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30 March 1999

President Impeached, Vice-President Murdered

On Mar. 23, Paraguayan vice president Luis Maria Argana was shot to death in Asuncion when his jeep was ambushed by three or four men in military uniforms. The attackers--believed to be hired assassins--stopped the car by throwing a grenade in front of it, then shot and killed Argana and his bodyguard with automatic and semi-automatic weapons before fleeing. Argana's driver was seriously wounded.
[New York Times 3/24/99; Hoy (NJ) 3/24/99 from AP; El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 3/25/99 from AFP; Noticias (Asuncion) 3/24/99; Washington Post 3/24/99]

Argana's assassination intensified the ongoing political conflict between factions of the ruling National Republican Association (ANR), known as the Colorado party, which is split over support for populist former army chief Lino Oviedo. Argana was a fierce opponent of Oviedo and of President Raul Cubas Grau. Argana had been a close and trusted collaborator of former military dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner--who ruled from 1954 until he was overthrown in a coup by another Colorado party general in 1989, and now lives in exile in neighboring Brazil. In the final years of Stroessner's dictatorship, Argana headed the Supreme Court, where he issued resolutions that attempted to legalize the arrest of political opponents, according to Luis Wagner, spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Alliance. Argana was also responsible for a 1984 resolution that closed down the daily newspaper ABC Color. The New York Times reports that Stroessner had picked Argana to be his successor.
[ENH 3/24/99 from AFP; NYT 3/24/99]

Interior Minister Ruben Arias Mendoza resigned abruptly and without explanation on Mar. 23, following Argana's murder; press reports suggest he was forced out by Cubas. The president then appointed his brother, Carlos Cubas, as the new interior minister, putting him in charge of internal security as well as the investigation into Argana's murder.
[Cable News Network 3/24/99; Clarin 3/24/98]

Following Argana's murder, protests immediately erupted in Asuncion; the protesters blamed Oviedo and President Cubas for the murder and demanded that Cubas step down. The Unitary Workers Central (CUT) -- one of Paraguay's three main labor federations -- had already scheduled a one-day general strike for Mar. 24 to demand wage increases; CUT leaders made the strike open-ended, saying they would keep it going until Cubas is out of office. [CNN 3/24/99, some from Reuters; Clarin 3/24/99] Campesinos also joined in the protests against Cubas; as Argana was killed, they were demonstrating in the plaza across from the National Congress building in Asuncion to demand that Congress stop stalling and pass an agrarian debt forgiveness bill. [For several years now, Paraguayan campesinos have staged protests in the capital during the third week in March to press a range of demands -- see Updates #425, 373, 321.] The left-leaning Buenos Aires daily Clarin claims that opposition legislators cut a deal with the campesinos, promising to approve the debt forgiveness bill if the campesinos would continue their protests against Cubas. The bill was approved the morning of Mar. 26; the campesinos then agreed that the women and children among them would return home but the men would continue the protests.
[Clarin 3/28/99]

Claiming they were enforcing a law barring protests around the government palace, anti-riot and mounted police used water cannons against crowds and beat protesters gathered there on Mar. 23. [Hoy (NJ) 3/24/99 from AP] President Cubas quickly ordered tanks and military troops into Asuncion. [Clarin 3/28/99] The Senate, fearing a coup, asked the troops to disobey Cubas' orders. [El Pais (Spain) 3/27/99] Legislators blasted Interior Minister Cubas as responsible for the brutal repression against demonstrators. [Diario Ultima Hora (Asuncion) 3/25/99]

The protests--and the police repression--intensified as the week went on. Thousands of protesters, including the campesinos, gathered in the Plaza de Armas just outside the Congress building throughout the day on Mar. 26, despite constant attacks by anti-riot police with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.

Oviedo supporters also gathered in the plaza, resulting in clashes over protest turf. At around 9pm, after police had left the area, snipers opened fire at the crowd from surrounding buildings. Oviedo supporters in the crowd, many of them armed, also began shooting and launching homemade grenades through improvised cardboard launchers. Much of the sniper fire came from the fourth floor of the Zodiac building, facing the plaza, where most of the offices belong to senators loyal to Oviedo. (Two of the snipers were later identified; both were public employees.)

By the end of the night, at least four people -- and possibly as many as 13 -- had been killed and about 130 were wounded; several of the victims appeared to have been shot point blank. The central post office, a supermarket and dozens of vehicles were burned in the chaos.

Cubas responded the next day by firing National Police commander Nino Trinidad Ruiz Diaz; the attorney general immediately ordered Trinidad arrested on homicide charges. However, opponents blame President Cubas for the bloodshed, charging that he ordered police to leave the scene. On Mar. 27, Cubas sent in 1,500 marine infantry troops to take over security around the Congress building -- allegedly in order to prevent clashes between Oviedo supporters and opponents. [ENH 3/28/99 from Reuters; CNN en Espanol 3/27/99; Clarin 3/27/99, 3/28/99]

"This [troop] deployment only serves to intimidate the Senate," said dissident Colorado Party deputy Angel Barchini, one of the three prosecutors named by the Chamber of Deputies for impeachment hearings against Cubas in the Senate. [CNN en Espanol 3/27/99, some from Reuters]

On Mar. 24, the Chamber of Deputies voted 59 to 24 to begin an impeachment trial against President Cubas. [CNN 3/24/99, some from Reuters] On the same day, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the trial, Cubas ordered Oviedo arrested. But Oviedo denied he was under arrest, and the move failed to hold off the impeachment hearings: on Mar. 25, Paraguay's senate listened to the charges against Cubas presented by the Chamber of Deputies. The president is accused of abuse of power and other crimes for having freed Oviedo via a decree he issued three days after taking office in August 1998; and for having ignored a congressional resolution that reversed that decree as unconstitutional and upheld Oviedo's arrest. Oviedo had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement in an alleged coup attempt against previous president Juan Carlos Wasmosy.

The trial is expected to conclude on Mar. 29, and the Senate will vote the following day in a secret session. A two-thirds vote -- 30 of the 45 senators -- is required to remove the president from office. Some sources predict that 32 senators will vote to remove Cubas. [CNN en Espanol 3/27/99; ENH 3/28/99 from AFP; Financial Times (UK) 3/26/99] On Mar. 27, dissident Colorado Party senator Cristina Munoz revealed that Cubas' wife, Mirtha Gusinski, had offered her a million dollars if she would vote to acquit Cubas. Munoz said other senators got similar offers, and still others were threatened. [ENH 3/28/99 from AFP; Clarin 3/28/99]