Paraguay has been under the thumb of uniformed dictators ever since independence from Spain in 1811. The most notorious military strongman was General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled with a coterie of political cronies for 35 years until 1989.
It was typical of this landlocked country that Stroessner was the last of the old-fashioned Latin American dictators to get the push. Perhaps he survived so long because, despite his Teutonic surname (his grandparents were Bavarian immigrants), he was quite a down-home sort of tyrant. As one leading Paraguayan journalist remarked: 'He's not really German at all. He's just a Paraguayan peasant at heart: devious, calculating and shrewd.'
These qualities stood the general in good stead until just over four years ago, when General Andres Rodriguez, his most trusted lieutenant and commander of the main army garrison, decided the time had come to ease the old man out. Gen Rodriguez, related to Stroessner by marriage, is still in the presidential palace and will stay there, if all goes according to plan, until he hands over to his elected successor in August.
That is a measure of how rapidly the country is changing. Paraguay under Stroessner was rather like a tropical version of Franco's Spain: a closed political circle ran a cosy, protected economy, underpinned by a brutally efficient police apparatus. Gen Rodriguez has surprised many people by dismantling most of the economic controls, and some of the political machinery, to haul Paraguay into line with the liberalising trend sweeping the continent.
An economy based on monopolies, rackets and rake-offs is being opened up to free trade through membership of a common market with Argentina and Brazil. And the eternal domination of the National Republican Association, commonly known as the Colorado party through which Stroessner ruled for eight successive presidential terms, could end today.
If Gen Lino Oviedo permits, that is. He succeeded Gen Rodriguez in command of the First Army Corps, based just outside the capital, Asuncion, and has let it be known that the army and the Colorados will run Paraguay 'for ever'. His troops will not stand idly by if the voters fail to recognise this self-evident truth. It is a salutary reminder that some things do not change that quickly.
The Colorados have long been Paraguay's only effective political organisation. Stroessner turned the party into a patronage machine that pervaded every corner of this predominantly rural country. A membership card was needed for every kind of government job, right down to schoolteacher in some rural backwater of the Guarani-speaking interior. The army was up to its collective neck in this, as well as various smuggling and money-laundering rackets. Command of a garrison, preferably on the border, was a licence to print money; the Scotch whisky concession was a particularly lucrative line.
Stroessner used the Colorado apparatus to have himself re- elected at regular intervals, and even granted a tame opposition one-third of the seats in Congress. It was a highly efficient system while it lasted. And some, such as Gen Oviedo, would like it to go on for ever.
But it will be difficult to turn the clock back. The Colorados are badly split and their lacklustre candidate, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, may be beaten by an independent businessman, Guillermo Caballero Vargas, running on an anti-corruption platform. Wasmosy could even be edged into third place by Domingo Laino, veteran leader of the centre-left Authentic Radical Liberal Party. An encouraging precedent was set a couple of years ago when control of the Asuncion city government was wrested from the Colorados by another independent, Carlos Filizzola, leading a movement called Asuncion for Everyone. Paraguay's riverside capital, 1,000 miles from the sea in the sweltering heart of the continent, could almost have been invented by Graham Greene, who felt very much at home in its seedy but raffishly alluring ambience. Under Stroessner, the entire country was an entrepot, handling everything from illegal arms shipments for Iran to bootleg cigarettes for Brazil with a minimum of fuss and paperwork. It was all business to the general and his associates, who took their cut and kept on the right side of Washington with a Cold War rhetoric that covered a multitude of sins.
Characteristically, the biggest, showiest embassies in Asuncion, apart from the American one, were those of South Africa, Taiwan, Israel, South Korea and Franco's Spain. The general gave shelter to every kind of undesirable, provided they were not communists and could pay: Josef Mengele of Auschwitz was there for a few years, and Martin Bormann may have died in Asuncion in 1959, if recently opened secret police files are credible.
Other low-profile guests of the general included Spanish neo-fascist terrorists, Argentine union enforcers and the would-be assassin of Charles de Gaulle, later immortalised in The Day of the Jackal. The deposed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza, was given a particularly cordial reception, but had outstayed his welcome by the time a bazooka shell, fired by Argentine guerrillas, demolished his armour-plated car in a surburban street.
Paraguay has always liked to go its own way, refusing to be absorbed by overbearing neighbours and resisting fashionable trends. Soon after independence, the first of a long line of eccentric autocrats, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, known as 'El Supremo', had himself declared 'Perpetual Dictator' and shut the country off from the outside world. For 26 years up to 1840 he made a plausible attempt to turn Paraguay into a self-sufficient industrial economy at a time when free trade and the Royal Navy ruled the world.
Dr Francia's successor, Carlos Antonio Lopez, continued the military and manufacturing build- up, opening South America's first railway in 1854 (it still runs wood- burning steam trains) and building a state-owned armaments factory. All this eventually became too much for Paraguay's larger and more powerful neighbours, Argentina and Brazil, which joined forces with Uruguay against Lopez's son and heir, Marshal Francisco Solano Lopez, in the War of the Triple Alliance of 1865-70. Paraguay was finally brought to its knees after a desperate rearguard action, in the course of which the country's population was reduced from 1.3 million to little more than 300,000, most of them women and children. In one of the last engagements, at Acosta Nu, a battalion of small boys wearing long false beards to deceive the enemy, held off the Brazilian imperial army until the last 'man' was cut down.
The army museum in Asuncion has preserved tattered banners from those far-off campaigns, and the defeat at Cerro Cora, when the remnants of the Paraguayan army were overrun and Marshal Solano Lopez was killed on the field of battle, is still regarded as the most glorious page of the nation's history. Many Paraguayans will be hoping that today marks the start of a less militaristic chapter in that history.
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