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The Final Days of Paraguaya’s Alfredo Stroessner

On February 3rd, 1989 tanks rolled into Paraguay’s capital Asuncion, led by General Andres Rodriguez. Briefly bullets and bombs rattled the city, and — after 33 years in power — President Alfredo Stroessner was quickly overthrown. Stroessner fled to Brazil, where he stayed until his death in August 16, 2006. In these excerpts,  James F. Mack, who served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in the period right before the coup, explains the real progress made under Stroessner, which accounted for his initial popularity, but  that “he did not know when to leave.” He tells of the not-so subtle hint the police sent during a reception for dissidents and his surprise that General Rodriguez, who had such close family ties to Stroessner, would be the one to lead the coup. Mack was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 2004.


Genuine Progress, Genuine Popularity

MACK: When I arrived Stroessner was in his 33rd year in power. And his relationship with the United States was very poor. Because … the U.S. did not take kindly to his form of one-party rule, which was really a dictatorship, albeit a popular one. There were continuing civil and human rights violations of opponents who were still being arrested. In the electoral sense, Stroessner did allow some prominent politicians from the opposition party to come back to Paraguay and there was an election. And of course Stroessner overwhelmingly won the election.

There was a joke told in Paraguay about … how the Americans are always boasting about their extraordinarily modern system for tabulating presidential votes, how they did all these projections within an hour of the closing of the polls based voting patterns in certain precincts, how the prognosticators could predict with a high deal of accuracy who would be the next President of the United States. According to the joke, when Stroessner heard about the American boasts, he responded that all this was very impressive but that he was able to predict the results of a presidential election in Paraguay years before it was held.

When he came to power, the country had been in the midst of a long civil war. He put an end to it and put his party, the Colorado party, in power. He really brought order to the country. There was no question that he enjoyed a lot of popular support.

The country had been in shambles due to years of chaos. Stroessner began to bring order to Paraguay. He made some major infrastructure improvements over time. For example, the water out of the faucet was good to drink in most Paraguayan towns. This is quite an achievement for a third-world country. You could drink the water.

Having served in Central America and been sickened with dysentery and every other intestinal bug known to man, I thought that was a rather impressive achievement.

Over time he established a decent phone system and a fairly decent road system. He negotiated an end to a border dispute with Brazil regarding where in the Paraná River to draw the line, paving the way for the construction of the Itaipu dam between the two countries, which at that time was the largest hydraulic dam in the world.…

But Itaipu was absolutely huge. Paraguay’s half of the electricity produced was about 20 times the demand in Paraguay at the time so Paraguay then was able to sell 95% of it … to Brazil which largely financed the project with the World Bank. So by putting an end to this dispute, essentially inundating the disputed area in a huge lake behind the dam which became a bi-national entity, Paraguay was able to take a gigantic step forward in terms of energy independence.

The project employed a lot of people, gave opportunities for a large number of Paraguayan firms to get lucrative contracts. I am sure not all of them were awarded based on merit. But, nonetheless a lot of Paraguayans learned a lot of skills in the process. And he did the same thing with Argentina down-stream in the construction of the Yacyreta dam which was well underway at the time that I was there. So he really did bring progress to the country.

On the other hand, like most dictators or authoritarian figures, he did not know when to leave. If he had left five or ten years earlier he would have probably gone down in Paraguayan history as a greater leader despite his strong-arm rule. He basically overstayed like [Philippine President Ferdinand] Marcos and [Peruvian President Alberto] Fujimori did, as did a lot of others.

The fact is that Stroessner may even have had the support of the majority of the population at the time he was ousted. The Colorado Party through which he ruled was very well organized right down to the grassroots. He spoke Guarani [the indigenous language]. Many loved him. … Many left the country because of him. But even people who did not support him recognized that he did alike of positive things. But he stayed on too long. He had many of the same acolytes with him including ministers who had been with him since almost the beginning. Those running the country were almost a gerontocracy, if that’s the word. The average age must have been 70 or 75 for the ministers. And by and large they were corrupt but very, very loyal to Stroessner.

Tear Gas as a Not-So Subtle Hint

And that was the situation when I got there.… Clyde Taylor was the Ambassador when I arrived. I remember for example that Ambassador Taylor was going to be awarded some sort of certificate of recognition by a group of women who were trying to support democratic change in Paraguay. These were not leftists by the way. These were, I think, people who really did want to see real democracy come to Paraguay. They were middle- and upper-class women and who had invited Ambassador Taylor to an evening social event at which they were going to give him an award recognizing his support to human rights and democratic change.

I went with Ambassador Taylor. When we got to this development of very nice new houses, we found it had been completely cordoned off by the police – the entire development, I don’t know, maybe twenty or twenty-five houses. No one was allowed to cross the police lines. The only people who got in were the women who had arrived very, very early to help set up, plus Ambassador Taylor and yours truly.

We were able to talk our way by the police lines. I guess they didn’t want to cause an incident by refusing to allow the U.S. Ambassador to enter a house. So we went inside and found maybe twenty people drinking wine and eating canapés around the pool. All of the sudden a smoking missile of some sort lands, on the deck of the pool. At the time I thought it was a firecracker, but it turned out to be a tear gas grenade shot at the order of the Chief of Police, an old Stroessner loyalist, who had decided the festivity had gone on long enough. Had been watching us very closely. Just over the wall.

And at that point we retreated inside the house to the bedroom of the women who hosted the event. All twenty of us were crammed in there. Unfortunately, she had the air-conditioning going because it was very, very hot in Asuncion. And, of course the air-conditioner sucked in the pepper gas and after a few minutes it became rather intolerable inside. At that point, the Ambassador called his trusty driver and bodyguard and we were whisked off to safety. Of course, the Ambassador filed a protest for what happened with the Foreign Minister.

To give you an idea of the type of relationship that we had with Stroessner, the Chief of Police clearly was orchestrating all this. We saw him physically present outside the perimeter and clearly he gave the order to launch the tear gas grenade. I am sure he would not have done that without approval from a higher authority. So, this gives you an example of the kind of relationship we had with the Stroessner government.

Q: What was Stroessner doing to his own people. Were the jails full of dissidents?

MACK: Well I don’t think that at that point after thirty-five years in power Stroessner had the jails filled with dissidents. There were a few but at that point most who had actively opposed the regime had simply left the country or shut up. I don’t think there was a huge group that were actively protesting. He had the place pretty well tied down. This brings us to an event celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday, which was a national holiday by the way, to which the diplomatic corps and spouses were invited. At that point, I was in my third year as DCM and Tim Towell had replaced Ambassador Taylor. The annual event was hosted by the Presidential Escort Regiment, which was basically his Praetorian Guard. At that event all the senior members of the military were there. It was a big event.

The Coup Begins

Then somewhat after that, not too much actually, a curious event happened. Unbeknownst to the U.S. Embassy, his “consuego” General Rodriguez – consuego in this case meant that Stroessner’s son was married to General Rodriguez’s daughter – was plotting against Stroessner. Understand that the two were very close, General Rodriguez was his senior general and Commander of the First Cavalry Division and when I say cavalry, I literally mean literally that. I paid a major in that division to teach my young son how to ride!

In any event, President Stroessner kept his Presidential Escort Regiment stationed very near where he lived. Gen Rodriguez’s division was on the edge of town. Theoretically this arrangement provided protection to Stroessner. But it turned out that unbeknownst to the U.S. Embassy, the plot was beginning to thicken.

General Rodriguez apparently had become convinced that Stroessner had lost confidence in him. At least this was the story that I heard later. When Stroessner called Rodriguez in, Rodriguez assumed he was going to be axed so he claimed he couldn’t go because of a leg injury. At that point, Rodriguez’s group decided to strike first.

A few months before, Stroessner had undergone a prostate operation that did not go well. Apparently there was a lot [of] bleeding and his long recovery led to speculation that he was dying or even had died. This led to some jockeying among various factions for advantage just in case Stroessner did not survive. Some of Stroessner’s people must of picked this up and for some reason believed, maybe correctly, that Rodriguez was suspect. In any event, thinking that Stroessner was moving against him, Rodriguez decided to move against Stroessner.

This was almost unthinkable in the context of a rule that had gone on for 35 years. We in the American Embassy saw some clues but never put the pieces together because we could not conceive Rodriguez would overthrow Stroessner, given their historical and family ties. Of course, no Paraguayan believed the U.S. did not know. In fact, since I was in South Africa at the time of the coup, they thought I had been sent over to secure his exile.

That was absolutely not true. I had just left for South Africa before the coup but was there with my wife, three of my kids and mother in law to visit the game parks. The night that the coup took place we had just arrived in Pretoria. The next morning a note was passed under my door informing me that Stroessner had been overthrown, and asking me to call the Embassy in Asuncion. So I called Ambassador Tim Towell, who said “Jim you don’t have to come back but I really prefer that you would”. I got the message so I left my family to complete the trip to the game parks alone and took the next scheduled plane to plane to Rio, which was not for two days.

When I got back, I learned that bullets had flown over the Embassy compound between forces loyal to Stroessner, some of which were stationed across the street at the president’s home, and the forces under Rodriguez who had Stroessner’s Presidential Escort Regiment headquarters surrounded a few blocks away. Fortunately no one at the embassy was hurt.

Q: Were there casualties among the Paraguayans?

MACK: Yes, among the military, but eventually it became clear to Stroessner’s forces that they could not prevail against Rodriguez’s division. It was kind of Mexican standoff at this point. At the end, the commander of the Escort Regiment counted his own guns and realized that further resistance was futile. Stroessner was sent out of the country.… The joke going around Asuncion when I was last there in 2006 was a group of Stroessner supporters went to visit the old man in Brazil to tell them how well the “Stronistas” were doing. He reportedly responded that “he was the only one missing”.

I must say under Stroessner the biggest crimes were of corruption and repression of political opponents. There was virtually no violent street crime at that time. The streets of Asuncion were safe. This is unique among any Latin American country that I have seen.

In Asuncion, young women, children of the middle class, high school girls would ride public buses at night to go downtown to promenade around in the center of town. Can you imagine that today in any other country in Latin America? It is inconceivable. That is how safe things were. Yes, there were burglaries and that sort of thing. But there was virtually, no violent crime. It was said that not a leaf flutter in Paraguay without Stroessner knowing about it. That was the condition in Paraguay.