Alfredo Stroessner, 93; Ruled Paraguay for 3 Decades With Repression and Paternalism
Alfredo Stroessner, the former general who ruled Paraguay for nearly 35 years through a combination of paternalistic politics, astute strategic alliances and ruthless repression, died Wednesday in exile in Brazil. He was 93.
The onetime South American strongman had contracted pneumonia after a hernia operation in Brasilia, where he had lived a hermitic existence since being forced from power in 1989.
Stroessner died of a stroke at 11 a.m. at the Hospital Santa Luzia in the Brazilian capital, with family members present. His grandson, Alfredo Dominguez Stroessner, said in a radio interview that Stroessner may be buried in his Paraguayan home town of Encarnacion.
According to a Tuesday report in the daily newspaper Ultima Hora, Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte said he did not intend to officially commemorate the then-impending death of the former leader, who is still widely reviled in his homeland.
Stroessner, whose fierce anti-communist stance aligned him with the regional Cold War aims of the United States, was haunted throughout his rule by charges of flagrant corruption and responsibility for what human rights advocates say were the torture, disappearance and murder of hundreds if not thousands of political opponents.
Many of those alleged crimes were carried out in the 1970s and early ‘80s under the notorious “Operation Condor,” a far-flung strategy by several right-wing South American governments, particularly those in Paraguay, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile and the Argentine junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla. The goal was to crush left-wing opposition throughout the continent.
In a part of the world and an era that gave rise to numerous iron-willed leaders from the right and the left, Stroessner was notable both for the duration and the comprehensiveness of his power.
Working through the ruling Colorado Party, with nothing more than token opposition, he forced military personnel, government employees and other civilian workers to join the party and support him. His name was emblazoned on schools and airports, and he tried to create a cult of personality by ensuring that his portrait graced as many public buildings, businesses and living rooms as possible.
Opponents condemned his dispensing of economic favors to cronies, brutal silencing of dissident voices and fraudulent electoral methods to maintain his decades-long rule.
His country, parodied during Stroessner’s epoch as the epitome of a reflexively authoritarian and self-aggrandizing Latin American dictatorship, also became a haven for Nazi war criminals such as Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz death camp physician who conducted brutal experiments on inmates, and fellow right-wing autocrat Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, who was assassinated while in exile in Paraguay.
Stroessner, who was spared the pressure to account for his past actions by fleeing to Brazil, claimed that his totalitarian grip was necessary to propel his financially backward, impoverished and landlocked country into the modern global economy.
He dismissed his foes as Marxist terrorists intent on thwarting Paraguay’s move from a moribund and disordered economic past to a more stable and prosperous future. Among his regime’s most touted accomplishments was the joint construction with Brazil of the massive $16-billion Itaipu hydroelectric power plant on the Parana River on the border between the two countries.
Yet despite heavy investment in highways, sewers, public water supplies and other basic infrastructure during Stroessner’s tenure, Paraguay remained one of the region’s poorest countries at the time of his ouster in a coup by his former military and political protege, Gen. Andres Rodriguez.
The son of a German immigrant father and a Paraguayan mother, Stroessner was a career military man. He joined the army in his teens and rose swiftly through the ranks while serving in the mutually disastrous Chaco War against Bolivia in the early 1930s. He prepared himself by studying at the Asuncion Military College, which he entered in 1929 at age 16. Showing promise, he was chosen to receive artillery training in Brazil. He completed his education in arms by graduating from Paraguay’s Superior War College.
By 1948 he was a brigadier general, and he later became army chief of staff. As a top military commander, he led the 1954 coup that deposed President Federico Chavez.
During his first three decades in power, Stroessner bought the loyalty of key military officers by appointing them to administer state-run companies, which allowed certain of his favorites to acquire vast personal wealth.
Though he was continually reelected as president, in several cases either the election results were broadly regarded as suspect or he was the only candidate.
As popular unrest over his regime mounted during the mid-1980s, escalating into violent street clashes in the capital, Asuncion, a faction of the Colorado Party began to turn on Stroessner, challenging his previously unfettered authority.
He was further weakened by the continent’s shifting political winds, as Cold War proxy battles waned and nascent democracies began to replace dictatorships in some countries.
Stroessner tried to reassert control by forcing a number of military officers into retirement. But when his former right-hand man Rodriguez led a rebellion in early February 1989 that left hundreds of soldiers and policemen dead, Stroessner surrendered and flew into exile.
He gained political asylum in Brazil, while Rodriguez went on to rule Paraguay until a civilian government was elected in 1993.
The modern Latin American leader whose political longevity has been exceeded only by that of Cuba’s Fidel Castro lived out his final 17 years as a virtual recluse in a lakeside home in a foreign land.