LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
FORTY Paraguayan political and social organizations have joined forces to demand an exhaustive investigation into the billions of dollars which lined the pockets of former generals and ministers of the country's deposed dictator, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. Nine months have passed since General Stroessner's 35-year rule was ended by a coup on Feb. 3, led by his in-law and the current president, Gen. Andr'es Rodr'iguez. And still, almost daily newspaper articles continue to uncover levels of fraud and robbery of the state scarcely imaginable in one of Latin America's poorest countries.
According to Luis Wagner, a deputy for the opposition Authentic Radical Liberal party (PLRA) and a coordinator of the ``No to Impunity'' campaign, ``the corruption under the Stroessner regime was worth at least five times our foreign debt,'' at present standing at $2 billion.
``Unless Stroessner and these people are brought to trial,'' Mr. Wagner says, ``we can't really talk of a real change in Paraguay.''
Most Paraguayans were aware that corruption was an integral part of Stroessner's rule. The dictator himself on various occasions described such corruption as ``the price of peace.''
But its sheer scale has shocked many. For example, $300 million disappeared from the state steel company ACEPAR, and $100 million is missing from the state cement company INC. Too, the former education minister is accused of paying himself $24,000 a month by drawing the salaries of nonexistent government functionaries.
The most recent scandal to emerge is that at least 15 million acres of state land were distributed at knock-down prices to Stroessner's friends through the IBR (Institute for Rural Wellbeing) - nominally an agrarian reform institute set up to help poor peasants.
In response to the revelations, a top judge handling the corruption cases recently ordered an embargo of goods valued at $500 million on 17 of Stroessner's closest collaborators. Heading the list are Stroessner himself and his eldest son Gustavo, with an embargo of $170 million on each.
The ``No to Impunity'' campaign's most successful event so far has been a 15,000-strong rally last month in front of the Palace of Justice in the capital Asunci'on. What prompted the turnout in a country which for 35 years had hardly witnessed a large demonstration was a recent decision by a judge to accept an offer by two generals to pay back $12 million between them in exchange for their freedom.
One of the generals, Hugo Araujo, is accused of fraud of more than $100 million during his 17-year period as head of the Institute of Social Provision (IPS), a form of medical insurance for workers. General Araujo's offer to pay $5 million in the form of various farms, houses, and cars was accepted by the judge, despite Araujo ``dismantling one of his properties before handing it over,'' according to Wagner.
The former head of Stroessner's police, Gen. Alcibiades Britez, who also stands accused of numerous human rights violations, was not so fortunate. His offer to return a 25,000-acre farm and $1 million was turned down, and he remains in prison.
General Britez is accused by prosecution lawyers of owning at least 250,000 acres and 80 mansions. His initial explanation for the source of his wealth was that ``he had given up smoking,'' but he has recently changed his tune to claiming he was ``immensely rich'' before he took over as police chief. In fact, IBR documents in the possession of Paraguayan journalists show that Britez was one of the chief beneficiaries of the 15 million acres IBR handed out to Stroessner's colleagues.
So far, few of the revelations have touched present government officials, many of whom occupied senior positions under the Stroessner regime.
But the IBR documents show that M'aximo V'asquez Ballena, present head of the government income tax department, Crispiano Sandoval, the present head of the Central Bank, and Desiderio Enciso, present head of the state oil company, PETROPAR, were - among many others - also beneficiaries of the IBR land disbursements in the 1980s.
What has particularly provoked many Paraguayans to join the campaign is the thought that the missing monies could have been used to help the country's poor. It is estimated that the $300 million stolen by just four of Stroessner's closest allies could have provided 100,000 low-cost homes, thus solving Asunci'on's housing problem.
Stroessner assumed power in 1954. He was reelected every five years from 1958 until this year, in what were generally regarded as rigged elections. He was Latin America's longest-serving strongman. The general won an unprecedented eighth term in elections in February 1988 with 89 percent of the vote.
A career soldier before becoming president, the general quickly gained a reputation as an iron-handed leader. However in recent years, under pressure from Western governments, he had eased his tight grip on society. At the time of this year's coup, Paraguay's jails were reported to be almost empty of the several hundred political prisoners they contained earlier.