Juan Carlos Wasmosy

Juan Carlos Wasmosy (born 1939) became president of Paraguay in 1993 after winning the country's first truly democratic elections.

At the age of 54, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, conservative in his politics and a long-time member of the Colorado party (which had ruled Paraguay continuously since 1947), took the presidential oath on August 15, 1993, Paraguay's first democratically-chosen president since the nation's founding in 1811.

After the fall of longtime dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1988, Paraguay's politics had been stormy. Stroessner's successor, General Andrés Rodríguez, had pledged a fair election, but opposition candidates (notably Domingo Laíno of the Authentic Radical Liberal party and Guillermo Caballero Vargas of National Encounter) expressed concerns about irregularities. A nonpartisan agency that monitored the election, Saka, tried to carry out a separate vote count, but the state telephone company cut its phone lines and police in the capital of Asunción prevented Saka employees from hand-delivering the count. The telephone service of the two major opposition parties was also discontinued.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (who with Canadian Senator Ed Graham headed an international inspection team that visited more than 1, 800 polling tables in the country) personally appealed to President Rodríguez, and three opposition phone lines were restored. In related harassing actions, the military, citing a 1992 election law, prevented Paraguayans exiled in Argentina and Brazil from crossing the border in order to cast their ballots. When the vote was finally in, Wasmosy won with 40 percent of 1.7 million votes cast. The Colorado party also won a majority of the country's 17 governor's races, but the Authentic Liberals garnered enough support to prevent a Colorado domination of either legislative house. In the closing days of the campaign, a prominent military officer, General Lino Oviedo, declared that the army and the Colorado party would continue to govern Paraguay for a hundred years. These events reinforced beliefs that the military, which has had a close relationship with the Colorado party, would dominate Wasmosy's government.

Educated as an engineer, Wasmosy made a fortune in business in the 1970s as head of a consortium that won contracts to build Itaipu Dam, the world's biggest, on the Paraguayan-Brazilian border. A free-market disciple, he supported Paraguay's role in Mercosur, the regional common market. Though a longtime Colorado party member, his only political office before assuming the presidency was that of minister of integration in the Rodríguez administration.

In economic policy Wasmosy was little different from his two major opponents, both of whom called for a transition to market-oriented doctrine and ridding the country of the widespread fraud tolerated during the Stroessner dictatorship. Caballero Vargas (also a millionaire), candidate of National Encounter, appealed to business classes in the capital who were openly critical of military-run monopolies. He also did well among young urbanites. Laíno, candidate of the Authentic Liberals, made his mark as a critic of the Stroessner regime.

In his inaugural address Wasmosy promised to carry out the free-trade policies of his predecessor and to confront the growing problems in transportation, health, and education. Recognizing the strength of the legislative opposition, he called for a "governability pact" with those who had opposed him. Paraguay appeared headed for political as well as economic modernization. Still, political differences can create divisions among those who generally agree on economic policies, and the political animosities of the past reared to disrupt the plans of even the best-intentioned.

Following the 1993 elections, animosities between the new president and then supporter General Lino Oviedo grew. In 1996 Wasmosy requested Oviedo retire his command but the general refused, setting off the biggest challenge faced to date by the young democracy. Rumors swept through the government that Oviedo was planning a coup. With Oviedo in control of greater military resources, Wasmosy was faced with either surrendering to the general's demand that he resign or sending his less powerful forces into battle. To avoid certain bloodshed, Wasmosy and Oviedo stuck a deal. In exchange for ending the coup attempt and his military resignation, Oviedo would be given the post of Defense Minister.

Although Wasmosy saw the action as "a gesture of reconciliation, " the people of Paraguay were outraged, accusing the president of giving into blackmail. Supporters of the democracy, such as the United States, responded in kind, saying they would not recognize a government that came to power by military threat. This placed Oviedo on the brink of political alienation and provided Wasmosy with the strength to calm the public turmoil by forcing Oviedo to resign without the Defense Minister offer and sending him to jail. As investigations into these events continued, the success of the young government remained uncertain. Oviedo claimed there was no coup attempt, accusing Wasomosy of creating the crisis as a means to restructure his government. Wasmosy denied those charges and claimed his resolution of the crisis as a strong victory for democracy. Consequently, both Wasmosy and Oviedo resolved to run in the 1998 elections.

Further Reading on Juan Carlos Wasmosy

As a contemporary political figure, Wasmosy was not widely known outside Paraguay. There is little about him in English, though the story of modern Paraguayan politics can be followed in the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and Facts-On-File. Recent developments are documented in various news sources including: Stephen Brown, "Paraguay says citizens will defend democracy, "Reuters (April 26, 1996); IPS Correspondents, "Paraguay: confusion regarding end of crisis persists, " Inter Press Service English News Wire (April 26, 1996); Jos De Mar Dia Amarilla, "Paraguay army rebel says president wanted coup, " Reuters (June 5, 1996).

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