Obituary: Luis Mara Argana

LUIS MARIA Argana, who was assassinated yesterday in Asuncin, was one of Paraguay's most controversial political figures. As Vice-President, he was at the centre of a bitter struggle for political power with President Ral Cubas Grau, and the real power behind the throne, the former army commander General Lino Oviedo. Argana's murder brings much closer the prospect of a direct military intervention for the first time in a decade.

Argana was an expert exponent of factional politics in a country long run by a single party, the National Republican Association (ANR in Spanish), better known as the Colorado party. This organisation was the vehicle for the long military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until he was in turn overthrown by the military in February 1989. Argana was one of the main props of the Stroessner regime, which he served as president of the supreme court. But he managed to change sides just in time, and was appointed foreign minister of the new government led by General Andres Rodrguez.

Argana remained a principal actor in Paraguayan politics when the Colorados were returned to power in elections in 1993, becoming president of the party and using his control of the Colorados' all-powerful machine to plan his own bid for the presidency in the 1998 elections.

He was, however, outmanoeuvred by the supporters of the army commander, General Lino Oviedo, the leader of a rival Colorado faction, the so-called "ethical" tendency. (A military career is no bar to political activism in Paraguay; on the contrary membership of the ANR has traditionally been a prerequisite for advancement.)

Oviedo attempted an unsuccessful coup against President Juan Carlos Wasmosy (also a Colorado) in 1997, was cashiered and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. That stopped Oviedo from running for President himself last year, but he managed to secure the official Colorado nomination for his long- time protege Ral Cubas Grau, a civil engineer and political innocent.

Cubas was duly elected, and made it his business to grant Oviedo a presidential pardon as his first official act. This led to a bitter wrangle between the President, the judiciary and the legislature, which is dominated by the pro-Argana faction of the Colorados. While all this was going on, Oviedo travelled around the country, revelling in the political chaos he was causing and preparing to make another bid for control of the Colorado apparatus in next month's internal elections.

Oviedo's only serious impediment was Argana - who was removed when three men in military uniform opened fire on his car in an Asuncin street.

Argana, a short, wiry man with a peremptory manner, came from a leading Asuncin family. He was a graduate of Paraguay's military academy and qualified pilot as well as a lawyer. In the latter capacity he was a member of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Luis Mara Argana Ferraro, politician: born Asuncin 9 October 1932; died Asuncin 23 March 1999.

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