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Posted August 18, 2006
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Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, Colorful Dictator of Paraguay for 35 Years, Dies in Exile at 93

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Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

In 1973, around the middle of his rule, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, center, visited Francisco Franco in Madrid.


  GEN. Alfredo Stroessner, the former president of Paraguay whose harsh and capricious 35-year hold on power made him South America’s most enduring dictator during the cold war and gave him the aura of a character out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, died yesterday. He was 93.

The cause of death was a stroke, The Associated Press said, citing information from a grandson, Alfredo Domínguez Stroessner.

General Stroessner had lived in Brazil since 1989, moving there after his ouster by his second in command, Gen. Andrés Rodríguez, a relative by marriage.

Formally, General Stroessner was a fugitive from justice, wanted by the Paraguayan courts for trial on charges of homicide. Despite an extradition treaty between Brazil and Paraguay, however, there were never any serious moves to bring the general to justice in his home country, where his cabinet members and associates remained the stewards of government long after his fall.

Under the terms of his asylum in Brazil, General Stroessner was forbidden to get involved in politics, and he unfailingly stuck to his part of the bargain. He and a son, Gustavo Adolfo, split their time between a gated house by the South Lake in Brasília, the capital, and a fazenda, or ranch, outside Belo Horizonte.

General Stroessner, a tall, husky artilleryman proud of his crisp military bearing, seized power in Paraguay in 1954, through a coup. He quickly won American help in establishing his secret police, but hopes that his dictatorship would give way to democracy faded during a string of elections in which he faced token or no opposition and which were generally considered to be fraudulent. During his long rule, Paraguay was the country with the most uneven distribution of land and wealth.

Under General Stroessner, Paraguay’s security forces became so efficient at intimidating potential opposition figures that eventually fear itself — fear of arrest, torture, exile and murder — became one of his prime levers for staying in power.

The country became a haven for Nazis, with new passports and visas sold for a price. Among those sheltered was Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” who selected victims for the gas chambers at Auschwitz and conducted medical experiments on humans. In addition, hundreds of political prisoners and their families were imprisoned at concentration camps like Emboscada, about 20 miles outside the capital city of Asunción, in the 1970’s.

The other keys to General’s Stroessner’s longevity as president were his alliance with the Colorado Party, which remains in power today; his grip on the military; and his skill at exploiting the weaknesses of others. The general also found help in Paraguay’s authoritarian past, which effectively paved the way for dictatorship by one figure or another. “He didn’t break any prior democratic tradition, as existed in other countries,” said Alfredo Boccia Paz, a physician in Asunción who has written several books on the Stroessner era.

Never one for understatement, President Stroessner’s 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, driving home his authority as commander in chief.

One former American ambassador to Paraguay, Robert E. White, remembered General Stroessner as darkly brilliant at profiting from others’ mistakes. Once, Mr. White recalled, the Paraguayan ambassador to Argentina had gambled away the embassy’s entire budget. The ambassador was immediately summoned to Asunción and was handed a confession to sign. General Stroessner then promoted him to foreign minister. “He could never have an independent thought or deed after that,” Mr. White explained.

General Stroessner’s takeover in 1954 put an end to decades of instability, in which presidential faces seemed as fleeting as the pictures on a slot machine. His small landlocked nation had no experience of a democratic transition of power in its 143-year history.

Paraguay was an underpopulated backwater the size of California, with a penchant for wars that would swallow its male population in battles of dubious, if operatic, purpose. Among the worst was a disastrous war Paraguay waged simultaneously against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil from 1865 to 1870, which shrank its population from 525,000 to 221,000 and left the nation with only 28,000 men.

The 1930’s and 40’s were a period of turmoil for Paraguay, which suffered 100,000 dead between 1932 and 1935 in a war with Bolivia over the desolate Chaco region, a swampland that ultimately had none of the mineral resources the two sides imagined were there.

It was in the Chaco War, however, that Alfredo Stroessner distinguished himself and was promoted to second lieutenant of artillery. By the time the war ended, he had been promoted again to first lieutenant.

The son of a German immigrant from Bavaria and his indigenous peasant wife, a member of the majority Guaraní people, Alfredo Stroessner was born Nov. 3, 1912, in Encarnación, on the Argentine border southeast of Asunción. His father, Hugo Stroessner, was an accountant at a brewery. President Stroessner seldom spoke of his parents, and his official biography listed no siblings.

His studies geared young Alfredo for a military life. He completed his basic education in Asunción and in Rio de Janeiro, entering the Asunción Military College in 1929. Before completing his studies there, he joined the war effort against Bolivia. In 1940, he traveled to Brazil for artillery training, and in 1943, Captain Stroessner was honored with a nomination to Paraguay’s Superior War College, graduating in 1945.

He profited well from the power grabs that surrounded him, typically backing and then betraying the presidents he served , according to Paul H. Lewis, author of the 1980 book, “Paraguay Under Stroessner.” He climbed from commander of an artillery regiment to commander in chief of the army in 1951.

Between 1948 and 1954, six presidents of Paraguay were overthrown through military takeovers. After his own successful coup, General Stroessner repelled two efforts to unseat him, one in 1955 by Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, president of the Central Bank, who was a friend of President Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina, and another in November 1956 by Rafael Franco, a former dictator.

In 1959, General Stroessner briefly experimented with lifting a state of siege that had been in force since 1930, and restoring constitutional liberties. But when student protests over trolley fare increases broke out, so did the reflexes of the iron hand. General Stroessner restored the state of siege, and the police put an end to the demonstrations with the wholesale arrest and torture of the protesters.

“Were it not for an occasional headless body floating down the Paraná River, it might be possible to consider the gaudily uniformed and medaled dictator of Paraguay — the last of the breed in South America — a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan,” Joseph P. Lash wrote in The New York Post in 1961.

But General Stroessner surprised the political pundits and held on through seven successive elections marked by rigged voting. In time he became the prototype for a new crop of South American dictators friendly to American interests. Backed by the United States, military rulers later seized power in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia.

Security forces in these countries worked closely together, formalizing their cooperation in a joint intelligence plan called Operation Condor. Though Condor’s official goal was to undercut Marxist or terrorist threats to the dictatorships, in practice it served to uproot almost any political opposition or stirrings for democracy in its member nations.

General Stroessner’s harshest repression occurred in the 1950’s and the 1970’s. Senator Carlos Levi Rufinelli, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, had been imprisoned 19 times and tortured 6 times by 1975. “Most of the time I did not know what they wanted,” he told The New York Times that year. “They did not even know what they wanted. But when they put the needles under your fingernails, you tell them anything. You denounce everybody, and then they say, ‘See, you were lying to us all the time.’"



A president who thirsted for legitimacy even as he relied on fear to stay in power.


President Stroessner enjoyed all the trappings of dictatorship: guaranteed electoral victories, an absence of checks and balances, unremitting public adulation and regular kickbacks. Nonetheless, he bridled at being called a dictator. “So, you have come to see the dictator,” he once told a visiting reporter in the 1960’s. “He was unsmiling, and there was flat sarcasm in his voice,” the reporter noted.

General Stroessner frequently complained that the international news media overlooked the advances he had brought to Paraguay. His most ambitious project was the multibillion-dollar Itaipú Dam, the largest in the world at the time of its construction in the 1970’s. Brazil financed it in exchange for the right to purchase electricity at reduced rates for several years. Throughout his decades in office, he made a practice of personally inaugurating every new school or filtration station that opened and inviting the entire diplomatic corps to watch.

John Vinocur, writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1984, offered this snapshot of Paraguay as its army goose-stepped down the boulevards to celebrate General Stroessner’s 30 years in power: “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.”

George Landau, who preceded Mr. White as the American ambassador, recalled that General Stroessner treated his cabinet roughly. “He was God to them,” Mr. Landau said.

For his part, Mr. Landau described the Paraguay of General Stroessner as “benign, as dictatorships go.” Those arrested, he said, could usually win release if they had friends in the right places. He said that many times, President Stroessner complained that he wanted only to retire to a life of fishing and hunting, but that his country needed him.

“He believed, as most dictators do, that he was absolutely irreplaceable,” Mr. Landau recalled.

President Stroessner got his chance to retire in February 1989, when a military faction led by General Rodríguez seized power in a coup. General Rodríguez, who was nicknamed the Tiger, pounced when he appeared to be losing his standing in the battle for succession after President Stroessner’s death.

Rebel troops attacked the presidential guard and ended the Stroessner era, after one-third of a century, with eight hours of combat that caused numerous casualties. Paraguayans celebrated in the streets as General Rodríguez spoke of democracy and human rights. But he promoted himself to president the day after the coup, and was voted into the job three months later. It was not until 1993 that Paraguayans could elect a civilian president.

President Stroessner did not leave in disgrace, but flew out of Asunción airport after a ceremony that Paraguayans who watched it on television remember as being more suitable for a statesman embarking on an overseas visit than a fleeing dictator.

His ouster came through military jockeying, rather than from a democratic groundswell, and little changed in Paraguay immediately after his departure. Civil liberties eventually returned, but citizens were so disconnected from the political system and so conditioned to fear that they had little to say. The same acceptance of corruption prevailed, and even the faces of the leaders remained the same for several years.

“What you have is Stroessnerism without Stroessner,” Mr. Landau said in an interview in 1999. “Not in terms of civil liberties, but in terms of corruption.”

Once in exile, General Stroessner never traveled openly outside of Brazil, perhaps fearful of sharing the fate of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who traveled to London for medical care and ended up fighting extradition to Spain to face trial for his acts as dictator of Chile.

Mr. Landau said General Stroessner wrote him around 1997, asking for help in securing authorization to visit the United States for a gallbladder operation. The ambassador advised the general to stay away, warning that he could become the target for a lawsuit by Paraguayans. General Stroessner ended up having the operation in São Paulo, Mr. Landau said.

General Stroessner was married to the former Eligia Mora. They had a daughter, Graciela Concepción de Domínguez, and another son, Alfredo, who died in the 1980’s; he had been a cocaine addict who had married General Rodríguez’s daughter Martha and had treated her badly. It was not clear who survived him, other than his grandson.

Martín Almada, a schoolteacher imprisoned during the 1970’s as an “intellectual terrorist,” said General Stroessner’s legacy was “terror and corruption.” Mr. Almada’s wife died at the age of 33 after, he said, security agents played her a tape of his screams under torture.

In 1992, Mr. Almada discovered a trove of government documents that came to be known as the Archives of Terror, which detailed the political arrests of thousands of Paraguayans and unveiled the workings of Operation Condor. “Fear became our second skin,” Mr. Almada said.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New Times, OBITUARIES, of Thursday, August 17, 2006.                                 

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