History of Paraguay

THE STRONATO

The 1954 Coup

Despite his reputation as a democrat, Chaves imposed a state of siege three weeks after he took office, aiming his emergency powers at the supporters of González and ex-President Felipe Molas López. Mounting economic problems immediately confronted the new government. Two decades of extreme political and social unrest-- including depression, war, and civil conflicts--had shattered Paraguay's economy. National and per capita income had fallen sharply, the Central Bank's practice of handing out soft loans to regime cronies was spurring inflation and a black market, and Argentina's economic woes were making themselves felt in Paraguay. Still, Chaves stayed in office without mishap; the country simply needed a rest.

By 1953, however, the seventy-three-year-old president's political support began to erode markedly. His decision to run for reelection disappointed younger men who nursed political ambitions, and rumors that Chaves would strengthen the police at the army's expense disappointed the military. Early in 1954, recently fired Central Bank Director Epifanio Méndez Fleitas joined forces with Stroessner--at that time a general and commander in chief of the armed forces--to oust Chaves. Méndez Fleitas was unpopular with Colorado Party stalwarts and the army, who feared that he was trying to build a following as did his hero, Juan Domingo Perón, Argentina's president from 1946 to 1955. In May 1954, Stroessner ordered his troops into action against the government after Chaves had tried to dismiss one of his subordinates. Fierce resistance by police left almost fifty dead.

As the military "strongman" who made the coup, Stroessner was able to provide many of his supporters with positions in the provisional government. About two months later, a divided Colorado Party nominated Stroessner for president. For many party members, he represented an "interim" choice, as Morínigo had been for the Liberals in 1940. When Stroessner took office on August 15, 1954, few people imagined that this circumspect, unassuming forty-one- year-old commander in chief would be a master politician capable of outmaneuvering and outlasting them all. Nor was it apparent that his period of rule, known as the Stronato, would be longer than that of any other ruler in Paraguayan history.

Consolidation of the Stroessner Regime

The son of an immigrant German brewer and a Paraguayan woman, Stroessner was born in Encarnación in 1912. He joined the army when he was sixteen and entered the triservice military academy, the Francisco López Military College. Like Franco and Estigarribia, Stroessner was a hero of the Chaco War. He had gained a reputation for his bravery and his abilities to learn quickly and to command and inspire loyalty in troops. He was also known to be thorough and to have an unusual capacity for hard work. His extremely accurate political sense failed him only once, when he found himself in 1948 on the wrong side of a failed coup attempt and had to be driven to the Brazilian embassy in the trunk of a car, earning him the nickname "Colonel Trunk." Career considerations and an antipathy for communists possibly caused Stroessner to decide against joining the rebels in 1947. Morínigo found his talents indispensable during the civil war and promoted him rapidly. Because he was one of the few officers who had remained loyal to Morínigo, Stroessner became a formidable player once he entered the higher echelons of the armed forces.

Repression was a key factor in Stroessner's longevity. Stroessner took a hard line from the beginning in his declaration of a state of siege, which he renewed carefully at intervals prescribed by the constitution. Except for a brief period in 1959, Stroessner renewed the state of siege every three months for the interior of the country until 1970 and for Asunción until 1987. He was lucky from the outset; the retirement of González and the death of Molas López had removed two of his most formidable opponents. Another helpful coincidence was the September 1955 Argentine coup that deposed Perón, thus depriving Méndez Fleitas of his main potential source of support. After the coup, Perón fled to Asunción, where his meddling in Paraguayan politics complicated Méndez Fleitas's position further and intensified the political struggle going on behind the scenes. Forced to play his hand after the Argentine junta compelled Perón to depart Asunción for Panama in November, Méndez Fleitas prepared to stage a coup in late December. However, Stroessner purged the military of Méndez Fleitas's supporters and made him go into exile in 1956.

To observers, Stroessner did not seem to be in a particularly strong position. He was hardly in control of the Colorado Party, which was full of competing factions and ambitious politicians, and the army was not a dependable supporter. The economy was in bad shape and deteriorating further. Stroessner's adoption of economic austerity measures proved unpopular with military officers, who had grown used to getting soft loans from the Central Bank; with businessmen, who disliked the severe tightening of credit; and with workers, who went out on strike when they no longer received pay raises. In addition, the new Argentine government, displeased with Stroessner's cordial relations with Perón, canceled a trade agreement.

A 1958 national plebiscite elected Stroessner to a second term, but dissatisfaction with the regime blossomed into a guerrilla insurgency soon afterward. Sponsored by exiled Liberals and Febreristas, small bands of armed men began to slip across the border from Argentina. Venezuela sent large amounts of aid to these groups starting in 1958. The following year, the new Cuban government under Fidel Castro Ruz also provided assistance.

Stroessner's response was to employ the state's virtually unlimited power by giving a free hand to the military and to Minister of Interior Edgar Ynsfrán, who began to harass, terrorize, and occasionally murder family members of the regime's foes. A cycle of terror and counter-terror began to make life in Paraguay precarious.

The guerrillas received little support from Paraguay's conservative peasantry. The Colorado Party's peasant py nandí irregulars ("barefoot ones" in Guaraní), who had a welldeserved reputation for ferocity, often tortured and executed their prisoners. Growing numbers of people were interned in jungle concentration camps. Army troops and police smashed striking labor unions by taking over their organizations and arresting their leaders.

In April 1959, however, Stroessner grudgingly decided to heed the growing call for reform within the army and the Colorado Party. He lifted the state of siege, allowed opposition exiles to return, ended press censorship, freed political prisoners, and promised to rewrite the 1940 constitution. After two months of this democratic "spring," the country was on the verge of chaos. In late May, nearly 100 people were injured when a student riot erupted in downtown Asunción over a bus fare increase. The disturbance inspired the legislature to call for Ynsfrán's resignation. Stroessner responded swiftly by reimposing the state of siege and dissolving the legislature.

An upsurge in guerrilla violence followed, but Stroessner once again parried the blow. Several factors strengthened Stroessner's hand. First, United States military aid was helping enhance the army's skills in counterinsurgency warfare. Second, the many purges of the Colorado Party had removed all opposition factions. In addition, Stroessner's economic policies had boosted exports and investment and reduced inflation, and the right-wing military coups in Brazil in 1964 and Argentina in 1966 also improved the international climate for nondemocratic rule in Paraguay.

Another major factor in Stroessner's favor was a change in attitude among his domestic opposition. Demoralized by years of fruitless struggle and exile, the major opposition groups began to sue for peace. A Liberal Party faction, the Renovation Movement, returned to Paraguay to become the "official" opposition, leaving the remainder of the Liberal Party, which renamed itself the Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical--PLR), in exile. In return for Renovationist participation in the elections of 1963, Stroessner allotted the new party twenty of Congress's sixty seats. Four years later, PLR members also returned to Paraguay and began participating in the electoral process. By this time, the Febreristas, a sad remnant of the once powerful but never terribly coherent revolutionary coalition, posed no threat to Stroessner and were legalized in 1964. The new Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC) also renounced violence as a means of gaining power. The exhaustion of most opposition forces enabled Stroessner to crush the Paraguayan Communist Party (Partido Communista Paraguayo--PCP) by mercilessly persecuting its members and their spouses and to isolate the exiled Colorado epifanistas (followers of Epifanio Méndez Fleitas) and democráticos, who had reorganized themselves as the Popular Colorado Movement (Movimiento Popular Colorado--Mopoco).

Under "liberalization," Ynsfrán, the master of the machinery of terror, began to outlive his usefulness to Stroessner. Ynsfrán opposed political decompression and was unhappy about Stroessner's increasingly clear intention to stay president for life. A May 1966 police corruption scandal gave Stroessner a convenient way to dismiss Ynsfrán in November. In August 1967, a new Constitution created a two-house legislature and formally allowed Stroessner to serve for two more five-year presidential terms.

International Factors and the Economy

During the 1960s and 1970s, the main foreign influences on Paraguay were Brazil and the United States. Both countries aided Paraguay's economic development in ways that enhanced its political stability. A 1956 agreement with Brazil to improve the transport link between the two countries by building roads and a bridge over the Río Paraná broke Paraguay's traditional dependence on Argentine goodwill for the smooth flow of Paraguayan international trade. Brazil's grant of duty-free port facilities on the Atlantic Coast was particularly valuable to Paraguay.

Brazil's financing of the US$19 billion Itaipú Dam on the Río Paraná between Paraguay and Brazil had far-reaching consequences for Paraguay. Paraguay had no means of contributing financially to the construction, but its cooperation--including controversial concessions regarding ownership of the construction site and the rates for which Paraguay agreed to sell its share of the electricity--was essential. Itaipú gave Paraguay's economy a great new source of wealth. The construction produced a tremendous economic boom, as thousands of Paraguayans who had never before held a regular job went to work on the enormous dam. From 1973 (when construction began) until 1982 (when it ended), gross domestic product grew more than 8 percent annually, double the rate for the previous decade and higher than growth rates in most other Latin American countries. Foreign exchange earnings from electricity sales to Brazil soared, and the newly employed Paraguayan workforce stimulated domestic demand, bringing about a rapid expansion in the agricultural sector.

There were, however, several drawbacks to the construction at Itaipú. The prosperity associated with the major boom raised expectations for long-term growth. An economic downturn in the early 1980s caused discontent, which in turn led to demands for reform. Many Paraguayans, no longer content to eke out a living on a few hectares, had to leave the country to look for work. In the early 1980s, some observers estimated that up to 60 percent of Paraguayans were living outside the country. But even those people who were willing to farm a small patch of ground faced a new threat. Itaipú had prompted a tidal wave of Brazilian migration in the eastern border region of Paraguay. By the mid-1980s, observers estimated there were between 300,000 and 350,000 Brazilians in the eastern border region. With Portuguese the dominant language in the areas of heavy Brazilian migration and Brazilian currency circulating as legal tender, the area became closely integrated with Brazil. Further, most of Paraguay's increased wealth wound up in the hands of wealthy supporters of the regime. Landowners faced no meaningful land reform, the regime's control of labor organizers aided businessmen, foreign investors benefited from tax exemptions, and foreign creditors experienced a bonanza from heavy Paraguayan borrowing. Although the poorest Paraguayans were somewhat better off in 1982 than they were in the 1960s, they were worse off relative to other sectors of the population.

Closer relations with Brazil paralleled a decline in relations with Argentina. After Perón's expulsion, Paraguay slipped from the orbit of Buenos Aires as Argentina declined politically and economically. Argentina, alarmed by Itaipú and close cooperation between Brazil and Paraguay, pressed Stroessner to agree to participate in hydroelectric projects at Yacyretá and Corpus. By pitting Argentina against Brazil, Stroessner improved Paraguay's diplomatic and economic autonomy and its economic prospects.

Stroessner also benefited from the 1950s and 1960s Cold War ideology in the United States, which favored authoritarian, anticommunist regimes. Upon reaching Asunción during his 1958 tour of Latin America, Vice President Richard M. Nixon praised Stroessner's Paraguay for opposing communism more strongly than any other nation in the world. The main strategic concern of the United States at that time was to avoid at all costs the emergence in Paraguay of a left-wing regime, which would be ideally situated at the heart of the South American continent to provide a haven for radicals and a base for revolutionary activities around the hemisphere. From 1947 until 1977, the United States supplied about US$750,000 worth of military hardware each year and trained more than 2,000 Paraguayan military officers in counterintelligence and counterinsurgency. In 1977 the United States Congress sharply cut military assistance to Paraguay.

Paraguay regularly voted in favor of United States policies in the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS). Stroessner, probably the United States' most dependable ally in Latin America, once remarked that the United States ambassador was like an extra member of his cabinet. Relations faltered somewhat during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, as United States officials began calling for democracy and land reform and threatened to withhold Alliance for Progress funds (an amount equal to about 40 percent of Paraguay's budget) unless Paraguay made progress. Although pressure of this sort no doubt encouraged Stroessner to legalize some internal opposition parties, it failed to make the Paraguayan ruler become any less a personalist dictator. Regime opponents who agreed to play Stroessner's electoral charade received rewards of privileges and official recognition. Other opponents, however, faced detention and exile. Influenced by Paraguay's support for the United States intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the United States became friendlier to Stroessner in the mid-1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson. New United States-supported military governments in Brazil and Argentina also improved United States-Paraguay ties.

Relations between Paraguay and the United States changed substantially after the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976. The appointment of Robert White as United States ambassador in 1977 and the congressional cut-off of military hardware deliveries in the same year reflected increasing concern about the absence of democracy and the presence of human rights violations in Paraguay

Toward the 1980s

After a period of inactivity, the political opposition became increasingly visible in the late 1970s. In 1977 Domingo Laíno, a PLR congressman during the previous ten years, broke away to form the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico--PLRA). Laíno's charges of government corruption, involvement in narcotics trafficking, human rights violations, and inadequate financial compensation from Brazil under the terms of the Treaty of Itaipú earned him Stroessner's wrath. In 1979 Laíno helped lead the PLRA, the PDC, Mopoco, and the legally recognized Febreristas--the latter angered by the constitutional amendment allowing Stroessner to seek yet another presidential term in 1978-- into the National Accord (Acuerdo Nacional). The National Accord served to coordinate the opposition's political strategy.The victim of countless detentions, torture, and persecution, Laíno was forced into exile in 1982 following the publication of a critical book about ex-Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was assassinated in Asunción in 1980.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church persistently criticized Stroessner's successive extensions of his stay in office and his treatment of political prisoners. The regime responded by closing Roman Catholic publications and newspapers, expelling non-Paraguayan priests, and harassing the church's attempts to organize the rural poor.

The regime also increasingly came under international fire in the 1970s for human rights abuses, including allegations of torture and murder. In 1978 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights convinced an annual meeting of foreign ministers at the OAS to pass a resolution calling on Paraguay to improve its human rights situation. In 1980 the Ninth OAS General Assembly, meeting in La Paz, Bolivia, condemned human rights violations in Paraguay, describing torture and disappearances as "an affront to the hemisphere's conscience." International groups also charged that the military had killed 30 peasants and arrested 300 others after the peasants had protested against encroachments on their land by government officials.

Paraguay entered the 1980s less isolated, rural, and backward than it had traditionally been. Political and social structures remained inflexible, but Paraguayans had changed their world views and their perceptions of themselves.

By skillfully balancing the military and the Colorado Party, Stroessner remained very much in control. Still, he was increasingly being challenged in ways that showed that his control was not complete. For example, in November 1974, police units captured seven guerrillas in a farmhouse outside of Asunción. When the prisoners were interrogated, it became clear that the information possessed by the guerrillas, who had planned to assassinate Stroessner, could have come only from a high Colorado official. With the party hierarchy suddenly under suspicion, Stroessner ordered the arrest and interrogation of over 1,000 senior officials and party members.He also dispatched agents to Argentina and Brazil to kidnap suspects among the exiled Colorados. A massive purge of the party followed. Although the system survived, it was shaken.

Perhaps the clearest example of cracks in Stroessner's regime was the assassination of Somoza. From Stroessner's standpoint, there were ominous similarities between Somoza and himself. Like Stroessner, Somoza had run a regime based on the military and a political party that had been noted for its stability and its apparent imperviousness to change. Somoza also had brought economic progress to the country and had skillfully kept his internal opposition divided for years. Ultimately, however, the carefully controlled changes he had introduced began subtly to undermine the traditional, authoritarian order. As traditional society broke down in Paraguay, observers saw increasing challenges ahead for the Stroessner regime.

Paraguay History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress