Former Gen. Lino Oviedo, the charismatic strongman convicted of launching a failed 1996 coup and charged in the 1999 assassination of Paraguay’s vice president, returned here Tuesday after five years in exile and was arrested a short time later.
Oviedo, 61, arrived on a flight from the Brazilian border town of Foz do Iguacu and declared that he wanted to clear his name.
“I have come to contribute to the pacification of my country,” Oviedo told reporters as he rode on the plane from Brazil with about 40 supporters and family members. “I am going to demonstrate that I am innocent of all these charges, and my lawyers will work to reverse this sentence that was given to me for a crime I did not commit.”
Authorities immediately took Oviedo to a military prison. He was scheduled to meet later with a judge investigating another failed coup in 2000 and could face more charges.
Oviedo was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for leading the earlier coup. While out of jail on appeal the following year, he was accused in the assassination and fled his homeland.
Beginning in 2000, he was jailed for 18 months in Brazil but was released to a gilded exile in a town outside Sao Paulo. Brazil refused to extradite him after a judge ruled that Paraguayan officials were seeking his extradition for political reasons.
Many observers believe that Oviedo’s return is the first step in an attempted comeback in a country with weak and widely discredited democratic institutions.
“His objective is to become the next president in the elections of 2008,” said Alfredo Boccia, political columnist for the daily newspaper Ultima Hora. The return was orchestrated, in part, with a media campaign that seeks to throw into doubt at least some of the charges against him, Boccia added.
An estimated 1,000 followers tried to march to the airport to greet Oviedo late Monday and Tuesday morning, only to be stopped by a police cordon a mile from the entrance.
“He is the hope of the people who suffered and have been abused by the corruption of the government,” said Jose Antonio Ribera, who traveled to Asuncion, the capital, from Caaguazu province, a center of support for the former general.
Oviedo was one of a group of officers who led the 1989 military uprising that forced longtime dictator Alfredo Stroessner from power. Legend has it that Oviedo stood over Stroessner with a grenade to force the dictator to sign his resignation letter. He remains popular among Paraguay’s poor, to whom he has appealed in recent days with populist rhetoric.
In one of several interviews he granted this month before his return, Oviedo told Radio Nederland that he would work to revitalize one of Latin America’s most impoverished countries.
“I will work from my prison cell, wherever it may be ... to unite the great Paraguayan family and to fight together against poverty, hunger, misery, insecurity, robberies [and] rape,” he said.
Since Stroessner’s fall, Oviedo has hovered like a dark cloud over Paraguay’s fragile democracy. In 1996, then-President Juan Carlos Wasmosy sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, saying Oviedo, then head of the army, was attempting the coup.
Oviedo has said he is innocent of the killing of Vice President Luis Maria Argana, a political opponent who was struck by a hail of bullets in a car on an Asuncion street.
Since April, Paraguayan media sympathetic to Oviedo have circulated a new version of the assassination story: Argana, it is said, died of natural causes during a tryst, and members of his Colorado Party staged the “assassination” to discredit Oviedo.
After a long silence on the case, Oviedo has spoken out recently on these new developments -- which include a statement from a driver wounded in the assassination saying the vice president was already dead when he was shot.
Argana “died very well, in the arms of his lover, in an apartment when they had their fortuitous encounters,” Oviedo said.
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Paredes from Asuncion.