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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

The pope in Paraguay: 'Don't be afraid'


Amid all the attention afforded Pope John Paul II’s contributions to the fall of communism, his pivotal role in ending smaller totalitarian regimes has received far less fanfare. As the pope fades from the news cycle into the history books, his support for less geopolitically important countries like Paraguay has been all but forgotten on the world stage.

The Paraguayan people, however, will never forget.

When the pope went to Paraguay in 1988 -- the first time any pontiff had ever visited this impoverished South American nation -- General Alfredo Stroessner had been in power for 34 years, one of the longest-running military dictatorships in modern history. A papal visit to such a small and overwhelmingly Catholic country was an event of historic magnitude. As it turned out, the Paraguayan people were ready; their government was not.

The lolling kleptocracy that was Paraguay under Gen. Stroessner was a textbook definition of a “Banana Republic.” Even to the United States, the dictator’s singular raison d’être -- the campaign theme of his final rigged presidential election was “No Communism, No Communists” -- had started to wear so thin that both the Carter and Reagan administrations pressed him to reform.

However, with political opposition having long since been vanquished, Paraguayans were by then so resigned to their fate that dissent was virtually unheard of. Despite his brutality, Gen. Stroessner cultivated a fatherly image that had a perverse appeal to a people bereft of any hope of democracy -- the country had endured nothing but dictatorship since its independence in 1811.

All of that quickly changed as a result of the pope’s whirlwind visit in May 1988. Lulled into complacency, the Stroessner regime overreached badly before the pope ever set foot in the country. Posters put up throughout the capital read “Stroessner and the Pope: United for Peace” and featured a “photograph” of the two embracing as if they were old friends -- when in fact they had never met. The resulting public outcry was such that the government hastily tore all the posters down.

Then word leaked that the church had insisted on a meeting with opposition and civic leaders, and that Gen. Stroessner refused but then had to back down when the pope stood firm. Gen. Stroessner’s paternal and invincible image was fading fast.

When John Paul II arrived, however, it seemed initially that even papal intervention could not reverse Paraguay’s centuries-long run of misfortune. The visit was met by such torrential rains that the pope had to forego his endearing custom of kissing the tarmac. Yet, his spirits seemed not the least dampened -- he stuck to his itinerary and was met everywhere by huge, enthusiastic and drenched audiences. In Encarnacíon, 200,000 people sang happy birthday (the pope had just turned 68) and chanted “Libertad! Libertad!”

The visit itself was fairly typical of the pope’s sojourns to other dictatorships in that he did not directly reproach Gen. Stroessner. But at a rally during which the dictator stood uncomfortably at his side, John Paul II spoke pointedly about human rights, free speech, democracy and corruption. Alluding directly to the local situation was hardly necessary.

The government-controlled press heralded only the triumphs of the historic encounter for the regime. But much of the public was seething. Fiercely nationalistic, most Paraguayans were painfully aware of their nation’s image as a comic backwater. Anticipating a rare moment center stage in the modern world, they instead saw a global focus only on their repressive and anachronistic government.

Pope John Paul II, of course, had simply held up a mirror. In it, the Paraguayan people saw an illegitimate state and a somnambulant population. The end of the regime -- inconceivable only a few weeks earlier -- suddenly seemed a foregone conclusion.

“One of the last things the pope said was simply, ‘Don’t be afraid,’ ” recalled Benjamin Fernández, director of a Catholic church radio station and one of several Paraguayan journalists jailed following the papal visit. “His really was a voice of hope, and his words prompted different sectors of society to join together to confront the regime.”

Following antigovernment protests, Gen. Stroessner was overthrown in February 1989, just nine months after the pope’s visit. On news reports, the Paraguayan people saw not Stroessner the invincible tyrant, but instead an old man shuffling onto a plane into exile, looking as bewildered as if he were the Wizard of Oz dragged out from behind the curtain.

Alas, the new regime was not headed by a choirboy but by another general with close ties to Gen. Stroessner and a long history of smuggling. Nevertheless, Gen. Andrés Rodríguez, who claimed to be a deeply religious man and by all accounts had his finger on the nation’s pulse, promptly established a modern, if fledgling, democracy. After serving one elected term as president, Gen. Rodríguez died in 1997 and today is considered a national hero.

But some argue that the man who awakened Paraguay to its right to a democracy may well have been the one who died last month in Rome. Such was the sweep of his papacy that even historical footnotes reflect his enormous and contradictory influence -- the same pope believed by many to have all but squashed liberation theology in Latin America helped to liberate one of the countries there that needed it most. Certainly any conjecture about the direction of the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI need only look to what happened in Paraguay to see that a socially conservative papacy does not necessarily spell an end to the church’s activism across the political spectrum in support of human rights.

Pope John Paul II bid Paraguay farewell forever 17 years ago after spending only 72 rain-soaked hours there. When he arrived, it was one of the last entrenched redoubts of right-wing totalitarianism in the hemisphere. In his wake, 5 million souls were free.

David Einhorn is a freelance writer in Washington. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay from 1986-88.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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