Alfredo Stroessner, the canny anti-communist general who ruled Paraguay with a blend of force, guile and patronage for 35 years, becoming one of Latin America's most enduring dictators, died in exile on Wednesday. He was 93.
Stroessner died of a stroke after coming down with pneumonia following a hernia operation in Brazil's capital, where he lived in near total isolation during the 17 years since he was forced from power.
He seized power in a 1954 coup and governed Paraguay through fraud and repression, longer than any other contemporary head of state in the Western Hemisphere at the time. He was finally driven from power by his own generals on Feb. 3, 1989.
The blond son of a Bavarian immigrant and Paraguayan mother, he came to epitomize a generation of authoritarian leaders in Latin America, putting his name on schools, buildings and even a port, and describing virtually all his opponents as Marxist subversives.
‘Refuge to people with blood on their hands’
Under Stroessner, Paraguay became a refuge for Nazi war criminals — including the infamous Auschwitz SS doctor, Josef Mengele, who lived openly for a time in Paraguay's sizeable German community before moving on to Brazil. He also sheltered other right-wing dictators, such as Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza.
"Stroessner didn't have any problem giving refuge to people with blood on their hands," said Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "His death is no loss to democratic values in Paraguay."
Many Paraguayans still revile the man, and President Nicanor Duarte told reporters Tuesday, amid reports of Stroessner's failing health, that there were no plans to honor the former leader after his death.
But Stroessner also brought Paraguay into the modern age, transforming a country with open sewers and no running water, even in the capital of Asuncion, into a relatively prosperous and modern nation. His public works projects included the huge, US$16 billion Itaipu dam, built jointly with neighboring Brazil, which began producing power in early 1985. But most of the wealth did not reach average citizens in the nation of 3.8 million people, and critics accused him of repression and corruption.
Following his ouster, Stroessner was granted political asylum and lived as a recluse in Brazil. Neighbors said they rarely saw him leave his house along the shores of Lake Paranoa in Brasilia.
Human rights activists say Stroessner's government was a key part of "Operation Condor," a network of right-wing military governments, secretly supported by U.S. intelligence agencies, that repressed leftist dissidents across South America in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Paraguay had for years sought to question Stroessner about the abduction and disappearance of dissidents during his rule, but his asylum status made extradition impossible. Now his death has brought an end to lawsuits by his many victims, some 1,500 of whom were given compensation by the Duarte government for injuries suffered under the dictatorship.
"Today we should be celebrating with the death of Stroessner; unfortunately, he died with impunity," said Hugo Rubin, a journalist who was jailed in the 1980s by the regime. "He killed his opponents, robbed the State, exiled hundreds of countrymen, and to top it off, lived in tranquility in his exile in Brasilia."
Stroessner rigged his re-election every five years after he seized power, and while human rights violations increased, his name became synonymous with stability and progress in the landlocked country, which had been noted for stagnation and political turmoil.
His influence was everywhere in Paraguay. While he was in power, a huge neon sign in a central plaza of the capital blinked the message: "Stroessner: Peace, Work and Well-being."
By Stroessner's third decade in office, most Paraguayans had passed their entire lives under his watchful eyes, which stared from portraits on the walls of offices, shops and living rooms.
He had complete control over the press, as newspaper and radio transmitters were destroyed by police aligned with the Colorado Party and journalists were jailed and tortured. But public dissatisfaction with his regime became increasingly evident in the mid-1980s as the economy soured and inflation soared.
Protesters and police sometimes fought in the streets of Asuncion, unrest inconceivable a few years earlier.
A staunch U.S. ally, Stroessner was stung in 1986 when the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan put his regime on its list of Latin American dictatorships. Among the others was Nicaragua, whose Sandinista rebels overthrew his friend Somoza and then assassinated him in Paraguay.
A significant segment of the ruling Colorado Party, his main tool of political control, began to accuse him of dictatorial tactics, and many Paraguayans were quietly predicting his regime would collapse when Stroessner tried to consolidate his power in late 1988.
He ordered many military officers to retire, and tried to force out powerful army commander, Gen. Andres Rodriguez, closing the general's lucrative currency exchange business. Instead, Rodriguez rebelled on Feb. 2, 1989, sending soldiers and tanks to the presidential guard headquarters, where Stroessner had taken refuge. Stroessner surrendered and went into exile in Brazil, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the Paraguayan capital, Stroessner's death met with indifference in the former "Alfredo Stroessner" neighborhood — rebaptized the San Pablo district after the dictator was overthrown.
"I don't know anything about Stroessner nor do I care to know," said Antonio Ortiz, 18, a student.
Stroessner died of a stroke at 11 a.m. in the Hospital Santa Luzia, said his grandson, Alfredo Dominguez Stroessner. He said his grandfather left no funeral instructions, but that the family was considering a burial in Encarnacion, where Stroessner was born on Nov. 3, 1912.