General Alfredo Stroessner

Paraguayan dictator whose 34-year rule left a legacy of authoritarianism and corruption

Thursday 17 August 2006 00:00 BST

Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, military commander and politician: born Encarnación, Paraguay 3 November 1912; President of Paraguay and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces 1954-89; married 1940 Eligia Mora Delgado (two sons, one daughter); died Brasilia 16 August 2006.

Ask most Westerners about the landlocked South American republic of Paraguay, and they may only know it as a haven for ex-Nazis or as the tropical backdrop to the film The Mission and Graham Greene's novel Travels with my Aunt. But for Paraguayans, the second half of the 20th century meant one man: General Alfredo Stroessner. Even after he was ousted in February 1989 after 34 years as president, his hold on the nation's psyche was such that Paraguay is still struggling to escape his legacy of authoritarianism, cronyism and corruption.

Stroessner could lay claim to several records: the longest-serving president of Paraguay; for several years the longest-serving uninterrupted head of state in Latin America in the 20th century (Fidel Castro has now overtaken him); and the longest-serving political leader in the Western hemisphere in the post-war period.

He came to power in a coup in May 1954, and successfully changed the constitution in 1967 and again in 1977 to allow him to serve eight consecutive presidential terms. His 34 years in office were all the more remarkable for his lack of any obvious charisma. He and his speeches always lacked the populist touch. Indeed, unlocking the secret of his unsavoury rule is hampered by the dearth of books about him. A vigorously suppressed domestic press and his propensity to restrict the contents of his rare interviews to platitudes have ensured an air of mystery around his private life and thoughts.

The key to Stroessner's longevity lay in a hybrid form of personalism, neo-Fascism and anti-Communism. The loyalty of his generals was the ultimate guarantor of his rule. But unlike his Latin American counterparts, Stroessner was never a straightforward military dictator. His main pillar of civilian support was the multi-class Colorado party, which in the late 1950s and early 1960s Stroessner turned into his personal propaganda machine and source of mobilisation for electoral support.

Local branches of the party were organised vertically to create a ubiquitous surveillance network which, when necessary, was totally ruthless in crushing opposition to his rule. Informers, known as pyragües or "silent-footed ones", were highly effective in nipping dissidence in the bud. Civil servants, army officers and any Paraguayan wanting to get on in life had little choice but to join the party.

This form of organising the state along Fascist lines some attributed wrongly to his ancestry (he was the son of a German immigrant brewer). Rather, the system came easily to a country locked until the 1970s into a predominately rural economy and long accustomed to forms of feudal clientilism more common in 19th-century Latin America.

Stroessner was always astute enough to hang out the trappings of democracy (parties, elections and a Congress) for foreign, mostly US, consumption. One section of the Liberal party was allowed to stand as token opposition in 1963, and the formula was repeated every five years with Stroessner regularly claiming from 70 to 90 per cent of the vote. Some enthusiastic party officials at times reported a Stroessner victory with more than 100 per cent of the registered vote before the polls had closed. The few opposition figures who did stand were handsomely rewarded for their loyalty to the system.

The US president Jimmy Carter's human rights policy compelled Stroessner to release a number of long-term prisoners, and to change the system to short, sharp detentions. When the Reagan administration (which he regarded as distinctly liberal) attempted to appear even-handed in its treatment of left-wing and right-wing "dictatorships" in order to legitimise its campaign against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Stroessner lifted the state of siege but set about passing equally Draconian laws. But these concessions to international opinion never helped Paraguay escape from a circle of pariah states, such as apartheid South Africa, Taiwan and Pinochet's Chile, Stroessner's closest friends and ideological soul mates. Hundreds of files discovered after Stroessner's departure, known as the "archives of terror", revealed the extensive role Paraguay played in Operation Condor, the repression of left-wing activists across the Southern Cone.

Too easily dismissed as an absurd dictator lifted from a García Márquez novel, Stroessner was in fact a consummate political strategist (he was a keen chess player), able to combine decisive action and masterful inactivity. His political skills were honed in the chaotic years of intrigue, coups and counter-coups from 1947 until 1954 which saw him usually on the winning side. However, on one occasion in 1948 he guessed wrongly and had to suffer the humiliation of escaping to the Brazilian embassy in the boot of a car.

Contrary to popular wisdom, Stroessner himself waited until late in the day of 4 May 1954 to see which way the wind was blowing before throwing his weight behind the coup against Federico Chaves. In the years that followed he adroitly set off different factions of the Colorado party, and then used the army to suppress the popular forces behind the general strike of August 1958. Thereafter, he was always quick to boast that he had brought peace and progress to Paraguay after years of chaos, a view nostalgic Stronistas echo to this day. His proudest achievement was to build several hundred kilometres of roads - apparently, he always knew the exact figure in his head.

Like his friend and fellow dictator, the Nicaraguan Anastasio Somoza (who, much to Stroessner's distress was assassinated on the streets of Asunción in September 1980), Stroessner built up a personality cult. Public works - including an airport and a city - were named after him, and his photo was displayed in every self-protecting home or office. But unlike Somoza, he never made the error of creating too ostentatious a family dynasty. Neither of his two legitimate sons was ever seriously groomed to follow him.

While undoubtedly very rich, he always allowed others to join in the pickings. Paraguay was a smuggler state: a staging post for whisky and cigarettes to Brazil and Argentina, a recipient of thousands of stolen cars from Brazil, and at times a major conduit for narcotics and a source for the illegal trade in rare birds and animal skins. Smuggling was, in Stroessner's words, "the price of peace".

An official audit of 35 former Stroessner officials showed they had amassed personal fortunes of more than US$500m. Most Paraguayans remained locked in poverty. If any army officer ever thought of challenging the status quo, there was always the example of Captain Napoleon Ortigoza who dared to plot against Stroessner in the early 1960s and spent 25 years in prison - mostly in solitary confinement - for a crime he probably never committed.

Eventually, Stroessner lost his touch. A loose group of dissident Colorado party leaders, senior officers upset at the rise of one of his sons within the army ranks, the US administration wanting a peaceful change, and a private sector wanting clearer business rules, joined forces to oust him in February 1989. There was no popular uprising or sustained celebration when he left for Brazil to a quiet lonely, exile. From time to time, a Paraguayan judge would demand his extradition. Very occasionally he would give an interview, expressing his longing to return. The last of Latin America's old-style dictators had outlived his time.

James Painter

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