Alfredo Stroessner; Paraguayan Dictator

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.

Gen. Stroessner, an anti-Communist, provided reliable Cold War support to the United States. He offered to contribute troops to the Vietnam War and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. He also actively supported "Operation Condor," the effort among other right-wing Latin American regimes to eliminate alleged leftist political threats. Operation Condor was aided by U.S. intelligence agencies.

At times, U.S. officials spoke out against Gen. Stroessner's more blatant acts of violence against his people -- particularly the indigenous population, which suffered amid land reform policies that favored presidential cronies. But little was done openly to discourage him beyond a drop in financial support.

By the 1980s, former dictatorships such as Chile, Argentina and Brazil began to embrace democratic principles and shed military control. But an aging Gen. Stroessner was unable to change with the region. This accelerated his downfall amid the end of the Cold War, ruinous inflation and a visit by Pope John Paul II that encouraged dissenters and the church to speak out more boldly.

Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda was born Nov. 3, 1912, in Encarnación, a town on Paraguay's southeastern border with Argentina, where his Bavarian-born father started a brewery. His mother came from a wealthy Paraguayan family.

After military school in Asunción, he fought bravely in the Chaco War of the early 1930s. The war, which cost 100,000 Paraguayan lives, was over the arid Chaco region that was erroneously thought to be oil-rich.

Alfredo Stroessner, a husky star of the artillery, finished the war as an officer and was promoted quickly over the next decade. He showed a flair for self-preservation amid the country's wildly unstable politics.

At the time of the Paraguayan civil war of 1947, he was commandant of the country's best artillery regiment.

During a power struggle, he eventually sided with the victorious Federico Chaves of the Colorado Party and was rewarded with the post of commander of the armed forces.

As the economy struggled -- few had drinkable water -- and the military splintered, Gen. Stroessner led a coup against Chaves in May 1954. That August, he ran for the presidency without opposition.

At first, Gen. Stroessner seemed a force for the better. He made economic ties with other countries, paid off his country's debt with international lending institutions and began major infrastructure projects, such as highways, bridges and oil pipelines.

He was pressured by the U.S. government to allow some opposition in the early 1960s, but this was done mostly for show. He also backed away from some early experiments with democratization after student protests over higher trolley fares.

His anti-Communist stance, however, was appreciated by the United States during the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba. He earned a state visit to the United States in 1968.

For much of the 1970s, Paraguay reportedly had one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America. This was largely based on the planned $16 billion Itaipu dam on the border with Brazil, which fostered a boomtown atmosphere. Favored Colorado Party officials made millions of dollars on the contracts associated with the dam's construction, but few average Paraguayans benefited from the dam, which opened in 1985.

By this time, the Carter and Reagan administrations' more outspoken condemnation of Gen. Stroessner's excesses and the Catholic Church's social justice movement turned Paraguay into a pariah state. Apartheid South Africa was among the few countries that remained friendly.

A low point between Paraguay and its old ally, the United States, was the 1987 tear-gassing of an event to honor U.S. Ambassador Clyde D. Taylor, held by the group Women for Democracy.

Gen. Stroessner was overthrown while recuperating from prostate surgery, amid grumblings in the military about a succession plan. His top aide, Gen. Andres Rodriguez, whose daughter had married one of the dictator's sons, led the coup.

Rodriguez tried to arrest Gen. Stroessner at his mistress's home, but Gen. Stroessner discovered the plan and took to his palace in Asunción. About 500 soldiers died before Gen. Stroessner was captured. He was allowed to leave the country soon after, but in more recent years, Paraguayan courts called for his extradition.

Rodriguez, who had once lived in a replica of the palace at Versailles on his $500-a-month salary, surprised many with his reforms over the next several years. Until his death of cancer in 1997, he freed political prisoners, reached rapprochement with the Church, lifted bans on political opposition and allowed more media freedoms.

Eduardo A. Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, said Gen. Stroessner's legacy has continued to influence Paraguayan society.

"It is still evident in terms of the structures he established, the absence of political institutions," Gamarra said. "Constructing stable democratic institutions has been a real challenge. The armed forces have undergone internal disarray, between factions that still see Stroessner as their leader and new ones open to fundamental change."

The human cost of Gen. Stroessner's legacy was captured in secret police records, dubbed "the archives of terror," unearthed in the post-dictatorship years.

Meanwhile, Gen. Stroessner settled at a lakeside home in Brasilia, where he liked to fish.

His wife, a former schoolteacher, Eligia Mora, died early this year. They had three children. He reportedly had 15 other children with assorted mistresses.

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