Alfredo Stroessner; Paraguayan Dictator

Stroessner, with his wife, Eligia Mora, in 1954, ruled Paraguay for 35 years before being exiled to Brazil in 1989. The couple had three children.
Stroessner, with his wife, Eligia Mora, in 1954, ruled Paraguay for 35 years before being exiled to Brazil in 1989. The couple had three children. (Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Alfredo Stroessner, 93, the Paraguayan despot whose 35-year reign marked an uninterrupted period of repression in his country, which became a haven for Nazi war criminals, deposed dictators and smugglers, died Aug. 16 at Hospital Santa Luzia in Brasilia of complications from a hernia operation.

Gen. Stroessner, one of the world's longest-serving non-Communist heads of state, was forced from power in 1989 in a military coup. This led to his exile in Brazil, which did not act on Paraguayan courts' later requests for his extradition on homicide charges.

Gen. Stroessner was a distinguished and ruthless Army officer who in 1954 overthrew the president who appointed him commander of the armed forces. The coup was unremarkable in Paraguay, a landlocked, desperately impoverished country the size of California that had suffered through several wars and had seen nearly two dozen dictators come and go in as many years.

The general brought early stability and foreign investment to the Paraguayan economy. With time, he shrugged off his less savory policies as "the cost of peace" and kept his country in what he called a constant "state of siege" that overruled his democratic constitution.

He was technically the country's president, and he made pretenses to humble servitude, once telling a crowd of international reporters, "In spite of my wishes, the party insisted that I be a candidate."

In reality, he enforced a cult of personality that was unhealthy to challenge. Membership in his Colorado Party was a prerequisite for job promotion, free medical care and other services. Even opposition party members kept pictures of him in prominent rooms of their homes and offices. An entire city bore his name, Puerto Stroessner. A large neon sign blinked in the central plaza of the capital, Asunción, "Stroessner: Peace, Work and Well-being."

"El Excelentisimo," as he sometimes trumpeted himself, was elected every five years with near-universal approval that he took for a clear mandate. However, voting fraud was rife, and he tended to receive overwhelming support from dead constituents.

With a network of informants and the backing of the military, he tortured dissidents, both real and perceived.

A Paraguyan senator, Carlos Levi Rufinelli, a member of the token opposition party, told the New York Times in 1975: "I was a prisoner 19 times, and I was tortured six times. Most of the time, I did not know what they wanted. 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 schoolteacher, Martin Almada, was arrested in 1974 and tortured for 10 days because of his union efforts to increase teacher pay. While he was in prison, his screams were recorded and played over the phone to his wife. She died of a heart attack after the police sent his bloodied clothes to her home and told her to collect his corpse. He was not, in fact, dead and later became one of the country's post-dictatorship human rights champions.

All the while, the country became astoundingly corrupt. Payoffs were essential to all commerce, with much of the swag going to top military officers. Paraguay became a sanctuary for smugglers in arms, drugs and everyday goods such as whiskey and car parts.

In a noxious twist on Latin hospitality, Gen. Stroessner provided refuge for French-born international heroin dealer Auguste Ricord; strongmen such as Argentina's Juan Perón and Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza Debayle (later assassinated in Paraguay); and war criminals, including Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the "Angel of Death" who performed genetic experiments on children.

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