Like Guatemala’s genocidal Romeo Lucas Garcia a few weeks back, Paraguay’s brutal former dictator Alfredo Stroessner has died a free man in comfortable exile—despite vain efforts to have him extradited back home to face justice. We have noted that there have been some recent arrests of those involved in the bloody Operation Condor network established by the Southern Cone dictators in the ’70s to coordinate their “dirty war” against leftist dissidents. But the masterminds, like Stroessner and Augusto Pinochet, appear untouchable. From the London Times, Aug. 17 (emphasis added). The term “longest-serving” is likely an unintentional irony. “Longest-ruling” would have been a better choice. The only things Stroessner ever “served” were his own power, Paraguay’s deeply reactionary landed elite, and US imperialism’s anti-communist designs.
General Alfredo Stroessner
November 3, 1912 – August 16, 2006
Paraguayan dictator whose harsh 35-year rule kept his country in a state of service backwardness
ALFREDO STROESSNER was one of Latin America’s longest-serving dictators, ruling Paraguay for 35 years, until he was deposed by a military coup in February 1989. He had first seized power in May 1954. The apparently eternal strongman, contemporary of Perón of Argentina, Somoza of Nicaragua and Batista of Cuba, had finally outlived any usefulness that might have been claimed for him.
Had he chosen to step down in 1988, instead of having himself re-elected, with all the usual vote-rigging and intimidation of the opposition, for an eighth consecutive term, the verdict on Stroessner’s rule might have been more favourable. But his long, unyielding years of supreme power meant that if anyone could be called the archetypal Latin American caudillo, it was he.
His backward, land-locked country was accustomed to being governed with an iron fist and its political parties lacked any genuine ideology. Stroessner, at the height of his powers, was tough, quick-thinking, wily and ruthless enough to dominate it with ease.
His dictatorship went through three stages. During the first, Stroessner established it by means of the ruthless repression of opponents and conversion of the traditional Colorado (Red) party into the docile instrument of his rule. He instituted an efficient spoils system, sharing out booty that included the proceeds of a flourishing contraband trade with neighbouring Argentina and Brazil, among the officer corps and a handpicked civilian elite.
The second phase was a period of relative economic prosperity in the 1970s, when the regime relaxed its grip somewhat, though long spells of detention without trial were still the lot of his opponents. The final phase was marked by mounting opposition to his arbitrary rule from Paraguay’s Catholic Church and the United States, a one-time ally which abandoned Stroessner when he appeared to be insufficiently committed to Washington’s war on drug trafficking.
Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda was born in Encarnación, on the border with Argentina, in 1912. His father, Hugo, was an immigrant from Bavaria, a member of the small but influential German community in Paraguay. He started a brewery in Encarnación and later married the daughter of a wealthy local family.
Their son Alfredo was sent to the military college in the capital, Asunción, at the age of 16, and within four years he saw action, as a young artillery officer, in the Chaco War against Bolivia, 1932-35. He distinguished himself as a brave and competent commander, and caught the eye of those who intended to take power when the war was over. They hoped to make use of him, but Stroessner bided his time, moving steadily up the military hierarchy as a succession of coups and short-lived governments followed each other.
In 1951 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the army, at the age of 38, as a reward for helping Federico Chávez to become President. Three years later Stroessner turned on his former patron, and overthrew him in a bloody putsch. In the elections that followed, Stroessner stood as the Colorado candidate, and was elected for a four-year term. He was subsequently re-elected eight times, ignoring a constitutional requirement that no president could serve more than two consecutive terms.
Stroessner ruled with the help of a permanent state of siege, which he kept in force, renewed every 90 days, until April 1987.
Through his control of the Colorado party apparatus, he extended its influence into all areas of national life. Membership of the party was an essential requirement for aspiring civil servants, and secured many benefits outside work, too. The courts were susceptible to political pressure, the press was censored, and there was a tame opposition in congress, to give a veneer of democratic respectability to proceedings. Stroessner kept potential army rivals happy with a generous slice of the smuggling operations that came with command of frontier garrisons.
Genuine opposition parties were banned, and militant opponents were relentlessly pursued by the secret police, and in some cases locked up for more than a decade without charges being brought. Torture was routine, provoking a growing outcry in the later years from local human rights groups and the Church.
Stroessner never had much time for the notion of human rights. He cultivated good relations with apartheid-era South Africa, and allowed leading Nazis to take refuge in his country. One of them was Josef Mengele, the Bavarian doctor who carried out experiments on inmates of Auschwitz during the Second World War. Stroessner rebuffed the West German Government when, in 1960, it demanded his extradition. He also granted asylum to Anastasio Somoza, the deposed Nicaraguan dictator — though the Paraguayan security police failed to prevent his assassination in Asunción in 1980.
By constantly proclaiming that his country was a bulwark against communism, Stroessner was able to secure political and financial backing over several decades from the United States. He was deeply involved in Operation Condor, an intelligence network linking the right-wing dictatorships that ruled the main countries of South America for most of the 1970s and early 1980s.
But there was more to his rule than repression and foreign backing. Stroessner was a popular, if feared, figure to many Paraguayans, and he could easily have won his early elections, without any need for the elaborate rigging that ensured him 90 per cent majorities time after time. People were well aware of the penalties for open dissent. But many also admired his hard work: he would regularly be at his desk by 4.30am, and he expected his ministers and officials to follow his example. He spent his days receiving petitioners, interminable queues of them, and he seldom left his office until late at night. But Stroessner’s mania for micromanagement acted as a brake on the country’s modernisation. By the late 1960s a quarter of Paraguay’s population was living abroad, unable to find work at home.
Things improved in the 1970s when the huge Itaipú hydroelectric scheme, a joint undertaking with Brazil, fuelled a burst of economic growth. But the country remained heavily dependent on agricultural exports. Stroessner was opposed to diversification, fearing the effects of higher education, even among his junior army officers. Three quarters of the country’s land, it was estimated, remained in the hands of 1 per cent of the population. In the 1970s the Catholic Church encouraged peasants to form self-help “agrarian leagues,” but they were quickly broken up and their leaders detained.
As the Church embarked on a confrontation course with the ageing dictator, it denounced a regime where “the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer”. Pope John Paul II visited Paraguay in May 1988 and publicly criticised the Government. Relations were strained when the two men met, and crowds of Catholics at one of the Pope’s rallies shouted: “The dictatorship must fall.” The US Government, dismayed by Stroessner’s obstinate refusal to reform, withdrew its support.
In the final months of Stroessner’s regime there was a marked improvement in the human-rights situation, and some opposition political activity was allowed. But it was too late. Stroessner was finally ousted by General Andrés Rodríguez, the most senior army commander, who was related to him by marriage. Rodríguez, long Stroessner’s most trusted ally, had finally thrown his weight behind a faction of the Colorado party which regarded Stroessner as a threat.
Stroessner was flown out of the country hours after the coup, watched by a jeering crowd at Asunción airport, en route to exile in Brazil. He settled in a property he owned in the border state of Paraná, while his political enemies in Paraguay pressed for his extradition, to face trial. He later moved to the capital, Brasília. In April 2002 a Paraguayan judge issued an arrest warrant against him, and asked for Interpol’s assistance in detaining him. But it never happened.
His wife Eligia Mora Delgado died in February. He is survived by two daughters and a son; another son predeceased him.
See our last post on Paraguay.