ASUNCION, Paraguay—In the aftermath of the controversial decision by the Paraguayan government to release General Lino Oviedo, the country's Conference of Catholic Bishops appealed to the people of the country to pray and “unite to protect our young democratic system, which at present is at risk of collapsing.”

President Raul Cubas Grau, the first civilian to succeed another civilian as chief executive in Paraguay's 182-year history, took office Aug 15. Three days later he issued a “presidential decree” freeing Oviedo who was serving a 10-year prison term for attempting a military coup against Juan Carlos Wasmosy — the first civilian president in Paraguay's history, who was elected in 1993.

Wasmosy, a practicing Catholic, was unsuccessful in rebuilding Paraguay's economy. Nonetheless, he had worked hard to consolidate democratic structures within South America's youngest democracy.

During his term in office, Wasmosy passed a law forbidding active military or policemen from becoming members of political parties, and also enforced a jail order against Oviedo after a three-day standoff between Oviedo's personal guard — comprised of active-duty soldiers — and the local police.

Nevertheless, the country's economic crisis led many Paraguayans to long for the old, stable regime of Alfredo Stroessner — a general who ruled the country for 42 years until ousted from power in 1989 by General Andres Rodriguez. Rodriguez, who called for immediate elections, predictably won. Four years later, in a more open and democratic election process, Wasmosy was elected.

The recent release of Oviedo generated political turmoil even before the new president had time to settle into office. Although enthusiastically backed by his political party, Partido Colorado, Cuba's president's decision to release the general was opposed by the country's Supreme Court, which stated that the presidential decree was unconstitutional. The Congress is sharply divided on the issue. Army officials have said they will oppose any attempt to return Oviedo to prison.

Under those pretexts, Paraguay's Catholic bishops' conference called for an emergency meeting to evaluate the situation. In a statement, the bishops said it is “urgent for [the whole of] society to stay calm and make [any necessary] efforts to keep the democratic system alive. ”

They also asked for:

l the commitment of all sides to leave the resolution of the “Oviedo issue” to the judiciary.

l the commitment to accept the court's final decision.

l the return of both the Congress and the presidency [in order] to address key economic and social issues.

Paraguay is also suffering economic fallout from the recent Asian and Russian crises. Still, the country's political discussion has been focused on the “Oviedo issue.”

The bishops have requested President Cubas to address both issues and to elect his ministerial cabinet, which was shaken up when two of the recently elected ministers resigned in protest at the release of Oviedo. The bishops said that the time had come “to convey a strong message of peace, stability, and hope in the future to our people.” Paraguay's strong Catholic tradition affords the bishops a decisive role in helping shape public opinion. As such, both those for and against the release of Oviedo have been trying to gain the bishops'support.

President Cubas has insisted that there is nothing more Christian than his proposed law on “National Reconciliation.” According to the president, the reconciliation “would put a definitive end to any kind of political witch hunting.” If passed, the law would allow the release of some prisoners accused of “subversive activity” during the years of military rule. It would also wipe from the record the human rights abuses perpetrated by Oviedo and other generals. The most controversial aspect of the proposed law would allow for the return of General Alfredo Stroessner — presently exiled in Brazil — to Paraguay.

Regarding the law and speaking on behalf of the Paraguayan episcopate, Bishop Jorge Livieres Banks of Encarnacion said, “We should not confuse reconciliation with impunity, because the first is based on justice, while the second supposes the violation of justice.

“The Catholic Church wants peace, reconciliation, and social prosperity for Paraguay,” said Bishop Livieres, “but forgiveness and reconciliation presuppose and demand repentance and justice,” he continued.

The bishops are resisting any pressure from the recently created National Democratic Front — a coalition of political parties, labor unions, and grass-roots organizations — who have requested the bishops to formally join the campaign against the presidential decree.

During their emergency meeting, bishops received representatives of the coalition, who explained the objectives and the means adopted by the party to return Oviedo to jail. However, the archbishop of Asuncion and president of the bishops' conference clearly stated that the role of an episcopal conference was “not compatible with a direct political commitment.”

Bishop Felipe Santiago Benitez and the episcopate's general secretary, Bishop Pastor Cuquejo, requested “more time” before responding to the Front's request.

“We share with the coalition the belief that the release (of General Oviedo) was a wrong, unlawful action,” said Bishop Benitez to the press, “but we are not sure that direct political action would help to ease tensions.”

The political situation was complicated after a military court, in an effort to prevent the Supreme Court from taking action against Oviedo, found the general not guilty of the charges against him and that he was a victim of false prosecution. The military court — whose members were recently appointed by President Cubas — tried to create a “no case” situation to impede any civil judiciary from acting in the future.

“This is simply a legal aberration because, according to our Constitution, a civil court can review the decision of a military court and not the contrary,” explained Jorge Vasconsellos, legal attorney of former President Wasmosy. “This shows how arbitrary the new government and the military has gotten, and therefore, how dangerous and unstable the political situation is becoming.”

In fact, some congressmen loyal to Oviedo announced that they will demand that Wasmosy stand trial. The former president has already requested political asylum at the Argentinean embassy.

“We are praying and calling on people to defend the democratic system,” said Bishop Claudio Gimenez of Caacupe, see of the nation's Marian Shrine. “We are only watching and listening to words and deeds that are conducting us closer to falling back into a political situation that the people don't want.” A source inside the Paraguayan bishops' conference said the bishops plan to further explore — both with the Congress and with President Cubas — the possibility of leading a public vote to resolve the Oviedo issue.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.