks, general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference, said in an interview.

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He said that the Pope’s visit had “stirred up a very important process in this country” and that De la Vega’s expulsion was the work of “certain sectors that want to distract us from this force.”

Bishop Mario Melanio Medina, a human rights campaigner who is called “the Red Bishop” by some Colorado Party officials, said in a separate interview: “They want to divide us, but they have failed. They don’t attack the whole church, just some individuals. But the people now understand that this is a trick. The repression by the government is simply uniting us more.”

He said that opposition groups have been silenced by government persecution, so “the church is the only one that can put up a strong resistance to the government’s actions.”

“A regime like ours needs to control everything or it won’t be satisfied. The church bothers them because they cannot control it,” Medina said.

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With the popular Radio Nanduti and the ABC Color newspaper both shut by the government in recent years, the church also provides a voice for a range of views. Its station, Radio Caritas, broadcasts 80% news and has the highest ratings in the country.

Caritas’ license renewal has been pending for two years. Station director Jose Aranda said that delay is like a sword hanging over the staff’s head. While church backing provides a measure of protection, pro-government media call the radio station, which faces a church, “the house of the devil across from the house of God.”

Aranda does not believe Stroessner will leave office “except for biological reasons.” Nevertheless, he added, “Stroessner has a great fear of the church because he knows its base is firm and broad, both in the number of followers and in its principles.”

The church also publishes a weekly newspaper, Sendero (The Path), which the government shut down briefly during a confrontation in 1969. Sendero director Ilde Silvero, a former ABC Color reporter, said the conflict is cyclical but that this time tensions are far more generalized, involving lay peasant groups and provincial towns as well as the capital.

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Rene Recalde, national director of the church’s lay federation, said the church’s influence has soared since 1979 because of greater unity.


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