General Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay’s long-time dictator, died on August 16 at the age of 93 after almost two decades of exile in Brazil. His thirty-year reign was so repressive that even the selectively principled Reagan administration decided to distance itself from his authoritarian rule.
The U.S. has since rekindled its relations with the struggling republic, currently providing both military assistance and guidance in the democratization process. However, Paraguayans may want to be wary of these handouts. Philanthropy is not the Bush administration’s strong suit and the White House may be acting entirely in its own interests.
Life and Times of a Dictator
Stroessner seized power in 1954, after leading a golpe de estado against President Federico Chávez. His subsequent decades as the perpetual leader of the Asociación Nacional Republicana/Partido Colorado were characterized by massive corruption, endemic human rights abuses and systematic acts of violence against purported “enemies of the state.” Stroessner also provided hospitality to a wide array of former Nazi leaders following World War II, including the concentration camp experimenter Dr. Josef Mengele, whom he personally protected despite repeated international demands that he be extradited to Israel. Stroessner routinely imprisoned scores of Paraguayan political opponents, some of whom later insisted that they had endured unethical medical experiments under Mengele’s jurisdiction. The strongman also was notorious for his role in Operation Condor, a computerized network of intelligence agencies linking Southern Cone right-wing dictatorships via a U.S.-supplied station, whose purpose was to root out and eliminate exiled political dissidents who sought refuge in nearby nations.
Stroessner’s autocratic reign ended in 1989 with a violent golpe instigated by General Andrés Rodriguez, and he was forced to seek haven in Brazil. Since then, bringing Stroessner to justice was a slow and ultimately futile process. His mouthpiece, the ruling Partido Colorado, remained hesitant to reveal any details about the late dictator’s pathological practices. While in exile, Stroessner was careful not to voice any controversial opinions regarding Latin American issues in order not to embarrass his hosts. He also never traveled outside of Brazil, hoping to avoid the fate of his Chilean counterpart Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested on charges of genocide and terrorism while traveling to London in 1998 on medical grounds.
Even after Stroessner fled to Brazil, his all-powerful Coloradistas continued to use the strosnismo - style politics of intimidation until 1993, when democratic elections were finally allowed to take place after a series of student protests gripped the streets of Asunción.
Stroessner’s long-anticipated death elicited mixed reactions from the population. During a legislative session in which a minute of silence was held by a number of members of the Partido Colorado in memory of the former dictator, some opposition leaders stormed out of the chamber in protest. To his credit, current President Nicanor Duarte refused to grant Stroessner a state funeral, with much of the citizenry outraged that the proposal was even on the table. The state of affairs is best summed up by the Paraguayan Bishop of San Juan Bautista de las Misiones, Mario Melanio Medina Salinas, who observed, “The world is a happier place for the death of the bloody dictator. Justice was not served here; I hope God metes it out.”
The Reagan Administration Revokes Its Support
At first, the Reagan administration maintained a problem-free, working relationship with Stroessner. Although Washington was aware of his blatant brutality, the autocrat’s pose as a vehement anti-Communist was sufficient to overrule the type of “boycott” that the previous Carter administration had put in place toward the regime. Therefore the Reagan administration, already quite adept at looking the other way when it came to downgrading human rights factors, initially was able to maintain cordial relations with the regime with a relatively clear conscience.
Over time, Stroessner’s excesses attracted international condemnation, and his regime became preeminently known for its money laundering, contraband and drug dealing, sex offenses and human trafficking. These egregious violations eventually became too blatant for even the Reagan administration to cover up. Since Washington did not have any major political or economic engagements with Asunción at the time, U.S. officials decided to use Paraguay as a test case for the professed integration of the administration’s human rights standards. The hour had arrived to save face, and for the first time Reagan denounced a former Latin American ally as a human rights transgressor. Abandoned by Washington, increasingly demoralized by corruption, and with his once-tight control of the country loosening, it was simply a matter of time before Stroessner would be ousted from power by one of his ambitious palace guards.
A Change of Direction
Although Paraguay experienced some turbulence under the leadership of several lackluster figures after Stroessner fled the country – one example being former President Luis González Macchi who resigned in 2002 following embezzlement charges – successive administrations have shown Paraguay making slow strides towards a more open society. President Duarte, although surrounded by a ‘pink tide’ of leftist countries, has fashioned a traditionally America-friendly foreign policy and enthusiastically has allied himself with the Bush administration, much to the chagrin of fellow MERCOSUR members.
The White House is actively maintaining this valued connection with Duarte. As part of a broad range of activities in the country, the Bush administration has sent USAID personnel to the rural regions of Paraguay to assist with democratization processes. Moreover, Bush has dispatched units from US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to train the Paraguayan military in anti-terrorism tactics, as well as National Guard troops to train and engage in civic action programs. However, even though these policies are meant to project a benevolent tone – characterized more by medical missions than military training exercises – Washington’s underlying strategic interests have still found a way to surface.
USAID Encouraging Democracy in Paraguay
U.S. foreign policy regarding Paraguay is two pronged: first, it is characterized by USAID attempts to implement a democratization process. After decades of tyranny and subsequent instability, Paraguay held its first bona fide election following the Coloradistas’ cessation of power in 1993. Since then, Washington reports that it has improved electoral transparency, modified penal code provisions, and mediated a dialogue between impoverished peasants who have taken up arms and government military units ordered to subdue them. USAID justifies its infiltration of the economically-depressed areas in the country, maintaining that its staff is creating jobs and ensuring higher standards of living for the local peasantry.
Interestingly, USAID is spending more time on preparing its lesson plans than dealing with the red tape that normally accompanies such endeavors. As opposed to other country donors, the U.S. has established a process in which it can sidestep the local bureaucracy and instead go directly to the local communities to develop grass-roots democratization programs. Much of this accommodation may not be merely aimed at expediting democracy; it could equally be aimed at servicing Washington’s security goals for the region. If accurate, U.S. authorities could be eliminating a potential source of populist support for their initiatives.
Terrorism in the Tri-Border Region
The second half of American foreign policy regarding Paraguay encompasses an even more strategic mission. Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este serves as a convenient location to address illegal black market dealings in the tri-border area, where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge. This region features porous boundaries that tolerate a thriving international black market. Rumors abroad liken this region to a terrorist hot spot. This reputation may be partially legitimized by a listing of suspect organizations which have purportedly done business there, such as elements of the Russian and Nigerian mafia, and perhaps most importantly, Hamas, Hizbollah and Al-Qaeda. In an international gray area devoid of any uniform penal code, illicit activities such as arms dealing, drug trafficking and money laundering are alleged to occur quite openly. U.S. officials are especially intrigued by the large Arab population to be found in the area, which they allege raises funds for the benefit of radical Islamic activities throughout the Middle East. In addition to international offenders, Paraguayan military officials also have been known to engage in illegal cross-border activities, such as trading weapons systems and luxury items. This background leaves little question as to why the Bush administration would want to maintain a military presence in Paraguay
American Military Assistance
On May 5, 2005, the Paraguayan Congress approved a measure allowing U.S. Special Forces to conduct a series of 13 military exercises at Mariscal Estigarribia, a military air base built in the 1980s with American assistance. Among other themes, the 13 exercises were to consist of counter-terrorism and domestic peacekeeping exercises— carefully selected choices, considering the alleged threat emanating from the tri-border area and the constant tension between the armed peasants and the military authorities. Confronted by international speculation that the U.S. forces coming into Paraguay to establish a military base would only be the vanguard of a larger future presence, the Bush administration took great pains to differentiate between military aid and an armed deployment. Unsurprisingly, this did little to calm regional fears, due to the increasing U.S. military presence in Paraguay. To express his gratitude for American aid, President Duarte also granted the U.S. soldiers diplomatic immunity while on Paraguayan soil, thus denying the Paraguayan courts the prerogative of hearing any crimes that might be perpetrated by U.S. personnel.
In addition to these exercises, SOUTHCOM personnel stationed in Paraguay are able to penetrate rural communities by providing humanitarian services for the peasant population; upwards of 30 U.S. military medical personnel have traveled to remote areas to oversee health clinics. Some local skeptics contend that these visits are more for reconnaissance than for actual health care, as some personnel have been seen filming the area and collecting data on the peasant populations before departing. Whether these videos are intended for future healthcare workers or for the Paraguayan anti-guerrilla units remains unclear, but the fact that SOUTHCOM’s tactics have left some locals very nervous shows the extent of skepticism towards U.S. military activity in the area.
The End of a Dictatorial Era
In the days following Stroessner’s death, one was reminded of Washington’s traditional proclivity to back authoritarian, conservative leaders who later unmask themselves when they seize absolute power. In Stroessner’s case, the Reagan administration belatedly withdrew its support for the dictator only after it was prepared to acknowledge the extent of the brutality it had condoned for so long.
Years later, after Paraguay’s political instability had reached a boiling point, the U.S. timed its resumption of an active policy toward Asunción when it felt that the Paraguayan civil society was ready to receive lessons in democracy. Presently, the ongoing U.S. military exercises are also providing a modicum of assurance to Duarte, simultaneously keeping the too-close-for-comfort Brazilian military at bay while effectively intimidating the armed peasant groups into submission. This working arrangement between Asunción and Washington could not have come at a more opportune time for both of their basic security self-interests, and promises greater cooperation in the future, to the detriment of many Paraguayan democrats attitudes on the subject.
Ryann Bresnahan and Andres Mantilla are research associates for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, established to encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.