Stroessner, Alfredo (1912–2006)

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Stroessner, Alfredo (1912–2006)

Alfredo Stroessner (b. 3 November 1912, d. 16 August 2006), president of Paraguay (1954–1989). Alfredo Stroessner ruled Paraguay for thirty-five years, becoming thereby the most durable dictator in Latin America's history. The secret of his success was not to be found in any personal charisma, for he had none, nor in the support of a mass revolutionary movement, because he ruled in favor of the status quo. Nevertheless, he was more than a mere army strongman. Stroessner's longevity in power was due to an extraordinary capacity for work, an attention to detail, and a genius for organization. Behind a dull, plodding appearance he created a system of rule that approached totalitarian thoroughness, reaching into every corner of the republic and tying every significant social group to his political machine.

Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Encarnación, a southern border town on the Paraná River, to a German immigrant father and a Paraguayan mother. In 1929, at the age of sixteen he entered the Military Academy in Asunción. Three years later the Chaco War broke out and, even though his studies were not completed, Stroessner was sent to the front. Decorated for bravery at the battle of Boquerón (1932), he was awarded his commission as a second lieutenant and given an artillery command. He won a second medal after the battle of El Carmen (1934). By the end of the war (1935) he was a first lieutenant.

After the war Stroessner continued to receive favorable notice from his commanding officers, rising to captain in 1936 and major in 1940. In October 1940 he was selected as one of a group of junior officers to go to Brazil for special artillery training. After returning to Paraguay, Stroessner continued to rise in the military hierarchy. President Higínio Morínigo rewarded him for staying loyal during an abortive coup in 1943 by sending him to the Superior War School; upon graduating he was appointed commander of Paraguay's main artillery unit. In 1946 Stroessner was assigned to the army's General Staff Headquarters.

The civil war of 1947 brought Stroessner to real prominence because he was one of the few officers who remained loyal to the government. Morínigo ordered him to use his artillery to smash a revolt by the navy, which had taken over the Asunción shipyards in the name of the rebel cause. Next, Stroessner took command of the southern front and successfully prevented two heavily armed rebel gunboats from ascending the Paraguay River to bombard the capital. When the rebels were finally defeated, in August 1947, he was one of a handful of officers heading a purged and reorganized army.

Post-civil war Paraguay was dominated by the Colorado Party, one of Paraguay's two traditional parties, which had provided mass support for Morínigo. With their rivals eliminated, the Colorados had a clear political field, which they took advantage of by removing Morínigo in 1948 and seizing power for themselves. Soon afterward, however, the Colorados divided into factions whose leaders struggled for the presidency. From the end of the civil war until May 1954, Paraguay had five different presidents. Stroessner was deeply involved in all the plotting. On 25 October 1948 he backed the wrong side in a coup and had to escape the country hidden in the trunk of a car; three months later he slipped back into Paraguay and rallied his artillery regiment to support the winning side in a new coup. After that he rose rapidly to the top, becoming army commander in chief in April 1951. In May 1954 he ousted the Colorados' Federico Chaves, who still headed a faction-ridden administration, and seized the presidency for himself.

Stroessner based his government on two pillars: the army and the Colorado Party. As a much-decorated veteran of two wars he enjoyed great prestige among the soldiers. The few officers who opposed him were soon eliminated, with major purges taking place in February 1955 and June 1959. Those coincided with upheavals inside the Colorado Party, for Stroessner encouraged party bickering that allowed him to play the factions off against each other. By mid-1959 factional purges had eliminated all independent spirits among the Colorados, leaving Stroessner with a docile organization that he could dominate.

The control of a political party with a mass following made Stroessner's right-wing military dictatorship unique. By manipulating party symbols and patronage he was able to generate mass demonstrations in support of his policies. Businessmen, professionals, youth, women, veterans, and peasants were tied to the regime through the Colorados' ancillary organizations, and party cells (seccionales) reached into every village and every city block. Though his economic policies tended to favor large landowners and foreign investors, Stroessner was able to reward his followers through public works projects that generated jobs and contracts. Up to about 1981 steady economic growth and material improvements made the regime popular. Stroessner also permitted widespread smuggling and racketeering among top military and Colorado Party officials, with benefits trickling down through the clientele system. Those who refused to conform, however, such as the opposition Liberal and Febrerista parties and the Catholic church, were ruthlessly persecuted.

Stroessner's regime began to crumble during the 1980s. Inflation became unmanageable, capital dried up for new public works projects, and the emergence of a new middle class—the fruit of previous economic growth—challenged the regime's rigid structure. Above all, Stroessner was aging, and those around him began jockeying over the question of succession. Some of his cabinet ministers and presidential aides, calling themselves "the militants," wanted to name Stroessner's son, Gustavo, as his successor; but opposing them were the Colorado "traditionalists," who saw their chance to regain the party's independence. The feud split the military as well. When Stroessner backed the "militants" and plotted to remove General Andrés Rodríguez as army commander, the latter struck first. During the night of 2 February 1989 Rodrí-guez's tanks forced Stroessner to relinquish power and leave the country for Brazilian exile. After he left office, historians and activists discovered archives with evidence confirming the ways in which the Stroessner regime engaged in torture, kidnappings, and corruption. In 2006, Stroessner died in Brasília. Even though Stroessner still has defenders, the Paraguayan government decisively stated that there would be no official honors for him.

See alsoParaguay, Political Parties: Colorado Party .


Bourne, Richard. Political Leaders of Latin America (1969).

Lewis, Paul H. Paraguay Under Stroessner (1980).

Lewis, Paul H. Socialism, Liberalism, and Dictatorship in Paraguay (1982).

Miranda, Carlos. The Stroessner Era (1990).

Paredes, Roberto. Stroessner y el stronismo. Asunciõn, Paraguay: Servilibro, 2004.

                                      Paul H. Lewis