Alfredo Stroessner, the canny anti-communist general who ruled Paraguay with a blend of force, guile and patronage for 35 years before his ousting in 1989, died in exile today. He was 93.
Stroessner came down with pneumonia after a hernia operation in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, where he had lived in near total isolation during the 17 years since he was forced from power.
He died of a stroke at 11am as his family gathered around him in the Hospital Santa Luzia, said Alfredo Dominguez Stroessner, a grandson of the former dictator, in a radio interview. He said his grandfather left no instructions on his funeral but that the family was considering a burial in Encarnacion, the Paraguayan city where Stroessner was born.
Stroessner seized power in a 1954 coup and governed Paraguay through fraud and repression until February 3, 1989, longer than any other contemporary head of state in the Western Hemisphere at the time. He was finally driven from power by his own generals.
In Paraguay today, many consider him a hated figure, and President Nicanor Duarte told reporters yesterday there were no plans to honour the former leader after his death. But even some of his fiercest critics predicted Stroessner would be remembered for bringing Paraguay into modern times.
Following his ousting, Stroessner was granted political asylum and lived as a recluse in Brazil. Neighbours reported they rarely saw him leave his house along the shores of Lake Paranoa in Brasilia.
Paraguay had for years sought to question Stroessner about “disappearances” during his rule. Human rights activists say Stroessner’s government was a key part of “Operation Condor,” a network of right-wing military governments, secretly supported by US intelligence agencies, that repressed leftist dissidents across South America in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The blond son of a Bavarian immigrant and Paraguayan mother, Stroessner arranged to be elected every five years after he seized power, and while human rights violations increased, his name became synonymous with stability and progress in the landlocked country, which had been noted for stagnation and political turmoil.
Stroessner oversaw Paraguay’s transformation from open sewers and no running water, even in the capital of Asuncion, to a relatively prosperous and modern nation. His public works projects included the huge, 16 billion dollar (£8.4bn) Itaipu dam, built jointly with neighbouring Brazil, which began producing power in early 1985. But most of the wealth did not reach average citizens in the nation of 3.8 million people, and critics accused him repression and corruption.
His influence was everywhere in Paraguay – Stroessner put his name on schools, public buildings and Asuncion’s international airport. An important river port was christened Puerto Stroessner, and while he was in power, a huge neon sign in a central plaza of the capital blinked the message: “Stroessner: Peace, Work and Well-being.”
By the time he had spent three decades in office, most Parguayans had passed their entire lives under Stroessner’s eyes, which stared from portraits on the walls of public offices, shops and living rooms.
But public dissatisfaction with his regime became increasingly evident in the mid-1980s. Protesters and police sometimes fought in the streets of Asuncion, which would have been inconceivable a few years earlier.
The general described virtually all his opponents as Marxist subversives bent on returning the country to political chaos.
A staunch US ally, Stroessner was stung in 1986 when the Reagan administration put his regime on its list of Latin American dictatorships. Among the others was Nicaragua, whose Sandinista rebels had overthrown his friend, President Anastasio Somoza, and assassinated him in Paraguay, where Somoza was living in exile.
A significant segment of the ruling Colorado Party, his main tool of political control, began to accuse him of repression and dictatorial tactics, and prominent Paraguayans were quietly predicting his regime would collapse when Stroessner tried to consolidate his power in late 1988.
He ordered many military officers to retire, and tried to force retirement on a powerful army commander, General Andres Rodriguez, closing the general’s lucrative currency exchange business. Instead, Rodriguez rebelled on February 2, 1988, sending soldiers and tanks to the presidential guard headquarters, where Stroessner had taken refuge. Stroessner surrendered went into exile in Brazil, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Rodriguez became de facto president until hastily called elections converted him into the constitutionally elected head of the government, a position he held until the first civilian government was elected in 1993.
Alfredo Dominguez Stroessner, the former dictator’s grandson, told Paraguay’s Radio Mil from Brasilia today that the family was considering burying the former leader in Encarnacion, the Paraguayan city where Stroessner was born on November 3, 1912.
“My grandfather said nothing about this while he was alive and left no written instructions as to where he wanted to be buried, but he loved Encarnacion very much,” the grandson said.