Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda (1912–2006) was the military dictator of Paraguay from 1954 to 1989. He came to power in a coup d'etat. His name, written in neon, flashed nightly over the Asunción cityscape during his reign, and his face was plastered daily in newspapers and on television. He was known for turning up in his powder blue military uniform every Thursday at the general staff headquarters of the armed forces, to drive home his authority as commander in chief.
He ruled for a grand total of 35 years, the longest ever by a dictator in the history of South America. Stroessner was one of the participants of Operation Condor, a brutal campaign of political repression and state terrorism designed to stamp out (alleged) Soviet influence. What makes him stand out from other Latin American tyrants is how Stroessner provided refuge for dictators and Nazi war criminals such as Argentina's Juan Perón, Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza Debayle (later assassinated in Paraguay) and "The Angel of Death" himself, Josef Mengele.
The Barefoot Revolution was a very short period of Paraguayan civil war, lasting from March to August 1947, but important in that it was the catalyst for Stroessner's rise to the presidency. The 1940s were marked by the rule of Major General Higinio Morínigo, who was appointed by then-President José Félix Estigarribia as Minister of War on May 2, 1940 (in another awful case of character judgement). Estigarribia was killed in an airplane crash on September 7, 1940, and the cabinet selected Morínigo to serve as President for two months until elections could be held. On September 30, the Liberal Party ministers in his cabinet suddenly resigned, leaving Morínigo as the sole figure of government.
Taking advantage, Morínigo postponed the presidential elections for two years, announcing a policy of "disciplina, jerarquía, y orden" (discipline, hierarchy, and order), where those deemed to be subversive were subject to confinement. Morínigo suspended the constitution and banned political parties, prompting immediate resistance in the form of general strikes and student riots; he survived by maintaining the loyalty of the Paraguayan Army, which received 45% of the country's budget. Morínigo organized the Guion Rojo (the "Red Banner") as a state police force to control dissent from the Febreristas and the Liberals, and exiled opposition newspaper publishers. To be fair, he kept his word on the elections - they took place as promised on February 15, 1943. However, Morínigo was the sole candidate on the ballot, which cancels it out rather profoundly.
In 1946, Morínigo legalized political activity and formed a cabinet with the Febrerista Revolutionary Concentration and the Colorado Party. Feeling that Morínigo was favouring the Colorados, the Febreristas resigned from the coalition on January 11, 1947, making common cause with the Liberal Party and the Paraguayan Communist Party. The Paraguayan armed forces split between those who followed Morínigo and those who followed military officer Rafael Franco, the leader of the rebellion. The rebels were backed by most political parties, most of the bankers and administrators, and most of the military officers. Out of eleven army divisions, four joined the rebels—on March 8 the two infantry divisions at Concepcion rebelled, joined by the two Chaco infantry divisions a few days later. On Morínigo's side were the Colorados (the lone political party that sided with his government), the three Asunción divisions (infantry, signalers and engineers), the three cavalry divisions at Campo Grande and the artillery division from Paraguari. Although large sections of the military defected to the rebels, Morínigo regained control of the country by the end of the year, with the assistance of grassroots militias organized by the Colorados.
At this point Stroessner, who commanded the artillery division at Paraguarí, came into play. On April 27, 1947, when the navy joined the rebellion, Stroessner fought the navy off and demolished a working-class rebel area of Asunción (the city that he went to basic and military school in, no less), wiping out two-thirds of the rebel forces. This ensured Morínigo's victory in the civil war, and in the following year Stroessner received the rank of brigadier, becoming the youngest general officer in South America in 1948. Morínigo continued to rule unchallenged until he permitted a presidential election in 1948.
The Governing Board of the Colorado Party (the leaders of the group), dissatisfied with Morínigo, nominated Juan Natalicio González as Morínigo's successor; due to his being the only candidate on the ballot, Natalicio was elected on February 15. Predictably displeased, Morínigo attempted to keep power by threatening a coup d´état, assuming that Stroessner would continue to support him - but with time ticking on the incumbent, Stroessner remained unresponsive to Morínigo's demands. Morínigo's term would have expired on August 15, 1948. Stroessner deposed Morínigo on June 3, about two months ahead of schedule. Supreme Court Chief Justice Juan Manuel Frutos was sworn in as interim President, serving until Natalicio's inauguration on August 15, 1948.
Natalicio, an ardent supporter and member of the Colorado Party, granted several politically powerful positions to representatives of all sections of the Colorado Party, in order to ensure one-party dictatorship. From the start of his term, there were rumors that Natalicio would not finish his term of office due to bad blood between him and the Governing Board of the Colorados. Even after he repelled an attempt at a revolt by dissident Colorados, there was a sense that Natalicio could not hold out for much longer without reconciling with the Governing Board. On January 29th, 1949, Stroessner backed a coup initiated by Felipe Molas López, Federico Chaves and Defense Minister General Raimundo Rolón, who controlled the military forces. Natalicio resigned early in the morning of 30 January; General Rolón took power as chairman of the Governing Board and Natalicio was driven into exile.
A convention of members of the Board of Colorado Party appointed Felipe Molas López as their candidate for the presidency. On April 27, 1949, he became the provisional President, and on May 14 – with the general election done – he took up his official duties. His rule proved short-lived; under the prospect of being thrown out of office by Stroessner, he was forced to resign (September 10), having been accused of failing to fulfill the standards set by Governing Board for him to stay as President. Rolón and the Governing Board selected Foreign Minister Federico Chávez as the new President. Although initially supportive of Chávez, Stroessner balked when Chávez tried to arm the national police, and consequently threw him out of office in a coup d'état on May 4, 1954. Only one life was lost in this coup, that of Roberto Le Petit, a police chief who served as Minister of Agrarian Reform, in charge of redistributing land to the poor.
After the brief interim presidency of Tomás Romero, Stroessner became the head of Paraguay during a special election on July 11, which was meant to complete Chávez's term. He was implausibly re-elected seven more times, in 1958, 1963, 1968, 1973, 1978, 1983 and 1988. Hell, he was the only name on the ballot in 1958, and in the other elections his opposition was lucky to get over 20 percent of the vote. With the backing of the United States of America and wielding the iron fist of his military, Stroessner firmly wrestled control from the Board of Colorados to himself, becoming the dictator of Paraguay.
Although the military and security forces under Stroessner received less material support from the United States than other South American countries, strong inter-military connections existed through military advisers and military training. Between 1962 and 1975, the United States provided $146 million to Paraguay's military government, nearly 400 Paraguayan military personnel were trained by Americans, and Paraguayan officers were trained at the US Army School of the Americas. The Americans helped in establishing his secret police, as well.
Stroessner evolved into a prototype for a new crop of Hispanic dictators friendly to American interests. Backed by the United States, military rulers seized power in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, all of which took part in Operation Condor. Paraguay supported the US invasion of Dominican Republic, even offering to send troops to Vietnam alongside the Americans. Strong Paraguayan-U.S. relations continued until the Carter Administration emphasized a foreign policy that recognized human rights abuses. The Reagan Administration, in one of the only things they did right, boycotted the country after recognizing that Stroessner was politically toxic.
State of siege
An Orwellian term referring to the time Stroessner declared a state of emergency over Paraguay, which allowed him to suspend civil liberties and rule by decree. It was renewed every 90 days until 1987. Here's where the bureaucratic bullshit kicks in. The state of siege was technically restricted to the capital after 1970, but the courts ruled that anyone charged with "security offenses" could be brought to the capital and indicted under the state-of-siege provisions. For all intents and purposes, Stroessner ruled under what amounted to martial law for virtually his entire tenure. He justified this action as a necessary tool to protect the country from communism (sound familiar?)
As the undisputed leader of the Colorado Party, even above the Governing Board, Stroessner exercised nearly complete control over Paraguay's political scene, with the Roman Catholic Church being the only thing he couldn't contain. When the police destroyed the Asunción University in 1972, the Archbishop of Paraguay, Ismael Rolón Silvero, excommunicated the minister of the interior and the chief of police, proscribing the celebration of Holy Mass in a sign of protest against Stroessner. Paraguay's bishops increasingly criticized the regime for human rights abuses, rigged elections, and the country's feudal economy. Such anti-Stroessner sentiment was fueled when Pope John Paul II critiqued Stroessner's policies to his face, particularly when the Pope said that politics are a representation and service to (not against) men.
Although opposition parties were nominally permitted after 1962 (the Colorado Party had been the only legal party in the country since 1947), Paraguay remained a one-party state due to Stroessner's firm grip over the political and military aspects of the nation. Elections were so heavily rigged in favor of the Colorados that the opposition had no realistic chance of winning, and opposition figures were subjected to varying degrees of harassment. Nevertheless, even Stroessner was not able to stop Pope John Paul II from visiting the opposition leaders in an attempt to help anti-Stroessner sentiment.
Stroessner’s security forces became so efficient at intimidating potential opposition figures that fear itself — fear of arrest, torture, exile and murder — became one of his prime levers for staying in power. Hundreds of political prisoners and their families were imprisoned at concentration camps like Emboscada in the 1970s. The chief of the secret police was Pastor Milciades Coronel, a vicious enforcer for Stroessner. He would interview people in a bath of human excrement, or ram electric cattle prods through their rectums. The Secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party was dismembered alive with a chainsaw while Stroessner listened on the phone. People with "occasionally uncontrollable urges" were thrown from planes with their arms and legs bound, and corpses were thrown into rivers.
Under Stroessner, land belonging to the native Aché tribesmen was coveted by foreign multinationals. When the Aché resisted relocation attempts by the Paraguayan army, Stroessner retaliated via massacres and enslavement. The Northern Aché, who lived in 20,000 square kilometers, were confined on two reservations totaling little more than 50 square kilometers of titled land. Several Aché were gathered onto reservations where no adequate medical treatment was provided. This pacification process was designed remove them from their ancestral homeland so that absentee investors (mainly Brazilian) could move in and develop the lands that once belonged only to the Aché. This policy was more in line with ethnic cleansing than genocide, as the point of the policy was not to exterminate the Aché, but to remove them from the land to make way for others to take that land from them.
Stroessner was careful not to draw attention to himself as President, preferring to avoid rallies and take holidays overseas. He became nominally more tolerant of opposition as the years passed, but there was no change in the regime's basic character. Stroessner dedicated large proportions of the Paraguayan national budget to the military and police apparatus, the two fundamental programs essential to the maintenance of the regime. Stroessner spent 33% of the 1962 annual budget on army and police, 15% for education, and 2% for public works, and there was no income tax and public spending was the smallest percentage of GDP in Latin America. Stroessner authorized the construction of the Itaipu Dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border and the Yacyretá Dam on the Paraguay-Argentina Border, which displaced thousands of Paraguayans, pushing them from their homes, often without any restitution. Around 160 workers died in just building the Itaipu Dam, in a very Mao Zedong move. Senator Carlos Levi Rufinelli, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, had been imprisoned 19 times and tortured six times by 1975.
The only positive thing that came of Stroessner's regime were the many projects that improved the country's infrastructure. Amongst these were the improvement of highways and the issuing of 20-hectare land grants to military personnel upon completion of their service, provided that the land would be used for farming purposes. He made a practice of personally inaugurating every new school or filtration station that opened, for no apparent reason other than to waste people's time by taking credit for something that didn't involve him.
In April 1987, Stroessner lifted the state of siege as part of the run-up to elections the following spring, but refrained from removing several of his draconian security laws, so the state of siege was effectively still in place. As had been the case for over three decades, opposition leaders continued to be arbitrarily arrested and opposition meetings and demonstrations were broken up (often brutally), so there was no real change overall.
There are no official figures in Paraguay for the number of people who were killed and/or forcibly disappeared during his dictatorship. According to a report released in August 2008 by the independent Comisión Verdad y Justicia (Truth and Justice Commission), around 400 people were "disappeared" by the dictatorship, at least 59 were the victims of extrajudicial execution, nearly 20,000 were illegally detained and 18,000 were tortured. However, the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos y Asesinados del Paraguay (Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared) claims that in reality an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people were murdered.
Stroessner was a close friend to General Andrés Rodríguez, so close that Rodríguez's daughter married Stroessner's eldest son. Key word: was. The two quickly had a falling out by the time Rodríguez cultivated ties with the "traditionalists", an element of the Colorado party that had come to favor a more humane way of governing. Incensed at the thought of opposition, Stroessner relieved several generals of their commands and replaced them with men thought to be unquestionably loyal to him. Later that month, Stroessner closed all of the country's currency exchanges, his way to strike back at Rodríguez, who ran one of the largest exchange houses in the nation. On February 2, 1989, Stroessner summoned his former ally and gave him an ultimatum: accept appointment as defense minister or retire.
A few hours later, Rodríguez gave his answer: by launching a violent, bloody coup, one that he'd apparently been planning since December 1988. On the night of February 3, rebel troops and tanks surrounded the headquarters of the Presidential Guard in Asunción (where Stroessner had sought refuge), with the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and the United States, the latter of whom no longer valued Stroessner as an ally against international Communism. With this support, the coup quickly succeeded, lasting only eight hours, with Stroessner resigning immediately after the fighting and fleeing into exile a few days later. Rodríguez was much better at civil liberties than his predecessor, having abolished the death penalty, formally ending the state of siege and incarcerating members of Stroessner's government after trying them in court.
Rodríguez legally dissolved Congress under a provision in the 1967 constitution that allowed such an act if he felt it had acted in a manner that distorted the constitutional separation of powers. As part of his decree dissolving the legislature, he announced that all "non-Communist" (meaning, all opposition) parties would be allowed to compete in elections due for that May. A presidential election for the balance of Stroessner's term was also held in May, since the constitution required new elections to fill out the term of a president who resigned less than two years into his term. Rodríguez ran as the Colorado candidate and was elected with 74 percent of the vote, in what was the closest thing the country had seen to a free and fair election up to that time. In 1992, Paraguay adopted a new constitution that limited the presidency to a single five-year term. The term limitation applied to Rodríguez, who promised on his word of honor as a soldier that he would not run for re-election in 1993. True to his word, he signed the new constitution into law on June 22 and resigned as President. He was succeeded by Juan Carlos Wasmosy, who like Rodríguez was a member of the Colorado Party.
As for Stroessner, he had been suffering from pneumonia after undergoing a hernia operation. He tired to return to Paraguay before his death, so he could die in his homeland, but he was rebuked and threatened with arrest by the government. Stroessner died of a stroke on August 16, 2006, in Brasília, at the age of 93. The Paraguayan government preemptively dismissed any suggestions for honoring the late president within Paraguay.