Today in Latin America, A Review of Stroessner

stroessnerThis month marks two occasions in Paraguay’s history. It was only a few days ago, on February 14, in 1988 (21 years ago) that Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner was re-elected as President of Paraguay. Second, earlier this month, on February 3, 1989 (20 years ago), the military overthrew Stroessner from office, ending his 35 year reign. The following article is in remembrance to his victims, the sham of a republic Paraguay became, and where the country is headed in the future.

(This article comes two days after Hugo Chavez ended term limits in Venezuela, becoming to many a “dictator-for-life. Here, my friends, is a real dictator.)

‘He believed, as most dictators do, that he was absolutely irreplaceable.’

Alfredo Stroessner was born in 1912 in Encarnación, in southeastern Paraguay. His parents were immigrants from Germany. He joined what he felt could be a productive and possibly lucrative career, the military, in 1929.

In a folly rich with irony, the two landlocked, impoverished countries of Paraguay and Bolivia went to war with one another in June of 1932. In one cruel twist, the war was fought for oil along the Gran Chaco, which had none. The other cruel twist involved the two countries fighting for control of the Paraguay River, important to Bolivia after it lost its land on the Pacific after its War of the Pacific with Chile (the war was equally devastating for Peru).

Paraguay “defeated” Bolivia in 1935 (after losing 100,000 men). From this war, Stroessner’s clout grew. He became a lieutenant in 1931. After the battle of Boquerón, he rose steadily to the rank of brigadier and then General, becoming the youngest officer in South America in 1948.

Paraguay became a typical Southern Cone nation following Chaco. It delved into a consummate orgy of political transition, military control, elections and bids for power. According to R. Andrew Nickson,

The period from 1870 to 1936 was marked by a tumultuous series of coups and counter-coups as rival factions within each party fought over the rich pickings to be gained from association with the foreign economic interests which came to dominate the country.

The emergent power in these years became the Colorado party, a remnant of War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70) in which Paraguay was destroyed by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay (hardly a fair fight, even by yesterday’s standards). But unbeknown to Federico Cháves (Colorado president in 1954), General Stroessner had been, for years since he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (at only 38!), accumulating power across vast swaths of Paraguayan elite circles. On May 4, 1954, he deposed Cháves and began one of the longest personal reigns in modern world history.

A Perpetual State of Emergency

In my study of Stroessner, I could not help but think of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (Dr. Francia), “El Supremo” as described by Augusto Roa Bastos in the incredibly under-admired I, the Supreme, which was, for more reasons than one, written under the Stroessner dictatorship. As John T. Deiner explains,

The novel’s El Supremo (Francia) and Stroessner in the twentieth century used similar methods for dominating national politics. Neither tolerated effective opposition. Both rulers were extremely suspicious of any potential opponents, quickly acting to imprison and torture anyone suspected. Both were ruthless in their intolerance of dissent.

Stroessner was, thus, no friend of democracy (unless it electoral in nature). He survived for so long one two means. The first being the ability to subvert the country’s constitutional provisions on reelection twice (1967, 1977). The second, his issuing a state of emergency every ninety days for thirty-five years.

But there was also another factor that aided Stroessner’s rule: the United States. A great many articles have been devoted to this topic, the one that I sought, “From Dictatorship to Democracy: the US and regime change in Paraguay, 1954-1994” by Frank Mora, was quite illuminating. It is often forgotten (on purpose or in ignorance) that the US openly supported Stroessner because of his staunch anticommunism. Yet, it would so be the US that would help lead to his fall.

Internally, politically, Stroessner survived because of his merging of state and politic. He became the de facto head of the Colorado party, using the party as an apparatus for his own ends. Thus, he used the party to create a political machine that would stretch all aspects of government. He would control municipalities, he would permit access to the system. His control was, to the people, bankrupt from day one, but rich to his corporatist mentality, and those who benefited. Although political parties were “openly” admitted after 1962, Stroessner’s control of the electoral system effectively made Paraguay a one-party state.

Covered below, Stroessner is also remembered, as many despots of this time in Latin America, as the man who, to borrow ceaselessly from Eduardo Galeano, ripped open the veins of his country. As discussed below, it is not enough that he improved highways or moderately provided land to workers. The displacement and favoritism towards the military seemed too much at times.

A State Against the People
It should be no surprise that Stroessner’s regime was typified by human rights abuses, economic strangulation, state terror, and was moved in a direction, more than any other Latin American state, wholly against the people.

All of the transgressions discussed above were done under the auspices of elections. During the Cold War, sometimes elections were enough, or all some countries (the United States) looked for when it came providing aid and other material goods. Stroessner was reelected in 1958, 1963, 1968, 1973, 1978, 1983, and 1988 by margins never less than 80 percent. Just like in Iraq and other countries with these numbers, this was a government against the people.

It was an economy against the people. Stroessner inherited a country that was wildly, like much of Latin America, dependent upon natural resources – meat, timber, tobacco, yerba mate. Instead of ripping open Paraguay’s veins, he consolidated (an important term) power within the countrysides and made sure the Colorado Party represented the farmers (he used draconian trade measures, coercion, and collusion with the oligarchy to achieve this dominance). But this changed in the 1970s, twenty years after he gained control.

itaipu-dam-paraguayThen, typical of the time, industry was invited into Paraguay. It began with a project he is most remembered for: building the largest hydroelectric plant in the world in Itaipu. This allowed Paraguay to have one of the highest growth increases in the 1970s (10 percent a year). But what is never mentioned, or worse, downplayed, is the displacement of 80,000 building that dam (reminiscent of India in the 1990s). This devastation was not enough for only won country. In 1983, Stroessner gave it another try in breaking ground on the now-fully operating Yacyretá Dam, spanning the Paraná River between itself and Argentina. It has displaced over 40,000 people to date.

But most importantly, it was a military against the people. The numbers are enough to tell it all. Stroessner spent an average of 33 percent of the budget on the military. Only 15 percent went to education. Only 2 percent to public works (before Itaipu and Yacyretá, but how “public” are they?). At a basic level, Stroessner stood against the people in his unabashed support for the United States – in it’s invasion of the Dominican Republic, in Vietnam (he offered to send troops). He provided safe haven for Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie.

Before he was to strike fear in the heart of the civilian population (discussed below), he was completely against open democracy of any kind. He will be remembered for silencing Senator Carlos Levi Rufinelli, leader of the Liberal Party, through imprisonment (19 times) and torture (6) by only 1975. This repression is evident in a piece by John Vinocur in the New York Times:

A continual state of siege over the entire period that literally places the president above the law; people with occasionally uncontrollable urges to fall into rivers or jump from planes with their arms and legs bound; serenades in front of the presidential palace featuring the ever-popular ‘Forward, My General’ and ‘Congratulations, My Great Friend’; foreign thieves, brutes and madmen hidden at a price; an economy administered so corruptly it is officially explained away as the ‘cost of peace’; a United Nations voting record on so-called key issues more favorable to the United States than any other ‘ally;’ a party newspaper that prints six front-page color pictures of the general every day.

But at a more terrific level, Stroessner openly defied right to human beings to dignity and peace. It wasn’t for nothing that Carter and Reagan refused aid to Paraguay due it’s insistence on human rights as a qualifier for monetary gifts. Like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, and openly murdered its citizens.


Evidence of this became abundant in 1992 when Dr. Martín Almada found what was to be called “The Archives of Terror” in a police station in Asunción. Operation Condor, as it was known, was the systematic deaths of dissidents of all stripes across the Southern Cone of South America, often aided by its neighbors Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. It listed 50,000 murdered; 30,000 disappeared; and over 400,000 imprisoned. (In May 2000, a UNESCO mission visited Asunción following a request from the Paraguayan authorities for help in putting these files on the Memory of the World Register, a step at preserving human memory of atrocities in the hopes of not mistaking our instincts ever again). New archives of terror are still be found in Paraguay to this day.

‘Paraguay became an authoritarian island in a sea of cooperating democracies’
By the time the people (and the United States) decided enough was enough, 75 percent of the Paraguayan population of 3.8 million were born since Stroessner came to power. A life of paternalism is only something the weak are able to live under, at some point, it had to break.

In 1982, similar to the events in Venezuela in 1989 (Caracaza), it all began with the economy. Stroessner built his “reputation” on a fixed exchange rate of 126 guaranis to the dollar, according to R. Andrew Nickson, a rate that was unaltered since 1960. In 1982, this price was abandoned due to sharp deterioration of Paraguay’s balance of payments. Further,

the first open criticism of Stroessner and the beginning of a debate on the succession – both hitherto taboo subjects – can be linked to closely to this devaluation. The rising tide of discontent, fueled by imported inflation following devaluation, gained immediate expression through the political parties of tolerated opposition as well as through social institutions such as the Church, the media, the trade unions and the student movement.

Just like in Haiti and Poland, Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1988 sparked renewed opposition and calls for democracy. That November, 50,000 people marched in opposition to the regime and calling for democracy.

This civilian uprising was compounded by geopolitical events as well. As mentioned above, the United States relatively abandoned Paraguay after Uruguay, Argentina, and even Chile, democratized by the late 1980s. Carter withheld aid, Reagan suspended Paraguay’s preferential treatment on tariff rates. These sorts of dealings often affected the general population. Thus, pagaran justos por pecadores: the just paid for the sinners.

On February 14, 1988 he won his last election. On February 3, 1989, he was ousted, violently, by his former friend Andrés Rodríguez. Cities and airports were renamed, much like in Russia following the collapse of the USSR. He still had supporters to this day who defend his rule – their views expressed in the Colorado politicians following Stroessner.

Stroessner was exiled to Brazil, where he lived for the next seventeen years. In a beautiful twist of fate, the “Museum of Memory,” housed in a former torture prison and devoted to remembering Stroessner’s crimes and the generation of Paraguayans and Latin Americans that were lost, opened the day Stroessner died, in August of 2006. The dawn of a new day…There was no honoring of their late president.

A New Page?
A new page? Hardly. As mentioned before, the Colorado Party effectively became a more nuanced version of Stroessner. More palpable and capable of receiving aid from the United States.

General Rodríguez, who performed the coup, spoke of human rights and democracy but elected himself president of Paraguay until 1993. “What you have is Stroessnerism without Stroessner,” said George Landau, an American ambassador, in 1999. “Not in terms of civil liberties, but in terms of corruption.” This is apposite to our view that Paraguay had yet to move on since Stroessner, until maybe this year.

fernando-lugo1Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay on April 20, 2008 and sworn last August. Lugo came from a family of government dissidents who were persecuted under Stroessner and found his calling in the Catholic Church. He became a priest in 1977 and was ordained a bishop in 1994, receiving Paraguay’s poorest diocese, in the San Pedro department. He resigned this post in 2005, as he felt the need to run for president. His rhetoric is sharply in contrast with the right wing Colorado’s and Stroessner’s ghost.

Without doubt it is possible to resurrect a country like Paraguay. We are people of hope, of faith, and I won’t be the one killing that hope of the people. I do believe we will resurrect this country, a country deeply drowned in misery, poverty and discrimination. Because I do believe Paraguay could be different. I do not lack faith in this flock. Where there is a scream coming from the poor people, where there is sweat, where people are shoeless, we will be there. Because in such people there is a resurrection; if that exists there, then there is resurrection for Paraguay.

Both Lugo and Stroessner are following distinct paths that were never begun in Paraguay – an important designation. For Lugo, it will be actions to back those words above that will set him apart from many years of the same. His recent appointments to his cabinet of indigenous Paraguayans signals a radical shift from the past. In a country that has struggled to flee the storm, it is still looking for a shelter.


~ by Daniel on February 17, 2009.

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