It takes no great personal courage for an American writer to stand up to the government and to give the people an unauthorized, contradicting version of things. But elsewhere, even the mildest deviation from the official line constitutes an act of extraordinary heroism.
Alcibiades Gonzalez Devalle is such a hero.
For the past 24 years, Gonzalez has been a journalist in Paraguay -- the tiny, landlocked South American country that, since 1954, has been the personal fiefdom of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. Just 12 days ago, Gonzalez, who has been visiting here, flew back to Paraguay, trading a safe haven in the United States for certain arrest in his homeland. Sure enough, within hours after he arrived in Asuncion, Gonzalez was dragged off the street by Stroessner's men. He has disappeared.
Lacking the international stature that gave some measure of protection to Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, Gonzalez still chose to risk his freedom, and perhaps his life, by returning home.
Why? A few days before he left Washington, Gonzalez came to my office. He wanted to explain what the Paraguayan military dictator was doing to silence his critics.
"They are trying to use me to shut down all freedom of expression in Paraguay," he told my associate Bob Sherman. "Other journalists have been critical of the government there lately and Stroessner wants it stopped."
Gonzalez had been a particularly aggravating burr under Stroessner's saddle. Most unforgivably, he had stung the regime with sly ridicule. Commenting on the suicide of a French cabinet minister in the wake of corruption charges, Gonzalez wrote that he hoped the example would not be followed by Paraguayan officials because "we wouldn't have enough space to bury all the dead."
This caused Gonzalez' arrest and solitary confinement for 45 days. "The government obviously didn't have a sense of humor," he remarked later. But Gonzalez persisted in his gadfly activities after he was released.
Unfortunately, his plight is not unique among Latin American journalists. Two years ago, another courageous Paraguayan, Domingo Laino, visited my office with a similar prediction of impending arrest when he returned home. Laino not only had criticized Stroessner openly during a trip to the United States, but had also lobbied effectively against international loans to the regime until it improved its human rights record.
As he foretold, Laino was imprisoned by Stroessner. In messages smuggled to me from his cell, Laino wrote that he feared for his life. A worldwide protest eventually forced Stroessner to release Laino, who reported that he had been physically abused and starved in prison.
Another critic of a Latin American tyrant was not so fortunate. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, crusading editor of Nicaragua's La Prensa, sent me information he could not publish in his own country. As the ultimate reward for his courage, he was gunned down by then-president Anastasio Somoza's men in January 1978. That attitude toward a free press filtered down, as millions of American learned, when ABC newsman Bill Stewart was shot to death on camera by a Nicaraguan National Guardsman.
Not surprisingly, ousted dictator Somoza now lives in luxurious exile -- in Paraguay.
The suffocating effect of Stroessner's press policy was described to us by Gonzalez. "There are certain things that you know you are just not permitted to write about," he said. "Stroessner's press secretary will let you know when the government is displeased. He will threaten you and inform you that journalists should be objective and make constructive criticisms."
If this sounds like nothing worse than a Ron Ziegler or Jody Powell complaining about criticism, the difference is that, in Paraguay, journalists who don't take the hint wind up in prison.
Gonzalez was worried about his arrest on one score. "If I go to jail, my other journalist friends will be afraid the same thing will happen to them."
Gonzalez also realized that his only hope for eventual release would be international pressure, particularly from the United States. Until Stroessner feels that pressure and decides he must give in to, Alcibiades Gonzalez Devalle will be a voiceless critic of tyranny.