El Stronato (1954-1989)
By Alessandro C. Demarchi
Paraguay is a landlocked country in the heart of South America, with a considerably smaller population and economy than its neighbors Argentina and Brazil. However, the country is in some ways similar to its northern neighbor Bolivia. Paraguay gained its independence from Spain in 1811. During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the country had six dictators, suffered four civil wars and also fought two wars with its neighbors.
Violence and political instability had always been the norm in Paraguay, but in 1947 the right-wing Colorado Party effectively took full control of the country. General Higinio Morínigo, who had served as President through World War II and the civil war just a few months prior, remained in power. The new ruling party was divided on the vision it had for the future of the political system: the guionistas, led by Natalicio González, wanted to maintain the undemocratic regime that brought to the civil war earlier that year; while the democráticos, led by Federico Chaves, wanted to liberalize Paraguay’s political system.
Morínigo intended to retire and endorsed González’s candidature for the 1948 election. It was agreed that even though he would not seek reelection as President, Morínigo would remain commander-in-chief of the army.
González won the election unopposed, but would only take office in August, when the previous President’s term ended. However, General Morínigo was ousted before then by a group of military officers. The President of the Supreme Court Juan Manuel Frutos went on the serve the remainder of the overthrown leader’s term and then handed the power over to González, who served as President for only six months before being forced into exile by another coup, orchestrated by Chaves.
After the transitional presidencies of Raimundo Rolón and Felipe Molas López, Federico Chaves took power in 1950. The former leader to the reformist faction certainly defied all expectations when he declared a state of siege for the whole country and established a regime just as corrupt and repressive as his predecessors. When he was elected to a second term in 1953, the country was deeply divided: the Colorado Party was once again broken up into factions at odds with each other. The members of the police force, who were part of the President's loyalists, claimed major economic and political advantages, gradually alienating the army and its other supporters within the ruling party. The situation got worse when Chaves refused to follow Epifanio Mendez’s advice to ask Juan Perón’s Argentina for economic aid. Mendez was the president of the Central Bank of Paraguay and was pushing for closer ties with Buenos Aires. Not only did Chaves refuse to abide to Mendez’s request, but he also decided to divert funds from the army to his loyalists in the police. This caused the army’s commander-in-chief, Alfredo Stroessner, to start plotting Chaves’ overthrow with Mendez.
On May 4th 1954 the coup effectively began, with the army’s elite Battalion 40 attacking the police’s headquarters in the capital. In less than three days Chaves was ousted and replaced with an interim President: Tomás Romero, chairman of the Colorado Party.
In the July 1954 election Alfredo Stroessner, the Colorado Party candidate, won 100% of the vote and became the new President.
Given the complicated political circumstances in which Stroessner took over, it would have been fair to believe that he would not last long. On top of that, Paraguay’s socio-economic situation was miserable: a third of the population was illiterate and the top 1% owned almost 90% of the cultivated lands. The country’s inflation rate was high, the regime’s allies controlled a lucrative black market and a fall in exports had hit Paraguay in the previous years.
As soon as he took office, Stroessner reduced export duties, lowered import tariffs and devalued the country’s currency. He also embraced economic austerity to try and improve the country’s deranged finances. The measures adopted by the new government particularly impacted certain members of the armed forces who were used to making small fortunes on the black market they ran, creating a first front of resistance. The President immediately declared a state of siege in the whole country. His Minister of Interior, Edgar Ynsfrán, started assembling military commandos to eliminate the members of the opposition (especially within the Colorado Party).
When Stroessner was reelected to a second term in 1958, his policies were deeply unpopular with the faction of the Colorado Party known as the epifanistas, led by his former ally Epifanio Mendez. Although the President’s austerity measures had improved the country’s economic stability and openness, they had alienated Mendez and his allies. The fracture between the two became so significant that in August 1958 the Paraguayan Workers Confederation (CPT) organized a general strike with the support of the epifanistas. The protesters demanded a 30% increase in their salaries, but after some deliberation Stroessner refused to accommodate the workers’ requests and ordered a massive crackdown on labor unions and marginal opposition movements. The leaders of the CPT and of the Paraguayan Communist Party were immediately arrested.
In 1958 the political failures of the opposition and the harsh crackdown of the regime led some left-wing groups to embrace the use of force to fight the Stroessner. The United National Liberation Front was established in 1960 and conducted guerrilla operations in the jungle near the Argentinian border. The formation of communist-inspired militias greatly alarmed the United States, who had just seen the rise of Fidel Castro a few months before and now were faced with the concrete possibility of Stroessner being ousted by a Cuban-friendly movement. Washington decided to immediately intervene in favor of the government.
From the moment American military aid started pouring into Paraguay, Stroessner became a staunch supporter of the United States: he fully embraced Chiang Kai-shek’s regime as the legitimate ruler of China and offered to send troops to Vietnam to fight beside the Americans. During the period in which Paraguay benefitted from the Alliance for Progress aid program, American funds made up about 40% of the country’s total budget. In exchange for its blind loyalty on the international stage, the government of Asuncion was rewarded with millions of dollars each year and training for its soldiers in U.S. bases in the Panama Canal Zone. Stroessner had daily contacts with Amb. Arthur A. Ageton, Amb. Walter C. Ploeser and Amb. Harry F. Stimpson, who in different moments led the largest American diplomatic delegations in South America.
The benefits of American aid and the success of Stroessner’s austerity measures brought a certain degree of success and appreciation for the regime in the year when the guerrillas broke out. Exports started growing again and inflation fell considerably. The economy, now in good shape, favored free enterprise and was still dominated by the agricultural sector, but was now much more open to international markets. This resulted in the regime’s stability not being compromised as officials in Washington had feared, so Stroessner could now focus on seriously dealing with the rebels in the Paraguayan jungle.
With the help of the United States government and the direct assistance of American military personnel, the regime was able to extinguish the United National Liberation Front in about a decade. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thierry of the U.S. Army helped the Paraguayans set up the prisoner camp of La Technica, where the government’s forces tortured rebel prisoners in compliance with the latest techniques indicated by American experts. The “institutional” faces of La Technica were Pastor Coronel, Director of the Investigations Department, and Alberto Buenaventura, his advisor for the “Politics and Other” division.
During the period of the guerrilla the Stroessner regime heavily relied on the Colorado Party’s armed militia: the py nandí. These armed groups were not part of the army but became famous for their cruelty and their human rights abuses against the left-wing insurgents.
The other major ally of the Stroessner regime was the military junta in Brazil, which came to power in 1964. In 1970 the President of Brazil, General Emílio Médici, ordered the construction of the Itaipu Dam on the Parana River, on the border with Paraguay. The project was entirely funded by the government of Brasilia, but it ended up benefitting both countries. The number of jobs created among Paraguayans was so great that it had a big influence in stimulating the country’s internal demand, helping to expand the agricultural sector as well. Thanks to this land colonization increased drastically in the 1970s and the prices of crops quadrupled in some cases.
The Itaipu Dam and the end of the guerrillas in the country gave the Stroessner regime a further boost: in the early 1970s Paraguay’s annual growth rate was already above 5%, but from when the Dam went into function it increased to well over 10%. The country’s economy kept growing until the Latin American debt crisis, contracting in 1982 and 1983.
Paraguay Annual GDP Growth Rate. From the beginning of the construction of the Itaipu Dam the country' GDP started growing much faster, until the Latin American debt crisis.
In these years Stroessner also took advantage of the favorable economic conditions to attract foreign investments by passing Law 550, which conceded income-tax breaks and duty-free capital imports to multinational companies. Thanks to this new strategy foreign investments in the country increased by 25% in the following years.
By the end of the decade however, Stroessner’s standing started becoming less and less solid. The internal opposition started organizing again, pushing him even further when it came to violence and human rights violations. This caused the Carter administration in Washington to withdraw American aid from the regime and to stop selling weapons to it. The tolerance for Stroessner’s actions started to erode among all his former allies. In 1980, a huge blow for the regime came when former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was assassinated in Asuncion. This was a clear sign that Stroessner was losing the grip on his country and his fate could soon or later follow Somoza’s.
Under the Reagan administration relations with Paraguay were slightly improved and aid was partially reintroduced, but American pressure on the regime remained high. Ambassadors Arthur Davis and Clyde Taylor spoke out against the regime’s violent actions and pushed for a liberalization of the political system. The United States also made accusations against the Paraguayan government’s alleged involvement in drug trade, which caused serious tensions between Washington and Asuncion.
Seeing that the President’s legitimacy in the eyes of the United States was quickly eroding, a group of traditionalist members of the Colorado Party started plotting to replace Stroessner. Fearing a coup in this moment of weakness, the dictator removed all high-ranking officials from their positions and also sought to remove his close confidant Andrés Rodríguez from his privileged government position. Rodríguez resisted this move and, with the support of the traditionalist Colorados and the United States, led a coup between February 2nd and 3rd 1989, which ultimately was successful in ousting Stroessner.
In the years of the Stroessner regime around 4,000 opposition figures were confirmed to have been murdered, while another 500 have disappeared without explanation, perhaps in the cells of La Technica or murdered by the py nandí. During the Stronato period one of the world's forgotten genocides took place: in the early years of the regime, between the 1950s and 1960s, the Achè Indians were exterminated because they refused to leave their lands. This tribe lived in the Alto Parana region, in the eastern part of the country; these regions were rich in natural resources, so many American and European companies had their eyes on them. Stroessner did not hesitate to have the Achès removed by force in order to profit from foreign companies’ presence. The members of the tribes were imprisoned in Indian “reservations”, where beatings and rapes were frequent. Many of them were executed on their land or sold as slaves. The governments of the Unites States, the United Kingdom and West Germany denied that a genocide was taking place in Paraguay, in order to keep Stroessner as a close ally in the region; these brutal facts started being revealed to the world just in the 1970s and the Achès started seeking justice just after the fall of the regime in 1989.
The legacy of Stroessner’s dictatorship is clear: although under his rule Paraguay reached stability in economic terms, with consistent price stability and economic growth, during his 35 years in power he sold out his country to Western companies in exchange for personal gains. He also committed some of South America’s worst human rights violations in the 20th century, ranging from torture of political prisoners to genocide and ethnic cleansing. All of this while the champions for liberty and democracy in the West stood still and did nothing.
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South American tribe sues over historic genocide (2014). Survival International.