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President Impeached, Vice-President Murdered

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17 April 1999

Paraguayan President Resigns

On the evening of Mar. 28, Raul Cubas Grau resigned as president of Paraguay. "I just signed my resignation letter... I won't be responsible for the spilling of more innocent blood for political reasons," said Cubas in a televised speech. Cubas' resignation came just a day before his likely conviction in an impeachment trial in the Senate, and following the murder of Vice President Luis Maria Argana and a week of protests [see Update #478]. The resignation letter itself stated simply: "I resign as president of the republic. [Signed] Raul Cubas Grau." The letter was read by senator Luis Angel Gonzalez Macchi, president of both the Senate and the dual-chamber Congress, who was quickly sworn in to replace Cubas as Paraguay's new president. Thousands of Paraguayans flooded into the streets to celebrate Cubas' departure from office.

Just before resigning, Cubas signed an order granting freedom to his ally and political boss, former army chief Lino Cesar Oviedo, who had been ordered arrested for an alleged coup attempt in 1996 against then-president Juan Carlos Wasmosy. Taking office, Gonzalez Macchi said his first decree would be to order Oviedo's return to prison. The Army--thought to contain many troops loyal to Oviedo--issued a communique on Mar. 28 recognizing the new government as legitimate and expressing its support for the Constitution. [Hoy (NJ) 3/29/99 from AP; La Republica (Lima, Peru) 3/29/99 from AFP, EFE; Clarin (Buenos Aires) 3/29/99]

But Oviedo had already left the country with his wife and three youngest children. They arrived in Buenos Aires on Mar. 28; the Argentine government granted Oviedo political asylum the next day. Cubas fled with his family on Mar 30 to Brazil, where he too was granted political asylum. [El Diario-La Prensa 3/30/99 from combined services] On Mar. 29, an Asuncion judge ordered both Cubas and Oviedo arrested in connection with the sniper killing of four members of the opposition group "Youth for Democracy" at a Mar. 27 protest. [Hoy (NJ) 3/30/99 from EFE]

The new Paraguayan government is putting up a show of seeking Oviedo's extradition, but the Argentine government has apparently promised this won't happen, the Buenos Aires daily Clarin reports. Sources close to Argentine president Carlos Saul Menem -- a friend and ally of Oviedo--say no one in Paraguay wants Oviedo back, even to face trial. [Clarin 4/2/99] Oviedo is staying outside Buenos Aires on a 1,000 hectare estate owned by Arnaldo Martinenghi, a friend of Menem's, where the former general is being protected by at least 40 Argentine federal police agents and 20 private guards. [Cable News Network en Espanol 3/31/99 with info from Reuters; Clarin 3/31/99, 4/1/99] Meanwhile, Argentina's ambassador to Paraguay, Nestor Ahuad, announced on Apr. 2 that he had submitted his resignation after being criticized for his absence during Paraguay's crisis; as the government changed hands on Mar. 28 he was off campaigning for a senate seat in the central Argentine province of La Pampa. [Clarin 4/3/99]

Paraguay is not even pretending to seek Cubas' extradition; Gonzalez Macchi explained that as a former president, Cubas technically holds a lifetime Senate seat and therefore has immunity from prosecution. The Senate would first have to strip his immunity before the arrest order against him could be pursued. [CNN en Espanol 3/30/99]

Argentine interior minister Carlos Corach told the press that the political asylum granted to Oviedo was "a mediated and consensed decision with the friendly countries of the continent and of Mercosur." Mercosur, the Southern Cone Common Market, includes Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. [LR 3/31/99 from EFE] Argentine deputy foreign minister Andres Cisneros went even further, telling a local radio station that Argentina and Brazil granted political asylum to Oviedo and Cubas for the sole purpose of protecting Mercosur through the "decompression of [Paraguay's] internal political situation." [CNN en Espanol 3/30/99 from Reuters]

Like Oviedo and Cubas, Paraguay's new president is a member of the National Republican Association (ANR), better known as the Colorado Party. However, Gonzalez Macchi represents the faction of the party which was allied with Argana and Wasmosy, and fiercely opposed to the party's populist wing headed by Oviedo. Cubas won the presidency in 1998 on the slogan, "Cubas into the government, Oviedo into power" after Oviedo's own candidacy was ruled inadmissable [see Update #446]. Although the Colorado Party ruled Paraguay for 52 years without ever needing to form coalitions, the deep split in the party meant that the removal of Cubas from office was only possible through a coalition effort with the two main opposition parties, the Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA) and the National Encounter Party (PEN).

On taking office, Gonzalez Macchi quickly made clear that he intends to continue working in coalition with the opposition. The new president personally appointed Walter Bower, a close ally in the Colorado party and president of the Chamber of Deputies, as interior minister. All the other cabinet appointees were chosen through negotiations. On Mar. 30 the new ruling coalition divided up the remaining ten cabinet ministry posts, with two posts each going to the PLRA and the PEN. The PLRA's Miguel Abdon Saguier and Luis Wagner will serve as ministers of foreign relations and agriculture, respectively. PEN founder Guillermo Caballero Vargas is the new minister of industry and trade, and former student leader and activist Silvio Ferreira, also of the PEN, is the new justice and labor minister.

Within the Colorado party, both backers and opponents of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner were given posts in the government. The leadership of the "Arganista" current of the ANR is close to Stroessner, but Gonzalez Macchi has kept on the margins of that political alignment. Jose Planas, the new minister of public works and communications, and Martin Chiola, the new minister of public health, are both closely linked to the pro-Stroessner faction. Lawyer Nelson Argana, a former student leader and son of the murdered vice president, is Paraguay's new defense minister. The attorney general is Jorge Vasconsellos. The only major political forces shut out of the negotiations were Oviedo's backers.

Presidential elections are to be held between Nov. 14 and 21: Gonzalez Macchi expects to seek election as president with a running mate from either the PRLA or the PEN. The winner of the elections is to serve out the remainder of the current presidential term, which ends in 2003. [LR 3/30/99 from AFP & EFE, 3/31/99 from AFP, 4/1/99 from EFE; El Nuevo Herald 4/2/99 from Reuters, 3/31/99 from AFP]

Negotiations over the new government were fierce, both within the fragile ruling coalition and within each political party. The cabinet posts were divided up just a week after the PLRA and the PEN both held their internal elections; the traditional leaders of both parties were soundly defeated in the Mar. 22 voting, but a week later the new directorates had not yet assumed their posts within their parties, and the old leaders insisted on exerting their power. [La Republica 3/31/99 from AFP]

In the internal elections, Julio Cesar Franco was elected president of the PLRA and Senator Euclides Acevedo was chosen as president of PEN. Franco handily defeated Luis Wagner, who was backed by the party's leader for the past 20 years, Domingo Laino. The PEN's Acevedo had a similarly large lead over Carlos Filizzola, former mayor of Asuncion and leader of the PEN since 1991. Although only 11-15% of each party's membership participated in the internal elections, the results were interpreted as an expression of voter frustration with Laino and Filizzola, who lost badly (43% against the Colorado Party's 54%) in the May 10, 1998 general elections when they ran as the presidential and vice presidential candidates, respectively, of the "Democratic Alliance" coalition ticket. [Hoy (NJ) 3/23/99 from AP; Clarin (Buenos Aires) 2/23/99]