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The son of an immigrant German brewer and a Paraguayan woman, Alfredo Stroessner was born in Encarnación in 1912. He joined the army when he was sixteen and entered the triservice military academy, the Francisco López Military College. Like Franco and Estigarribia, Stroessner was a hero of the Chaco War. He had gained a reputation for his bravery and his abilities to learn quickly and to command and inspire loyalty in troops. He was also known to be thorough and to have an unusual capacity for hard work. His extremely accurate political sense failed him only once, when he found himself in 1948 on the wrong side of a failed coup attempt and had to be driven to the Brazilian embassy in the trunk of a car, earning him the nickname "Colonel Trunk." Career considerations and an antipathy for communists possibly caused Stroessner to decide against joining the rebels in 1947. Morínigo found his talents indispensable during the civil war and promoted him rapidly. Because he was one of the few officers who had remained loyal to Morínigo, Stroessner became a formidable player once he entered the higher echelons of the armed forces.
Repression was a key factor in Stroessner's longevity. Stroessner took a hard line from the beginning in his declaration of a state of siege, which he renewed carefully at intervals prescribed by the constitution. Except for a brief period in 1959, Stroessner renewed the state of siege every three months for the interior of the country until 1970 and for Asunción until 1987. He was lucky from the outset; the retirement of González and the death of Molas López had removed two of his most formidable opponents. Another helpful coincidence was the September 1955 Argentine coup that deposed Perón, thus depriving Méndez Fleitas of his main potential source of support. After the coup, Perón fled to Asunción, where his meddling in Paraguayan politics complicated Méndez Fleitas's position further and intensified the political struggle going on behind the scenes. Forced to play his hand after the Argentine junta compelled Perón to depart Asunción for Panama in November, Méndez Fleitas prepared to stage a coup in late December. However, Stroessner purged the military of Méndez Fleitas's supporters and made him go into exile in 1956.
To observers, Stroessner did not seem to be in a particularly strong position. He was hardly in control of the Colorado Party, which was full of competing factions and ambitious politicians, and the army was not a dependable supporter. The economy was in bad shape and deteriorating further. Stroessner's adoption of economic austerity measures proved unpopular with military officers, who had grown used to getting soft loans from the Central Bank; with businessmen, who disliked the severe tightening of credit; and with workers, who went out on strike when they no longer received pay raises. In addition, the new Argentine government, displeased with Stroessner's cordial relations with Perón, canceled a trade agreement.
A 1958 national plebiscite elected Stroessner to a second term, but dissatisfaction with the regime blossomed into a guerrilla insurgency soon afterward. Sponsored by exiled Liberals and Febreristas, small bands of armed men began to slip across the border from Argentina. Venezuela sent large amounts of aid to these groups starting in 1958. The following year, the new Cuban government under Fidel Castro Ruz also provided assistance.
Stroessner's response was to employ the state's virtually unlimited power by giving a free hand to the military and to Minister of Interior Edgar Ynsfrán, who began to harass, terrorize, and occasionally murder family members of the regime's foes. A cycle of terror and counter-terror began to make life in Paraguay precarious.
The guerrillas received little support from Paraguay's conservative peasantry. The Colorado Party's peasant py nandí irregulars ("barefoot ones" in Guaraní), who had a welldeserved reputation for ferocity, often tortured and executed their prisoners. Growing numbers of people were interned in jungle concentration camps. Army troops and police smashed striking labor unions by taking over their organizations and arresting their leaders.
In April 1959, however, Stroessner grudgingly decided to heed the growing call for reform within the army and the Colorado Party. He lifted the state of siege, allowed opposition exiles to return, ended press censorship, freed political prisoners, and promised to rewrite the 1940 constitution. After two months of this democratic "spring," the country was on the verge of chaos. In late May, nearly 100 people were injured when a student riot erupted in downtown Asunción over a bus fare increase. The disturbance inspired the legislature to call for Ynsfrán's resignation. Stroessner responded swiftly by reimposing the state of siege and dissolving the legislature.
An upsurge in guerrilla violence followed, but Stroessner once again parried the blow. Several factors strengthened Stroessner's hand. First, United States military aid was helping enhance the army's skills in counterinsurgency warfare. Second, the many purges of the Colorado Party had removed all opposition factions. In addition, Stroessner's economic policies had boosted exports and investment and reduced inflation, and the right-wing military coups in Brazil in 1964 and Argentina in 1966 also improved the international climate for nondemocratic rule in Paraguay.
Another major factor in Stroessner's favor was a change in attitude among his domestic opposition. Demoralized by years of fruitless struggle and exile, the major opposition groups began to sue for peace. A Liberal Party faction, the Renovation Movement, returned to Paraguay to become the "official" opposition, leaving the remainder of the Liberal Party, which renamed itself the Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical--PLR), in exile. In return for Renovationist participation in the elections of 1963, Stroessner allotted the new party twenty of Congress's sixty seats. Four years later, PLR members also returned to Paraguay and began participating in the electoral process. By this time, the Febreristas, a sad remnant of the once powerful but never terribly coherent revolutionary coalition, posed no threat to Stroessner and were legalized in 1964. The new Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC) also renounced violence as a means of gaining power. The exhaustion of most opposition forces enabled Stroessner to crush the Paraguayan Communist Party (Partido Communista Paraguayo--PCP) by mercilessly persecuting its members and their spouses and to isolate the exiled Colorado epifanistas (followers of Epifanio Méndez Fleitas) and democráticos, who had reorganized themselves as the Popular Colorado Movement (Movimiento Popular Colorado--Mopoco).
Under "liberalization," Ynsfrán, the master of the machinery of terror, began to outlive his usefulness to Stroessner. Ynsfrán opposed political decompression and was unhappy about Stroessner's increasingly clear intention to stay president for life. A May 1966 police corruption scandal gave Stroessner a convenient way to dismiss Ynsfrán in November. In August 1967, a new Constitution created a two-house legislature and formally allowed Stroessner to serve for two more five-year presidential terms.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress