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Paraguay’s Democracy Tested Again

May 20, 2000

ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) _ For the third time in four years, Paraguay’s fragile democracy was severely tested Friday, this time by mutinous soldiers and police who fired at the legislative building from armored personnel carriers before surrendering four hours later.

By Friday morning, the government was back in full control. Soldiers toting automatic weapons took up checkpoints around the capital and passers-by stopped to gawk at bullet holes in the colonial-style legislative palace.

President Luis Gonzalez Macchi, who took office last March after another political crisis, went on national television Friday to assure citizens that the ``antidemocratic″ forces believed to be loyal to a former coup plotter had been defeated for good.

``Rest easy, countrymen!″ he said. ``Public order has been restored. The destabilizing and antidemocratic forces have been disbanded, the crisis brought under control and the mutineers detained.″

He said his government’s response to the coup attempt would be to accelerate economic and social reforms sought by many in this landlocked South American nation struggling with high unemployment and discontent.

The Paraguayan Congress overwhelmingly endorsed a state of siege declared by the president. The measure allows police expanded powers to ensure domestic security.

Late Friday, authorities said that at least 35 congressmen, civilians and others had been detained, suspected of joining a plot.

One of those suspects, Benjamin Maciel of the ruling Colorado Party, professed his innocence. ``I am clean. I didn’t do anything.″

In Washington, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher harshly condemned the aborted coup. He congratulated the Paraguayan soldiers who ``recognized and acted on their responsibility to defend democracy and constitutional order.″

The crisis began when the soldiers barreled through the capital late Thursday and headed to the palace.

The standoff ended when soldiers surrendered at 2:45 a.m. Friday, Col. Felix Dario Collante said. He refused to say how many turned themselves in.

Interior Minister Walter Bower said the rebellious soldiers were sympathetic to former army Gen. Lino Cesar Oviedo, a fugitive wanted in last year’s assassination of Vice President Luis Argana _ a killing that brought Gonzalez Macchi to power. Oviedo was also suspected in a brief mutiny in 1996.

On Friday, the permanent council of the Organization of American States ``vehemently condemned″ the coup attempt and expressed full support for the Gonzalez Macchi’s government.

A resolution approved by the council called the attempt an ``assault on the democratic and constitutional order of Paraguay.″

Paraguay’s still wobbly democracy emerged from the defeat of the 35-year Stroessner dictatorship in 1989, but has been buffeted by one political crisis after another in the intervening decade. The latest upheaval was in March 1999, when Raul Cubas was ousted as president and replaced by Gonzalez Macchi.

Life appeared to return to normal Friday as shops and schools opened and people went about their business. Hundreds of police, their rifles slung from shoulders, guarded the building for hours, but left the scene Friday afternoon.

Elsewhere, helmeted soldiers with automatic weapons checked identity papers at roadblocks on major highways leading from the capital and to the international airport. One soldier stood atop an armored personnel carrier at a major downtown intersection, another behind a machine-gun mounted on the back of a jeep.

Blocks away at the legislature, many Paraguayans expressed skepticism that this would be the end to instability.

``We are all worried. This may be over for now, but anything can still happen in Paraguay,″ said Mario Isa, 20, who watched as a truckload of soldiers in camouflage fatigues took posts on the second-story balcony of the legislative palace.

Two schoolgirls giggled as they passed the soldiers. But others said they were anxious. ``The truth is, I was scared,″ said Valeria Schussmuller, 21, who followed TV reports much of the night. ``Here we are in 2000 and this is something out of the 1800s.″

Oviedo has yet to complete a 10-year sentence for a brief rebellion in April 1996 against former President Juan Carlos Wasmosy, authorities said.

Oviedo fled Paraguay after Cubas resigned and was granted political asylum in Argentina, where he stayed before going into hiding days before Argentine President Fernando de la Rua took office Dec. 10. At last report, he claimed to be in a remote area of Paraguay, making sporadic telephone calls to news media and denouncing the government.

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