- (1954–1989)On 5 May 1954 General Alfredo Stroessner seized power in a military coup, ending years of political instability and initiating a personal dictatorship that lasted 35 years. With the support of the Partido Colorado (Red Party) and the military, he won eight rigged elections before being ousted by another general, Andrés Rodríguez. When Stroessner came to power, the country had been under a state of siege since 1947. Except for a few brief periods, he kept the state of siege in force until 1987, renewing it every 90 days. Thus for most of his rule, constitutional guarantees were almost continually suspended. In addition, in 1955 he buttressed the state of siege with the Law for the Defense of Democracy, which, though aimed at combating communism, illegalized any oppositional group or ideology. The result was that the police and the military had unlimited power, and arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, exile, and disappearances were common. Stroessner’s regime was the prototype for other military dictatorships that sprouted up across South America—in Brazil (1964), Bolivia (1971), Uruguay (1973), Chile (1973), and Argentina (1976). Indeed, in 1975 all six countries became charter members of Operation Condor, a secret military network that tracked down one another’s political opponents. Stroessner’s Paraguay was also notorious for sheltering Nazis such as Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” and for granting asylum to the former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.BACKGROUND TO THE “DIRTY WAR”:In its Chaco Wars with Bolivia (1928–1930, 1932–1935), Paraguay emerged victorious but suffered heavy losses. Criticized for its handling of the war, the ruling Partido Liberal (Liberal Party) was ousted on 17 February 1936 by Colonel Rafael Franco in what has become known as the Febrerista (February) Revolution. Franco’s political party, the Febreristas-officially known as the Partido Revolucionario Febrerista (PRF, February Revolutionary Party)—was a heterogeneous group from across the political spectrum, including socialism and nationalism. The Febrerista government, though short-lived, managed to introduce social reforms. It expropriated 200,000 hectares of land, distributing it to 10,000 peasant families; created ministries for agriculture, health, and labor; established a labor code, giving workers the right to strike and to bargain collectively; established an eight-hour workweek; and formed the Confederación Paraguaya de Trabajadores (CPT, Paraguayan Workers’ Confederation).In August 1937 Franco was overthrown in a counterrevolution led by Liberal military officers, and after a two-year interim government, the Liberals put forward as president Marshal José Félix Estigarribia, who had led the country to victory in the Chaco War. A nationalist and a reformer, Estigarribia was obstructed in his political agenda by a Liberal-dominated Congress. In 1940 he closed Congress, appointed younger party members (“New Liberals”) to his cabinet, and wrote a new constitution. Unlike the constitution of 1870, which was laissez-faire, the new one, taking effect in August 1940, was authoritarian. It concentrated power in the president, who would be advised by a Council of State. It also allowed for a unicameral legislature, though the president had enough power to rule as a virtual dictator. Estigarribia, however, would never fulfill his agenda—on 7 September 1940 he died in a mysterious plane crash.Nationalist military officers installed General Higinio Morínigo, Estigarribia’s war minister, as interim president. At first, Morínigo was regarded as easily controlled, and the traditional Liberals were poised for a return to power. But Morínigo soon dashed their hopes, establishing a nonparty military dictatorship. He banned the Liberal party, imprisoned or exiled his opponents, and suppressed trade unions. In addition, like other South American dictators during World War II, he supported the Axis. Still, his regime enjoyed popular support because of wartime prosperity.After the Axis was defeated in 1945, the trend in Latin America was toward democracy, and Morínigo promised political liberalization. He fired pro-Axis military officers and, in 1946, sought political support from a coalition government composed of Febreristas and members of the Partido Colorado. He also scheduled congressional elections for 1947 and proclaimed a general amnesty for exiles. The effort to establish democracy, however, would be undermined by political unrest. The Febreristas clashed with the Colorados, demanding a majority of cabinet seats in the new government. Meanwhile, the Liberals and the Partido Comunista Paraguayo (PCP, Paraguayan Communist Party), under the guise of preparing for the elections, were plotting to take power by force. On 12 January 1947 Morínigo dissolved the coalition government, replacing it with a government composed only of Colorados. The Colorados harassed the opposition, and the Febreristas, the Liberals, and the PCP went underground or fled the country.On 7 March 1947, in an attempted coup, a small group of Febreristas attacked the police station in Asunción. The attack was repelled but ignited a civil war in which the Febreristas, led by Colonel Franco, were joined by Liberals, the PCP, and a majority of military officers. In August the Colorados crushed the rebellion, relying on peasant troops called the py nandí (Guaraní for “barefoot ones”) and on an artillery regiment led by Alfredo Stroessner. The Colorados had also received arms from General Juan Perón’s Argentina. The Colorados, now in control of the government, were split into two factions. Federico Chávez, open to sharing power with other political groups, led the democráticos. Juan Natalicio González, who favored authoritarian rule, led the guionistas, having founded a band of storm troopers called the Guión Rojo (Red Banner). In November 1947, after the Guión Rojo disrupted the Partido Colorado convention, Natalicio González wrested the presidential nomination from Chávez, and in February 1948 he was elected president unopposed. Before he took office in August, however, Felipe Molas López, the leader of a guionista dissident faction, began plotting against him. In June, with the help of Colonel Stroessner and other officers, Molas López deposed Morínigo, Natalicio González’s ally, and in October, again with the help of Stroessner, tried to depose President Natalicio González himself. But this second coup failed, and Stroessner briefly went into exile in Brazil.Natalicio González had only a weak hold on the presidency—the military had forced him to appoint supporters of Molas López to his cabinet. In January 1949 he was ousted in a bloodless coup. The new president, General Raimundo Rolón, was ousted a month later by Molas López, who was supported by the democráticos as well as by Stroessner. In return for their support, President Molas López promoted Stroessner to brigadier general and appointed democráticos to his cabinet. Molas López then plotted to rid his government of the democráticos. But when the conspirators presented the plot to Stroessner, he leaked it to the democráticos, who, in September 1949, arrested the conspirators and forced Molas López to resign. Chávez, the democrático leader, became interim president. He rewarded Stroessner with a number of promotions, naming him, in 1951, commander in chief of the army.Chávez served the remainder of the 1948–1952 presidential term and then, in 1952, was elected to a second term amid the military’s concerns about the state of the economy and about his age—he was 73. The military began plotting, at the center of which was Stroessner. Hearing rumors of a coup, Chávez strengthened the police force and put a loyal Colorado in charge of it. On 4 May 1954 he moved against Stroessner by ordering the arrest of one of the general’s supporters, an army major. Stroessner, declaring the action an insult to the military, demanded that Chávez resign and ordered the army to march on Asunción. The police put up stiff resistance—100 people died and buildings were destroyed—but Chávez resigned on 5 May, and Tomás Romero Pereira, a long-standing Colorado politician, became interim president. Real power, however, belonged to Stroessner, who on 11 July 1954 ran unopposed as the Colorado candidate. He was inaugurated on 15 August 1954.THE “DIRTY WAR” AND THE DICTATORSHIP OF ALFREDO STROESSNER:At first, General Stroessner had only a tenuous hold on the presidency—he was young, 41, and politically inexperienced. But he moved against his opponents, citing the threat of communist subversion. Article 52 of the 1940 constitution allowed the president to declare a state of siege in times of “domestic disturbance or foreign conflict.” A state of siege had been in effect since 1947, but Stroessner bolstered it with the Law for the Defense of Democracy, which was passed by the Chamber of Deputies in October 1955. The law was intended to help the president fight communism. It curtailed the right of communists and their sympathizers to meet, distribute literature, and use the media. Communism, however, was so loosely defined that the law could be used against any party or ideology. Its first use was against the Liberals, who in 1955 were rounded up and imprisoned. The Febreristas would fall victim a year later. Stroessner then proceeded to take full control of the Partido Colorado. Molas López had died in exile in Buenos Aires, and Natalicio González, having returned from exile under an amnesty for Colorados, was made ambassador to Mexico. Stroessner’s chief rival was now Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, a dissident, progressive démocratico, whose followers, the epifanistas, began plotting a coup set for December 1955. Méndez Fleitas enlisted the aid of Edgar Ynsfrán, the new leader of the guionistas. He found Ynsfrán a job in police intelligence, and Ynsfrán kept Stroessner and his followers under surveillance. Ynsfrán, however, suspecting that he would end up on the losing side, shifted his allegiance to Stroessner. Méndez Fleitas was now the one under surveillance. On 20 December 1955 Stroessner scotched the coup, removing disloyal military commanders and arresting dozens of conspirators. During the next four months, he purged epifanistas from the military and the party, and in May he had them arrested. Some, including Méndez Fleitas, were allowed to go into exile; the rest were imprisoned.Stroessner’s position, however, was still insecure. The economy, hit hard by the 1947 civil war, had worsened during the intervening years of political instability. In 1956, in return for emergency aid, Stroessner agreed to an austerity plan drawn up by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a plan that drew complaints from the military and party leadership, the business and farming community, and the trade unions. But any discontent was squelched by Ynsfrán, the new minister of the interior. By the late 1950s, the Stroessner regime also had to contend with guerrilla groups—composed of young exiles—that had formed across the border and that made frequent forays into Paraguay. One group was the Movimiento 14 de Mayo para la Libertad Paraguaya (M-14, 14th of May Movement for Paraguayan Liberty), largely made up of Liberal militants; another was the Vanguardia Febrerista (February Vanguard). Stroessner responded by creating army antiguerrilla units and deploying the py nandí, the Colorado peasant troops. Most captured guerrillas were shot immediately; others, after being tortured.Meanwhile, Ynsfrán and Colonel Ramón Duarte Vera, the police chief, arrested the friends and relatives of exiles. Torture was routine. The various methods included el sargento (the sergeant), or flogging a prisoner with a lead-tipped cat-o’-nine-tails; la pilera (the swimming pool), or plunging a prisoner’s head in a tub of water-sometimes containing excrement—to the point of near suffocation; el murciélago (the bat), or hanging a prisoner upside down by the ankles; el cajón (the crate), or confining a prisoner in a box for an extended period; and applying electric shocks to sensitive parts of the body. Women prisoners were often beaten and sexually abused. Those who died under torture were thrown into the Paraguay or Paraná River; Argentine and Uruguayan newspapers published photographs of bodies that had come ashore in Argentina.At the end of the 1950s, Stroessner faced his last rival in the Partido Colorado—the democráticos. Amid nationwide complaints about the economy and the police-state climate, the democráticos and some military officers pressured Stroessner into changing his policies. On 1 April 1959 he announced the lifting of the state of siege. He promised to end censorship, release all political prisoners, investigate charges of torture by the police, and hold an election for a constitutional convention—an election that would be open to all parties. Opposition leaders returned from exile, but the democratic opening was short-lived. When student protests, encouraged by the opposition, turned violent, Stroessner reimposed the state of siege and closed the Chamber of Deputies. The police arrested the protestors and democráticos. By 4 June 1959, Paraguay had returned to a police state, and Stroessner had taken full control of the Partido Colorado.In 1960 guerrilla operations became more frequent—not only by the M-14 and the Vanguardia Febrerista but also by the communist Frente Unido por la Liberación Nacional (United National Liberation Front, FULNA). The government increased the level of repression. Partly because of U.S. military aid, partly because of its growing experience, the army conducted more effective antiguerrilla operations, and by the end of the year, the guerrilla movement had been largely eliminated.By the mid-1960s, the regime had sought to improve its image. Not only had peace been restored but also the IMF austerity measures had begun to take effect, and a strengthened economy—low inflation and a rise in production and exports—dampened criticism, especially in the business and ranching communities. In addition, the regime could point to a legal, though token, opposition—exiles who had reached an agreement with Stroessner. In 1963 a group of Liberals calling themselves the Renovationists returned from exile and participated in that year’s general elections. They were rewarded with seats in the Chamber of Deputies and with sole ownership of the name Partido Liberal (Liberal Party). They were followed by the Febreristas, legalized in 1964, and then by the traditional Liberals, legalized in 1967 as the Partido Liberal Radical (PLR, Radical Liberal Party). The PCP, however, never received an amnesty from Stroessner, and the Movimiento Popular Colorado (MOPOCO, Popular Colorado Movement), a party composed of exiled epifanistas and democráticos, would not be allowed back until 1984. In 1967 Stroessner promulgated a new constitution. He was then in his third term as president, having been reelected unopposed in 1958 and then with token opposition in 1963—the defeated Liberal Party candidate, Ernesto Gavilán, was named ambassador to England. Although his third term was technically in violation of the 1940 constitution, which allowed presidents to serve only two terms, he argued that his first (1954–1958) was merely the completion of Chávez’s second term. The 1967 constitution allowed him two more terms, and in February 1968 he was reelected with about 70 percent of the vote. The new constitution also reestablished a bicameral legislature—a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies—allotting two-thirds of the seats to the majority (Colorado) party and one-third to the opposition. He was reelected in 1973, and by 1977 he was up against the constitutional limit for reelection, so the Colorados revised the constitution to allow him unlimited terms. Running unopposed or against token opposition, he would be reelected by large margins, in 1978, 1983, and 1988. The last would set in motion events leading to his ouster. In the late 1960s, Stroessner faced opposition from the Paraguayan Catholic Church, which, especially after the historic conference of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, had committed the regional church to social justice. The Catholic University, a private, church-run institution, became a center of resistance, and Jesuit priests began organizing peasants and creating Christian Agrarian Leagues. The military and the police cracked down on the church’s activities. Student demonstrations were violently repressed, priests were arrested and exiled, and in 1969 the Jesuit-run newspaper, Comunidad, was closed. Tensions increased in 1970 when Ismael Rolón, a progressive, became the archbishop of Asunción. To signal his displeasure with the regime, Rolón started the practice of delivering his Christmas message at the cathedral rather than at the traditional site, the presidential palace. In addition, he gave up his right to sit on the state council, a right bestowed by the constitution. Stroessner responded by harassing priests. In February 1971, for example, the police tortured and deported a Uruguayan priest, Uberfil Monzón, alleging that he had connections with the Tupamaro guerrillas of Uruguay. When a Uruguayan bishop, Andrés Rubio García, flew to Paraguay to investigate, he was attacked at the airport by policewomen. Rolón, in turn, excommunicated the minister of the interior, Sabino Montanaro, and the chief of police, Francisco Brítez. It was their second excommunication—the first had been lifted. The government’s prime church targets were the Catholic University and the Christian Agrarian Leagues. The University’s walls were filled with anti-Stroessner graffiti, banners, and posters, and the leagues, which had begun as communal settlements, were becoming more active—occupying churches and seizing private property. On 12 September 1972 the police broke up a protest meeting at the University, clubbing protesters and tearing down posters. In 1975 and 1976 the military and the py nandí destroyed the leagues, rounding up almost 3,000 peasants and holding them in concentration camps. The government then moved against the Jesuits, many of whom, accused of communist subversion, were expelled from the country. In April 1976 10 Jesuits were charged with supporting terrorism and expelled. They were alleged to have ties to the Organización Político Militar (OPM, Political Military Organization), an armed guerrilla group. That month, a shoot-out between the police and the OPM left five police and 30 guerrillas dead. The police then arrested more than 1,500 suspects.When Jimmy Carter became U.S. president in 1977, the United States joined the Catholic Church in criticizing Stroessner, and in 1978 the U.S. State Department described Paraguay as one of the worst human-rights violators in the Western Hemisphere. Although Stroessner expressed disdain for the idea of human rights, calling it a “Trojan horse of international communism,” he gave in to the criticism. He lifted the state of siege across the country except for Asunción, and over the next few years he released all but 20 of more than 1,000 political prisoners. The Carter administration also supported the creation, in February 1979, of the Acuerdo Nacional (National Accord), an agreement reached by four opposition parties: the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA, Authentic Radical Liberal Party), a left-wing splinter from the PLR; the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC, Christian Democratic Party); the Febreristas; and MOPOCO. Only one of the parties, the Febreristas, had legal recognition. Among its demands, the Acuerdo called for an end to political violence, an amnesty for political prisoners, and the establishment of democratic rule.On 17 September 1980 General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the former Nicaraguan dictator who had been granted asylum by Stroessner, was gunned down in Asunción by Argentine guerrillas. Stroessner, doubting his own safety, restored the state of siege. After Ronald Reagan took over the U.S. presidency in January 1981, the United States softened its criticism of Paraguay’s human-rights record, and Stroessner resumed his repression and torture of political opponents. Luis Alfonso Resck, the leader of the PDC, was expelled in June 1981. He was followed by Domingo Laíno, the leader of the PLRA, in December 1982.By the early 1980s, the regime showed signs of weakening. Most of the legal opposition boycotted the 1983 presidential and legislative elections, allowing Stroessner to capture more than 90 percent of the votes. Even the Partido Colorado and the military, the regime’s main supporters, began envisioning a Paraguay without Stroessner. The Colorados divided into the militantes (militants) and the tradicionalistas (traditionalists). The militantes wanted Stroessner’s regime to continue, though with a new leader, such as Mario Abdo Benítez, Stroessner’s private secretary (hence the alternative name for the militantes, the marioabdistas). The tradicionalistas, on the other hand, arguing that the party pre-dated Stroessner, pledged its allegiance not to Stroessner but to the party. Within the military, several names were floated as possible successors, including General Andrés Rodríguez, commander of the First Cavalry Division. The business community, another formerly staunch supporter of the regime, became restless, too. The economic boom of the 1970s had faded, and the Federation of Production, Industry, and Commerce (FEPRINCO) published reports, in 1981 and 1984, criticizing the government’s economic policies.Beginning in the mid-1980s, opposition to the regime gathered momentum. The regime had little international support. Its neighbors Argentina and Brazil had returned to civilian rule, and the Reagan administration, during its second term (1985–1989), relaxed its support and urged Stroessner to move toward democracy. In January 1984, under international pressure, Stroessner finally allowed the leaders of MOPOCO to return from exile. The following month they joined other members of the Acuerdo Nacional in a protest in downtown Asunción, an event that drew 2,000 people. The Acuerdo, now united, staged a prodemocracy rally on 14 May 1985, and then teamed up with the Catholic Church in a call for political liberalization. Social groups began to mobilize, as well. Peasants demanded more land for subsistence agriculture; trade unionists and university students created organizations that paralleled the governmentapproved ones.Despite the internal and international pressure for political liberalization, Stroessner ran for reelection in February 1988 and claimed 89 percent of the vote, though opposition members denounced the election as a fraud. On 3 February 1989 he was ousted in a coup led by his second in command, General Andrés Rodríguez.AFTERMATH OF THE “DIRTY WAR”:After his ouster, Stroessner went into exile in Brazil. Although the Paraguayan courts wanted to try him on charges of homicide—Brazil and Paraguay had an extradition treaty—the new government never brought him to justice or established a truth commission. Nevertheless, the truth began to emerge. In 1991 the Centro de Estudios Paraguayos “Antonio Guasch” (CEPAG), a nongovernmental organization, published El precio de la paz (The Cost of Peace), edited by José María Blanch. It documented Stroessner’s violations of human rights. In 1992 Martín Almada, a Paraguayan educator and torture victim, discovered what has become known as the Archives of Terror, a collection of documents that detailed the workings of Operation Condor. Stroessner never left Brazil out of fear of being arrested, and on 15 August 2006, he died in a hospital in its capital, Brasília.
Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . David Kohut and Olga Vilella. 2010.
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