POPE John Paul II brought three days of unprecedented freedom of expression to Paraguay, on the last stop of his tour of four Latin American countries. But even before he had left, the scene was set for what many fear will be a clampdown by the government of General Alfredo Stroessner.
By the time the papal plane took off on the night of May 18, eight peasant leaders were reported to have been detained by police. This follows an earlier hunger-strike by more than 200 peasants who occupied a church in the capital, Asuncion, to protest at their plight in Stroessner's Paraguay.
Such public protests are rare in Paraguay under normal conditions. But in these three days conditions were far from normal. All observers of the visit agree that the Pope's presence here has had an historic significance.
The Papal visit took place against a background of growing opposition to the Stroessner regime, in which the Church has recently played a key role. Both government and opposition sought to strengthen their position against the other at what many see as a key moment in Paraguay's political process. In the final analysis, the Pope seems to have brought something for everybody.
As the party faithful wallpapered Asuncion with posters of the "Supreme Leader" side-by-side with Pope John Paul II, Stroessner himself returned time and again to his favourite theme of "peace".
For most Paraguayans, this "peace" is a cynical euphamism for the repression on which the oldest dictatorship in the western hemisphere is based.
The most controversial event of the programme was the Pope's meeting with the "builders of society", a phrase taken from the Latin American Episcopal Conference of Puebla, Mexico, which refers to all lay groups whose responsibility it is to build a new society, "more just, more fraternal and open to God".
Representatives from a wide cross-section of society were originally invited, but the government accused the organisers of turning the meeting into an open platform for critics of the regime, and attempted, in an unprecedented breach of protocol, to ban the event. Finally, in the face of the Vatican's apparent determination to proceed with the full programme regardless, the government and the Colorado Party boycotted the meeting.
Participants attended in an atmosphere of rare political expression, some raising a home-made banner which had been smuggled in letter by letter, and which proclaimed, "we want freedom and democracy". The Pope did not disappoint them: "peace, freedom, justice and participation are the essential requirements to be able to talk of an authentic democratic society", he told them to rapturous applause. "It is not possible therefore, to speak of true freedom, still less democracy when there is not participation of all citizens".
"Order and peace", he continued, picking out the two key words of Stroessner's rhetoric, "presuppose the effective respect of the inalienable rights of the person. Peace is not compatible with a form of social organisation in which just a few individuals impose discrimination as a principle for their own benefit, so that the rights and the very lives of the others depend on the whims of the strongest".
Pope John Paul II was describing Paraguay under Stroessner, and the people loved him for it.
Earlier the same evening the Pope had addressed the most marginalised of all Paraguayans, in his meeting with more than 6000 Indians from Paraguay's 17 different indigenous ethnic groups. They had travelled from all parts of the country by land and by river, many as much as three days each way, to meet with this man who, like them, is close to God. Most were neither Catholics nor even Christians, and they said they were meeting the Pope on the basis of equality, as leaders of their own indigenous religions.
Rene Ramirez, a leader of the Maskoy Indians, was chosen to deliver a moving speech in which he told the Pope, "we are a living testament to the peoples who dwelt in his continent before it was called 'America'". Describing how they had dispossessed of their lands by the white men, he said that today "cattle are more important than we are", and spoke of an undeclared war against indigenous peoples.
Yet the most emotional meeting of the tour was still to come. On the last day of his visit Pope John Paul II celebrated his 68th birthday with a multitude of some 500,000 Paraguayan youths. "The Pope is young!", they chanted, "the Pope must stay, the Pope must stay". Departing from his prepared text, the Pope struck up an almost intimate dialogue with the crowd, saying, "how can it be, dear young people, when the Pope must be a traveller?",
It was a warm and optimistic end to the visit.