Born Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, November 3, 1912, in Encarnación, Paraguay; died of a stroke after a hernia operation, August 16, 2006, in Brasilia, Brazil. Dictator. Many South American countries suffered the rule of cruel, vain, corrupt dictators, but none for so long as Paraguay under Alfredo Stroessner. From 1954, when he seized power in a coup, to 1989, when his former right-hand man forced him into exile, Stroessner enforced his absolute power and cult of personality through bribery, fear, and torture. He made Paraguay a safe haven for evil, from smugglers to ex-dictators to Nazi war criminals. When Stroessner died, 17 years after his exile, Paraguay was still scarred by his reign.
Stroessner was born in Encarnación, Paraguay, a small town near the Argentinian border. His father was a brewer who had moved to the country from Germany, and his mother was a wealthy Paraguayan native. He attended military school in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, but left to join the 1932–1935 Chaco War against Bolivia. The pointless war over the Chaco region, a swampland that both countries mistakenly thought held oil and mineral resources, cost 100,000 Paraguayan lives, but Stroessner served with distinction. He went on to train as an artilleryman in Brazil and graduate from his country's Superior War College in 1945.
As Stroessner rose through the military ranks, becoming a general by 1948, Paraguay was going through roughly a military dictator a year. The country had never had a democratic transition of leadership; coups were the typical method of assuming the presidency. Stroessner played the games of shifting power shrewdly, often backing presidents, then betraying them as their fortunes turned. During one power struggle, Stroessner sided with Federico Chaves, a leader of the Colorado Party, and Chaves repaid him by naming him commander of the armed forces. But with Paraguay's economy so weak that most citizens did not have drinkable water, Chaves became unpopular, and Stroessner decided it was his time to move up.
In May of 1954, Stroessner overthrew Chaves. He ran unopposed for president that August, the first of eight elections he won through fraud or by running without opponents. In 1955 and 1956, he beat down attempts to overthrow him, one by the central bank president, the other by an ex-dictator. He solidified his rule by rewarding key army officers with lucrative positions at state-run businesses and spreading around the wealth from a thriving cross-border smuggling trade. Meanwhile, he created a state of abject fear. In 1959, he briefly announced that he would lift the country's 29-year-old "state of siege" and allow civil liberties, but when students held protests over trolley fares, he quickly reversed his decision and had the protesters arrested and tortured. He kept the state of siege in place, renewing it every 90 days, until 1987.
At first, though Paraguayans feared Stroessner, many also respected him as a strong, hard-working leader. The "tall, husky artilleryman proud of his crisp military bearing," (as Diana Jean Schemo of the New York Times described him) often started work at 4:30 a.m. every day, and he expected his ministers to do likewise. He forged new economic ties internationally and worked to modernize the country by building highways and bridges. But he failed to encourage strong economic growth; by the late 1960s, one in four Paraguyans had moved abroad, where it was easier to make a living.
Meanwhile, Stroessner forced Paraguay into a permanent state of Stroessner-worship, extreme even by the standards of the average dictator. He had a giant blinking neon sign erected in Asuncion's central plaza that read "Stroessner: Peace, Work and Well-being." He had an entire city, Puerto Stroessner, named after him, as well as schools and airports. He stopped by the armed forces' general staff headquarters every Thursday in his powder-blue uniform, essentially just to remind them who was boss. Publishing as many copies of Stroessner's picture as possible in newspapers, and displaying his likeness in offices and even private homes, became a key test of loyalty. In 1961, New York Post reporter Joseph P. Lash wrote (as Schemo of the New York Times later quoted him) that Stroessner could be considered a richly operatic character, "were it not for an occasional headless body floating down the Paraná River."
Former dictators and war criminals flocked to Paraguay, where they knew money could buy them refuge. Most infamously, Stroessner extended his country's hospitality to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who had performed ghoulish experiments on inmates, including children, in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He also allowed French heroin dealer Auguste Record and former strongmen Juan Peron of Argentina and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua to settle in Paraguay.
Despite all this, the United States embraced Stroessner as an ally during the 1960s and 1970s because of his opposition to Communism, welcoming him on a state visit in 1968. In the 1970s, after U.S.-backed military dictators seized power in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, the new regimes partnered with Stroessner in the U.S.-supported intelligence effort Operation Condor. Though its stated goal was fighting Communism, in practice it worked to stamp out almost all efforts to re-establish democracy in the participating countries. Government documents that were found in 1992, after Stroessner left office, became known as the Archives of Terror, because they revealed the abuses carried out under Operation Condor and the arrests of thousands of political prisoners.
Though Stroessner allowed some meek opposition in the Paraguyan congress, it was just for show. Senator Carlos Levi Rufinelli, leader of the Liberal Party, which opposed Stroessner's rule, was imprisoned 19 times and tortured six times. "Most of the time I did not know what they wanted," he told the New York Times in 1975 (as quoted by Schemo). "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.'"
In the 1970s, Stroessner managed to stimulate Paraguay's economy by building the enormous, $16 billion Itaipu dam, but most of the contracts went to Colorado Party loyalists, and average Paraguayans did not benefit much. The United States began criticizing Paraguay's human rights record in the late 1970s and 1980s, as did the Catholic Church. The U.S. government became especially displeased in 1987 after an event held by the group Women For Democracy to honor the U.S. ambassador was tear-gassed. Pope John Paul II openly criticized the government during his 1988 visit to Paraguay, and the crowd at one of his rallies chanted, "The dictatorship must fall," according to the Times of London.
Finally, much as Stroessner betrayed the president he had supported, Stroessner was overthrown by one of his top aides. Gen. Andres Rodriguez was once so close to Stroessner that Rodriguez's daughter, Martha, had married Stroessner's son, Alberto—but the younger Alberto, who died in the 1980s, had been a cocaine addict and mistreated Martha. When Rodriguez sensed he was being passed over in the struggle to eventually succeed Stroessner, he plotted a coup. In 1989, while the dictator was recovering from prostate cancer, Rodriguez tried and failed to arrest him at his mistress' home, but finally had him captured at the presidential palace after fighting that killed 500 soldiers.
Stroessner was allowed to leave for exile with a respectful, ceremonious goodbye at the Asuncion airport. He lived in Brazil the rest of his life, at a gated lakeside house in Brasilia and a ranch outside Belo Horizonte. Paraguay elected democratic leadership in 1993, and in 2002, a Paraguyan judge issued an arrest warrant charging Stroessner with homicide, but Brazil refused to extradite him.
Stroessner died on August 16, 2006, in Hospital Santa Luzia in Brasilia, of a stroke after a hernia operation. His wife, Eligia Mora, had died earlier in the year. He is survived by two daughters and a son, according to the Times of London, although the Washington Post noted that he also reportedly fathered 15 illegitimate children with several mistresses.
Los Angeles Times , August 17, 2006, p. B8; New York Times , August 17, 2006, p. A25; Times (London), August 17, 2006, p. 61; Washington Post , August 17, 2006, p. B5.