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Will Paraguayans Ever Find Justice?

Main Entry: ex·tra·di·tion

Pronunciation: ek-str&-'di-sh&n

Function: noun

Etymology: French, from ex- + Latin tradition-, tradition act of handing over -- the surrender of an alleged criminal usually under the provisions of a treaty or statute by one authority (as a state) to another having jurisdiction to try the charge.

After 35 years of rule by the harsh military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, the people of Paraguay were looking forward to a fresh new democratic government in 1989. Finding a way to balance the power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government was greatly facilitated in June 1992 with the drafting of the country's first constitution. But, this equilibrium has been upset and democracy delayed! The people of Paraguay have taken to the streets to protest within the country. Citizens of Paraguay living in other countries are protesting as well, even in the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires.

When General Lino Oviedo was tried and convicted for an attempted military coup in 1996, victims of his prior military authority were greatly relieved to see the judicial system, even the military court system justly exercised. At first, neither his power nor influence within military circles in all of the neighboring South American nations was enough to keep him from serving time for his crimes.

After only three months of serving his sentence, newly elected president Raoul Cubas (Aug. 1998) utilized dubious judgment in promptly pardoning Gen. Oviedo within twenty-four hours of his own inauguration. Since presidential pardons apply only to criminals convicted in a civilian court, this action was unconstitutional and neither in agreement with the law or the Supreme Court. Congress swiftly moved to impeach the new president within the following two days, forcing a standoff between the legislative and judicial branches of government against the executive branch.

In the following months, Gen. Oviedo was reinstated to his former position of power (even as a civilian). Brutal acts of terrorism began to occur, allegedly under the order of Oviedo and his former officers. Several members of Congress were attacked in their homes, and acts of paramilitary violence eventually led to the March 23, 1999 car attack and assassination of Vice-President [Dr.] Luis Maria Argana who was a member of a rival faction of President Cuba's political party that had vehemently opposed the pardoning of Oviedo. With Cubas' impeachment underway, the President tried to explain his dilemma to the country as merely the result of partisan bickering, a political issue rather than a criminal one. The military, divided in support for and against Cubas, likewise, involved itself in the suppression of the media by surrounding radio stations, threatening reporters, and the brief shut down of radio and cell phones.

This sparked a week of general protest by 20,000 peasants, activists, farmers, students, and journalists who gathered outside of Congress in Paraguay's capital of Asuncion while the impeachment process took place. Riot police, known as the "Blue Helmets" were called in to control the crowd and the protest turned into an all out confrontation. The crowd was violently attacked with gunfire and explosives by numerous paramilitary groups supporting either Gen. Oviedo or Pres. Cubas. Seven npeople were killed and over 400 were wounded.

Now that most of the bloodshed has ended, former Chairman of the Senate Luis Gonzales is currently succeeding the ousted president and will remain in office according to the constitution until 2003. New elections to replace the vice-president will be held in February, 2000. Meanwhile, Cubas is enjoying political asylum in Brazil and it is unlikely that Brazil will honor any judicial request by Paraguay to turn him over. General Lino Oviedo has since taken refuge in Argentina, as a convicted criminal under the protection of President Carlos Menem's government.

In Argentina, there are about one million Paraguayans and twice that many descendants of people from Paraguay. That means there are three million people of Paraguayan heritage in Argentina compared to Paraguay's total population of five million. To secure the support of ex-patriates, other Argentineans and the rest of the world, a large group of activists has come to speak here in Buenos Aires. Many of the protesters that have come to demonstrate in the Plaza de Mayo are friends and relatives of those killed during the clash of March 26. They have traveled this far to demand that law and democracy are respected and followed. More than anything else, they seek the extradition of a brutal military leader who has been left to roam freely in Argentina, their big, democratic neighbor to the South.


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