The Stroessner Regime

Paraguay Table of Contents

Although the Colorado Party emerged triumphant from the civil war of 1947, an ongoing struggle among its factions hindered governmental continuity. Between 1948 and 1954, six persons occupied the presidency. Stroessner, who had become commander in chief of the armed forces, was an active participant in the political intrigue of that era and eventually led his troops in a successful coup in May 1954 against President Federico Chaves. Two months later, Stroessner was selected as a compromise candidate by the Colorados, who considered his presidency only a temporary interlude, and he ran in elections from which other parties were excluded. Relying on his control of the armed forces, and with considerable shrewdness and the constant work for which he was famous, Stroessner gained control over the factions of the Colorados and subordinated the party to his interests. By 1967 all within the party had become supporters of Stroessner. In addition to the control of the government itself, the major institutional bases of his rule, and thus of the Paraguayan political system, were the armed forces--including the national police, a paramilitary force that was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior but was headed by army officers--and the Colorado Party.

The Armed Forces

Historically in Paraguay, as in virtually all Latin American republics, no president has been able to remain in power without the support of the armed forces. Between 1936 and 1954, the army was the instrument for every change of government. Stroessner brought the armed forces under control, thereby reinforcing his rule, yet he also skillfully counterbalanced the armed forces with the Colorado Party.

In the late 1980s, the armed forces and the Roman Catholic Church were the only national institutions that had maintained continuity since independence. Because of the violent upheavals that characterized its history, Paraguay had the most uncompromisingly martial history of any country in Latin America. It resisted the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay for almost five years and collapsed only when more than one-half of its total population and almost all of its men had been killed. During the 1932-35 Chaco War, Paraguay took on a country having three times its human resources and many times its economic resources. Paraguay won a resounding military victory but at the cost of 8 percent of its total male population and subsequent economic ruin. This violent history hindered the development of a genuine aristocracy, thus allowing the officer corps to emerge as a social and, to a large extent, an economic elite.

In addition to his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces, Stroessner retained his position as commander in chief of the army. A professional soldier recognized for outstanding service during the Chaco War, Stroessner took his duties as armed forces commander particularly seriously. He devoted one day a week exclusively to military matters at the headquarters of the general staff and made frequent visits to military commands throughout the country. Stroessner personally determined all promotions and transfers, from lieutenant to chief of staff. His long and intense involvement with the armed forces, combined with the small size of the country and the armed forces, made it possible for him to know intimately the officer corps.

Stroessner's control was also enhanced by the senior structure of the armed forces. The chief of staff, an army general, formally commanded all the troops in the name of the president and was directly subordinate to Stroessner. In fact, the chief of staff's position was actually that of a liaison officer. The minister of national defense was not in the direct chain of command and dealt mainly with administrative matters, including budgets, supplies, and the military tribunals.

Through his domination over the appointment and budgetary processes of the armed forces, Stroessner sought to prevent the emergence of an independent profile within the military. Public pronouncements of the armed forces were generally limited to pledges of unwavering support for the president and commitments to fight international communism. High-ranking officers did express their concerns regarding the divisions that emerged within the Colorado Party in the mid-1980s over the issue of presidential succession; nevertheless, these officers all called on Stroessner to seek another term in 1988.

Adrian J. English, an expert on Latin American militaries, concluded that the organization of the Paraguayan army appeared to be based more on political than military considerations. Stroessner ensured the loyalty of the officer corps by offering them well-paid positions and extensive benefits, such as family allowances, health care, pensions, and loans. Many officers also acquired wealth through control of state enterprises, such as public utilities, ports, transportation, meat packing, and alcohol distribution. Substantial information also linked elements in the military to smuggling and drug trafficking.

The Colorado Party

Two conflicting political movements--the Colorado Party and the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal--PL)--emerged following the departure of Argentine and Brazilian forces in 1876. The Colorados dominated politics between 1876 and 1904, whereas the Liberals governed between 1904 and 1940. Following the dictatorship of Morínigo and the resulting civil war, the divided Colorados returned to power in 1948.

Upon assuming office in 1954, Stroessner turned the Colorado Party into a key element of his rule. Unusual in the Latin American context, the party was a highly organized, omnipresent, and important instrument for the control of society and the functioning of government. The Colorado Party served the interests of the Stroessner regime in a number of ways. First, the party sponsored numerous rallies and demonstrations, thereby promoting identification of the population with the regime. Speakers at such rallies generally employed the language of nationalism, a particularly important theme in a small, landlocked country surrounded by more powerful neighbors. Second, the party mobilized electoral support for government-sponsored candidates. Third, the extensive party media, including the daily newspaper Patria and the radio program "La Voz del Coloradismo," promoted the government's view of national and international events. In addition, the party employed its ancillary organizations, which included professional associations, veterans' groups, women's federations, peasants' groups, cultural societies, and students' clubs, to maintain contact with virtually all sectors in the country.

The Colorado Party's control of jobs in the public and semipublic sectors, a particularly important situation in an underdeveloped country short of opportunities in the private sector, also enabled it to co-opt all potentially significant elements into the regime. Party membership was considered necessary for success. Civilian employees of the central and local governments, including teachers and workers in state hospitals, were recruited from within the ranks of the party, and party dues were deducted from their salaries. Officers in the armed forces also were obliged to join the party; indeed, admission to the officer corps was restricted to children of Colorados. In the late 1980s, the party claimed a membership of 1.4 million, or approximately 35 percent of the total population.

Colorado local committees (seccionales) were found in every community, dispensing jobs and favors to party members. These committees, of which there were 243 in 1988 (including 26 in Asunción), met at least once a week and had executive committees of 9 members and 6 alternates who served 3-year terms of office. The local committees, which also had more specialized units for laborers, peasants, youth, and women, served as the party base and collected intelligence. The party also had a rural militia, the py nandí, or "barefoot ones," which was estimated to number 15,000. The py nandí were especially active in the 1960s in pursuing guerrilla bands.

In theory, the highest body in the Colorado Party was the National Convention, which convened regularly every three years or could be convoked more frequently in the case of crises or to nominate slates for elections. The party was actually run, however, by the National Committee of the Colorado Party (Junta de Gobierno), which consisted of thirty-five members and sixteen alternates elected at the National Convention. The National Committee maintained contact with the party's ancillary organizations and supervised the local committees. The committee also elected its own executive consisting of a president, three vice presidents, and other officials. The National Committee president set the party's agenda, chaired executive meetings, presented the budget, called emergency sessions, and represented the party before the government or other organizations.

Given the importance of the Colorado Party in defending the Stroessner regime, the National Committee attempted to avoid at all costs the emergence of contested leadership lists in local committees. When such lists did appear in the mid-1980s, however, they ironically reflected cracks that had developed within the National Committee itself. The committee split into two main camps: militants (militantes) and traditionalists (tradicionalistas). Militants, also known as Stronistas, favored Stroessner's regime and wanted little or no change. They generally felt more loyalty to Stroessner personally than to the party. Their leaders included those who particularly benefited from the system and perceived it as good for themselves and the country. Traditionalists favored a transition to a less authoritarian regime. They believed Paraguay was moving toward a more open system and wanted the party to play a role in the process. Traditionalists stressed the original content of Colorado ideology and further emphasized democracy and social justice. Many of their leaders were from families who had played a major role in the party since the 1940s.

Both militants and traditionalists were subdivided into several factions. Militants broke into two camps: the orthodox (ortodoxo) and institutionalists (institucionalistas). The orthodox favored having Stroessner remain in power until he died, after which his son, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Gustavo Stroessner Mora, would succeed. The institutionalists were somewhat more pragmatic. One well-known advocate of this position, the minister of public health and social welfare, Adán Godoy Jiménez, proposed that Stroessner stay in power until he died or resigned, at which time a civilian or military figure with the same orientation would assume power.

Traditionalists were even more fragmented than were militants. The traditionalist group closest to the regime, at least prior to the rupture of 1987, was led by Juan Ramón Chaves, the octogenarian president of the party for twenty-five years and president of the Senate, who symbolized the link to the pre-Stroessner period. The ethicals (éticos) coalesced around National Committee member Carlos Romero Arza, the son of Tomás Romero Pereira, architect of the party's alliance with Stroessner in 1954. In a September 1985 speech, Romero Arza called attention to the lack of political ethics in the party. He denounced corruption and bad management, blaming opportunists who had joined the party during the Stroessner regime as a way to enrich themselves. Romero Arza urged a return to the traditional values that inspired previous Colorado governments and called for a political dialogue between the party and the political opposition.

Two additional factions formed in 1987. One--the Movement for Colorado Integration (Movimiento de Integración Colorado--MIC), also called the Group of Thirty-four--was composed of longstanding Colorados who had retired from public life. Led by Edgar L. Ynsfrán, a former minister of interior, the MIC advocated a reassertion of the authority of the National Committee and a restructuring of the party to confront the opposition in a more open system. Another faction--the National and Popular Movement (Movimiento Nacional y Popular)--was led by congressman and Colorado intellectual Leandro Prieto Yegros and proposed to act as a bridge between the traditionalists and the militants.

Colorado Party factionalism broke into public prominence following elections in late 1984 for members of the National Committee. Mario Abdo Benítez, a militant and Stroessner's private secretary for twenty years, had expected to be elected the first vice president in recognition of his support of the Stronato. After Abdo Benítez was unexpectedly defeated at the National Convention, his followers carried on their fight at the local committee level. Conflicts became public in some towns, with rival groups of Colorados accusing each other of rigging the party elections and appealing for support from different members in the National Committee.

The conflict took a dramatic turn in early 1986 when the ethicals publicly opposed Stroessner's bid for yet another term of office and openly called for a civilian Colorado Party candidate in the 1988 elections. They were later joined by the MIC in this appeal. This action represented the first time since 1959 that an organized sector of the party openly opposed Stroessner. In April 1986, Stroessner acknowledged the divisions in the party and denounced the ethicals and the MIC as "deserters." In retaliation for the ethicals' stance, Stroessner fired Romero Arza from his position at the National Development Bank and forced him to resign from the Council of State. Those around him became politically isolated and had to stand on the sidelines at the regular National Convention in August 1987.

In May 1987, the militants presented their slate of four candidates for the presidency and three vice presidencies of the National Committee. The slate was headed by Sabino Augusto Montanaro, minister of interior since 1968, and also included Benítez, Godoy, and José Eugenio Jacquet, minister of justice and labor. In 1976 Montanaro had been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for allowing the police to torture church workers who were involved in rural protests. Although the militants had captured control of a majority of the local committees and thus appeared headed for a solid victory at the National Convention, Montanaro decided to leave nothing to chance. A few hours before the convention was to begin, the police arrived at the building where it was to be held and restricted access to the militants and those from the National and Popular Movement, who by then had endorsed the militants' slate. Although Chaves, who was still the party's president and was the nominee of the traditionalists, declared the proceedings invalid, the militants went ahead with the convention and captured the four leadership posts and all other seats on the National Committee. Within two weeks, Stroessner had endorsed the militants' victory and claimed that it was a legitimate expression of the Colorado majority.

The militants' victory at the National Convention was repeated in November 1987, when the party held a nominating convention for the presidential and congressional election scheduled for February 1988. The 874 militant delegates unanimously chose Stroessner to be the Colorado Party standard-bearer and drew up a slate of congressional candidates that excluded traditionalists. These victories were achieved, however, at the cost of aggravated divisions in the party, itself a key component of the regime's infrastructure.

By mid-1988 Stroessner had given no indication of choosing a likely successor. Observers assumed that the party, in conjunction with the armed forces, would play a vital role in the succession process. Yet although Stroessner clearly supported the militant wing of the party, most observers believed that the militants lacked close contacts with the armed forces.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress