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Paraguay’s President Quits to Defuse Political Crisis

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an agreement intended to defuse an increasingly violent political crisis, beleaguered President Raul Cubas Grau resigned Sunday, one day before the Senate was scheduled to vote to remove him from office.

The U.S. Embassy played an important role in helping bring rival factions together to hammer out a deal between Cubas and the leaders of the political opposition. Cubas made the announcement Sunday evening after a weekend of secret negotiations and anarchic street combat. The fighting left at least six people dead and several hundred wounded.

The crisis had become a worrisome symbol of the increasing fragility of South America’s democracies and stoked fears that this lawless nation would slide into a chaos dominated by corruption and organized crime. Cubas, the fourth South American president to face impeachment this decade, was the second in two years to leave office abruptly. He said he acted to avoid inevitable bloodshed.

“I ask the forgiveness of all who voted for me, but this president will not order the armed forces to rise up against the constitution,” Cubas said. “I will not be responsible for more bloodshed for political questions. . . . I am not leaving because I am corrupt or a thief. I am leaving because if my departure helps pacify the nation, let that be my contribution at this delicate moment.”

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Cubas’ fall resulted from the mafia-style assassination last week of Vice President Luis Maria Argana, a bitter foe of the president and of the man seen as the power behind the throne, former Gen. Lino Oviedo. The slaying escalated a power struggle that had been building ever since Cubas took office seven months ago and ordered Oviedo’s release from prison, where he had been serving a 10-year sentence for leading an attempted military coup in 1996.

Oviedo’s fall was even more spectacular because the swaggering military man had been regarded as an urgent threat to the democracy during the past three years. He fled Paraguay in a private plane with his wife and three of their children and was arrested by Argentine authorities upon landing at an airfield outside Buenos Aires on Sunday night.

Oviedo, who reportedly presented false documents upon landing, will be held pending a request for his deportation or extradition, according to Paraguay’s attorney general. Oviedo faces charges of instigating sniper attacks last weekend in which armed thugs were caught by television cameras shooting at pro-democracy demonstrators. He and Cubas are also the targets of widespread public suspicion in the Argana slaying, though no arrests have been made.

Because the vice presidency is vacant, Cubas was replaced Sunday night by the Senate president, Luis Gonzalez Macchi. The transfer of power took place on a night that had been marked by tension and wild rumors as armored vehicles and soldiers armed for battle filled the streets of this humid riverfront capital.

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Unlike in the past, however, the military quickly pledged its allegiance to the new civilian leaders. The soldiers were cheered by the crowds of jubilant young people who had risked their lives in a five-day pro-democracy vigil outside Congress.

“This was the result of democratic globalization, because the diplomatic community played a decisive role, particularly the U.S. Embassy,” said Carlos Martini, a political analyst. “The discipline of the armed forces also maintained the calm. Today was a positive step for democracy, but once again we found ourselves depending on international factors.”

On Sunday afternoon, Cubas called U.S. Ambassador Maura Harty, who had been in touch with the different factions during the past week, according to a U.S. official. Cubas told Harty that he intended to resign, and the ambassador helped set up a meeting of pro- and anti-Cubas legislative leaders at the embassy, the official said.

During the 1 1/2-hour meeting, the negotiators hashed out details such as communicating with the military to ensure a peaceful transition, according to the official.

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“We are proud that we were able to play a role, but it was the Paraguayans themselves who did it,” the official said.

Cubas, a millionaire engineer, will become a senator-for-life as dictated by the constitution, thereby acquiring immunity from efforts to prosecute him. The impeachment charges were filed on the grounds that he had disobeyed a Supreme Court order to return Oviedo to prison.

Diplomats from neighboring Brazil and Argentina, which are Paraguay’s trading partners in the Mercosur trade bloc, also mediated in the crisis and warned repeatedly that any sort of attempt to take or retain power through force would not be tolerated.

Oviedo’s sudden political demise and the death of Argana were “two earthquakes” that have profoundly shaken the ruling Colorado Party, an authoritarian alliance that has held power longer than any Latin American political group except for the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico, Martini said. That gives the party a chance to open itself to reform, he said.

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Oviedo, a populist and eccentric cavalry general known as “The Horseman,” is another worrisome example of the renewed popularity of militaristic, authoritarian figures in South America. He is a product of a quintessentially corrupt military that enriched itself on smuggling and other criminal activity during the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, and he was a leader of the rebels who ousted Stroessner in 1989.


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