|Martin Barillas and Peter Tase||February 5th 2013|
Lino Oviedo, a polarizing political figure and candidate in Paraguay’s April presidential election, died in a helicopter crash on February 2 while returning from the country’s Chaco region. The death of the 69-year-old former army officer throws the current political process wide open and has increased uncertainty in a country where in 2012 former President Fernando Lugo was impeached and removed from office.
Even while the Paraguayan government has ruled that the helicopter crash was an accident, members of Oviedo’s National Union of Ethical Colorados (UNACE) party openly questioned whether their favourite had been assassinated. Paraguay was officially commemorating the 1989 overthrow of long-term dictator Alfredo Stroessner on the day of the crash which also killed Oviedo’s aide and the pilot. Aviation authorities said the helicopter crashed during a storm in northern Paraguay but averred that an investigation will continue.
Speaking in a radio interview, Oviedo’s party spokesman César Durand said, “Twenty-four years ago today General Oviedo overthrew the dictatorship,” adding for the listeners of popular Radio Ñanduti, “This is a message from the mafia.” Durand used the term ‘mafia’ as do many Paraguayans in reference to criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and smuggling from neighboring Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay. The US has long been concerned about the presence of money laundering activities, especially in Paraguay’s riverine port Ciudad del Este, as well as Hezbollah and other Mideast terrorist organizations active in the country’s small Muslim community.
Oviedo had but a slim chance of winning the presidential election scheduled for April. He was far behind front-runner Horacio Cartes, a banker and tobacco planter, and Senator Efrain Alegre – who leads a center/left coalition. Controversial politician Oviedo, a retired general who once led the Paraguayan Army, helped to overthrow General Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator who had ruled the landlocked nation for 35 years. Oviedo later went into self-exile in 1999, fleeing to Argentina and then Brazil. He had been indicted with organizing an abortive coup against President Juan Carlos Wasmosy in 1996 and the murder of Vice President Luis Maria Argaña, who was shot to death outside of the capital city in March, 1999. After returning to Paraguay in2004, Oviedo was sent to prison for his involvement in the coup against Wasmosy but was later absolved.
Oviedo was then active on the hustings as a populist, using the widely-spoken aboriginal Guaraní language in his appearances. Given the epithet of ‘bonsai caballero’, in reference to his short stature, Oviedo would come in third in the 2008 election that saw former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo become president.
The current caretaker in the presidency is the congressionally appointed Fernando Franco, who had served as Lugo’s vice-president. Franco is facing isolation by the neighboring republics, despite a benediction of the impeachment process by the Organization of American States. Last week, Paraguay was officially shut out of the EU-Latin America summit conference held in Chile despite protests by Franco who travelled to Santiago and spoke on the fringes of the conference.
Cartes (56) is the front-runner and, should he win, the executive office will thus revert to the Colorado Party, which has long dominated Paraguayan politics. The US is concerned about allegations that a bank controlled by Cartes was involved in money laundering as revealed by State Department cables snatched by WikiLeaks. Cartes, however, has laughed these allegations as “rubbish.”
According to local media, after participating in rallies in Yby Yau, Horqueta and Concepción, Oviedo ordered his pilot to depart even though the helicopter did not have night flying capabilities. The aircraft departed the airport at Concepción at approximately 8:46 pm and headed towards the airport at Asunción, the nation’s capital. Oviedo’s helicopter departed Concepción in good weather, but the last communication from the craft was registered at 9 pm. After several hours of uncertainty, a rescue team was mustered past midnight and into the pre-dawn hours on February 3. By 6 am, the rescue team found the helicopter completely destroyed.
President Federico Franco declared three days of mourning to honor the loss of one of “Paraguay’s greatest generals, who had greatly contributed to bring democracy throughout the country.”
Oviedo’s UNACE party was founded in 1996 and currently has 9 senators and 11 representatives in the bicameral national congress. The National Union of the Ethical Colorados (UNACE) was founded by Oviedo in 1996 and is believed to be the third largest political party in Paraguay. It currently has 9 senators and 11 National Representatives in the lower chamber of Congress, and four members representing Paraguay in the parliament of MERCOSUR, a regional trade organization which has shunned Paraguay with the arguement that the current government is illegitimate. It is expected that Carmelo Benítez will take the helm at UNACE. Benitez served as Oviedo’s deputy.
With Oviedo out of the picture, the election appears to be much more uncertain. Rumor has it that UNACE will perhaps establish an alliance with the Authentic Liberal Radical Party (PLRA), the second largest party in Paraguay. The PLRA is the party of contender Efrain Alegre, who is leading a coalition with vice-presidential candidate Rafael Filizzola of the Partido Democrático Progresista (Progressive Democratic Party- PDP). Filizzola served as the Minister of the Interior during the Lugo administration.
Martin Barillas is the editor of Speroforum, from where this article is adapted. Peter M. Tase writes for Speroforum on international trade and diplomacy.