Paraguay presidential hopeful Oviedo dies in crash

Pedro Servin

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguayan presidential candidate Lino César Oviedo has been killed in a helicopter crash, authorities said Sunday, ending a dramatic political career that included coups and repeated attempts to lead this impoverished 6.5 million-person country.

Oviedo was returning with his bodyguard from a political rally in northern Paraguay Saturday night when his pilot encountered bad weather. All three were killed in the crash, said Johnny Villalba, a spokesman for Paraguay’s airport authority.

Defense Minister Maria Liz Garcia said she traveled to the scene Sunday with Oviedo’s daughter, congresswoman Fabiola Oviedo, and confirmed that the helicopter “disintegrated.”

“One resident who lives near the accident scene said they heard a single explosion Saturday night,” she added. “The aircraft ended up disintegrated and out of respect to the families of the victims, I won’t release details about the cadavers.”

The air traffic control tower in the provincial city of Concepción received the pilot’s last communication, Garcia said — a brief message that they were changing course due to a storm at 9 p.m. local time.

Oviedo, 69, was running in April’s elections as leader of Paraguay’s third-largest opposition party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens.

A retired general and former army chief, Oviedo had tried for years to take the helm of his nation, and not always through democratic means.

As a colonel in 1989, Oviedo had been tasked with taking prisoner none other than Alfredo Stroessner, the feared dictator who had ruled Paraguay since 1954.

That bloody military coup sent Stroessner into Brazilian exile, but did little to diminish the hold on Paraguayan politics that his Colorado Party had cemented. Oviedo’s role in the ouster was rewarded with a meteoric rise through the ranks of the army.

A diminutive cavalry officer, only 5-foot-3 inches (1.62 meters) tall, Oviedo was promoted to brigadier general three months after capturing Stroessner. By 1992, he had become a division general, and then President Juan Carlos Wasmosy named him army chief.

Membership in the Colorado Party had been a requirement for any officer during the dictatorship, but Oviedo’s constant involvement in party politics generated frictions with the president.

In April 1996, a short-lived coup in which Oviedo participated and other maneuverings led to his firing and forced retirement. He ran as a candidate to succeed Wasmosy, winning the Colorado Party primary ahead of the May 1998 presidential elections, but was then convicted in a military court for his role in the coup, ending his candidacy.

His would-be vice president, Raúl Cubas, instead won the election and immediately ordered the release of Oviedo, despite the judiciary’s rulings.

Oviedo had an irrepressible desire to govern, and quickly became known as the power behind Cubas, angering other political leaders.

Cubas’ vice president, Luis María Argaña, was assassinated in 1999, and the slain man’s relatives and followers accused Oviedo of being the mastermind. Cubas resigned in the resulting turmoil and Oviedo fled the country and renounced his Colorado Party membership, founding the UNACE party.

Facing Paraguayan arrest orders in the Wasmosy case, Oviedo remained a political refugee in Brazil until 2004, when he returned and was convicted.

The Supreme Court later exonerated Oviedo after military officers denied there had been a coup attempt, freeing him to run for president in 2008. He came in third, splitting the vote that gave former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo the presidency and ended 60 years of one-party rule by the Colorado Party.

Oviedo was born in the small village of Juan de Mena, outside Asunción, on Sept. 23, 1943. He graduated from the nation’s military academy, and married Raquel Marin, an Argentine, with whom he had three children. Oviedo also had other children with two Paraguayan women before his marriage.

Oviedo’s family now maintains his legacy in his UNACE party: His children Fabiola and Ariel are deputies in Congress, and his nephew, Lino César Oviedo Sánchez, is a senator.

Oviedo “had an enormous capacity for work. At 5 a.m. he was in his office, receiving people until midnight, usually the poor, who came to him from their villages seeking help,” former Sen. Enrique Gonzalez, a longtime political ally, told The Associated Press.

“He was an individual with great charisma, he spoke (Paraguay’s indigenous language of) Guaraní perfectly, and he wove jokes in Guarani into his speeches. He had the spiritual strength to put up with being persecuted. His military preparation enabled him to put up with extreme situations. In December, he even managed to come out of a Brazilian hospital with two stents after a heart operation with more enthusiasm than ever.”

U.S. Undersecretary of State Peter Romero had declared after the Wasmosy affair that Oviedo “lacks democratic credentials.”

Gonzalez took issue with that label, noting that Oviedo also “founded a political party and participated in elections, building it into Paraguay’s third-largest political force.”