Court action lets popular Paraguayan ex-army chief run for president

Gen. Lino Oviedo of Paraguay.
Gen. Lino Oviedo of Paraguay. Kevin G. Hall / MCT

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The race for Paraguay's presidency took a dramatic turn when the country's Supreme Court late Tuesday voided the mutiny conviction of popular ex-army commander Lino Oviedo, freeing him to run for the top job.

One of Paraguay's most controversial and colorful figures, Oviedo announced in September that he would seek the office, shortly after he was released on parole for a conviction of fomenting a coup d'etat against the government in 1996.

But it was unclear whether he'd be allowed to seek the post until Tuesday's action. The election will be held April 20.

The court's decision drew howls of outrage from some political analysts and politicians, who accused the Colorado Party of manipulating the court to allow Oviedo's candidacy.

The party, which has ruled Paraguay for 60 years, is facing a tough election battle against former priest Fernando Lugo, who has wide support from the poor among Paraguay's 6.7 million population.

"All the evidence we have shows this was the product of a pact between the Colorados and the supporters of Oviedo," said Lugo spokesman Ausberto Rodriguez. "This will have an impact on the election, but Fernando Lugo's candidacy is already consolidated."

The court ruled that Paraguayan judicial authorities erred by trying Oviedo in both a military court and a civilian court for his role in connection with a plot to overthrow then-President Juan Carlos Wasmosy. The court also said that authorities erred by not allowing Oviedo's attorneys to cross-examine witnesses against him.

The ruling came literally at the last minute.

Under Paraguayan law, all candidates must be registered to vote and those serving prison sentences cannot register. The court decision came out shortly before Tuesday's midnight registration deadline, and Oviedo rushed to get on the voter rolls.

"It's such a visible and vulgar manipulation of justice on the part of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos," said Paraguayan political columnist Alfredo Boccia Paz. "You'd have to be pathologically naive not to see the Colorado hand behind this."

Speaking to reporters before registering, Oviedo denied that Duarte Frutos had arranged his last-minute court victory. He promised a campaign "without hate, without lies and without bitterness."

Colorado Party spokesman Adan Ledezma also said that the court had acted independently. He warned that Oviedo, who left the party in 2005 and now leads a rival party, UNACE, represented as big a threat to the Colorados as he did to Lugo. UNACE stand for the National Union of Ethical Citizens.

"The promptness of this decision has raised questions in some sectors of society, but we think the Colorado Party did not manipulate anything," Ledezma said. "The party is watching what's happened with the Oviedo case with much worry and fear."

The 64-year-old ex-general has been one of Paraguay's most popular figures for more than a decade.

He helped oust Paraguay's longtime dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989 but was then convicted of mutiny when he refused to obey orders to resign his command of the army in 1996.

He also has been indicted for his alleged role in the assassination of one of his political rivals, Vice President Luis Maria Argana in 1999, and the murders of seven protesters who were demanding his imprisonment in connection with Argana's death.

Despite the accusations, Oviedo draws enthusiastic support with his mix of militaristic bravado and populist appeal.