DATELINE

Decline of a military strongman

KATHRYN LEGER May 11 1987
DATELINE

Decline of a military strongman

KATHRYN LEGER May 11 1987

Decline of a military strongman

DATELINE: PARAGUAY

He loves to play chess. In fact, Paraguayan President Gen. Alfredo Stroessner is such a fanatic about the game that according to local gossip, some of his political associates must advise him of where they are at all times in case he needs a partner. The ability to plan and execute a successful strategy has been evident during the 33 years that the career military officer has ruled the landlocked South American nation of 3.6 million. Observers say that since he came to power in a coup d’état in 1954, the president has used strongarm tactics and a widespread system of patronage to silence dissent against his dictatorship. But Latin America’s longest-ruling leader is now facing unprecedented challenges to his power. And along the quiet treelined streets of Asunción, the country’s capital, and throughout the country, Paraguayans openly wonder what moves Stroessner, 74, will make to defend his military regime.

One year ago thousands of Paraguayans took to the streets to protest against the country’s worsening economic conditions and the lack of civil liberties. And members of Stroessner’s own Colorado party have begun to call for the general to step down so that a younger, civilian candidate could run in elections scheduled for April, 1988. But for many Paraguayans, the prospect of losing a leader who has brought stability is still clearly unsettling.

Stroessner, who has remained silent about his intentions, has stood firm in the face of rising opposition, relying on the police and the military for support. According to observers, as head of the armed forces he has ensured the army’s loyalty by allowing many of his generals to control the country’s lucrative contraband trade in whisky, cars and electronic gadgetry. At the same time, Stroessner has kept a tight rein on the 1.2million member Colorado party, using it as a vast patronage network. Indeed, active or affiliated membership in the par-

ty is obligatory for all public employees, ranging from teachers to the judiciary.

As a result, despite the fact that the Colorado Party has split into four factions, many party members remain loyal to Stroessner. The powerful Militantes, headed by Mario Abdo Benitez, Stroessner’s private secretary, want the president to stay on. The rival Tradi-

cionalistas are led by pre-Stroessner Colorado leaders who threw their lot in with the dictator after he came to power in 1954, allowing him to use the party to gain the political base needed to legitimize the military underpinnings of his government. Although they still profess loyalty to the president, they want to recreate in the 100-year-old party the grassroots political organization it had before Stroessner converted it into a patronage-dispensing machine that, along with the military, allows him to maintain his grip on the country.

But the remaining two factions, the Eticos and the Group of 34, are actively lobbying for a return to civilian government. The Eticos are led by Carlos Romero Pereira, the son of the transitional president who officially handed over the government to Stroessner in August,

1954, after the dictator seized power in a military coup that spring. The leader of the Group of 34, meanwhile, is former interior minister Edgar Ynsfrán, who was in charge of the harsh system of repression that Stroessner used to consolidate his power during the early years of his rule. Ynsfrán, who brushes off questions about his direct involve-

ment in human-rights violations, makes no apologies for his role in the regime’s excesses. But he says that Paraguay’s deteriorating political situation and the recent shift to democracy in most South American countries makes change necessary. “The government of President Stroessner has started to wear thin,” he said.

As well, complaints about the country’s worsening economy are now more openly voiced. This year, for the first time, the cost of servicing Paraguay’s $2.6-billion foreign debt may surpass the country’s export earnings of about $400 million. Basic food prices have gone up by more than 70 per cent during the past two years, but wages have decreased: the average Paraguayan now earns about $80 a month, down from about $120 in 1984.

Many Paraguayans clearly remain pessimistic about the possibilities for change in the near future. Critics charge that because patronage and corruption are so widespread, military and government officials—who benefit most from illegal profits—have no real incentive to improve economic conditions. “There is no hope of improvement, because corruption is the most important tool of the government,” declared Pereira. “It is not only limited to politics, but to the whole level of administration in the country.” Added Enrique Riera, a wealthy rancher and former member of the Colorado party: “The illusion of a political opening is more distant than ever.” Riera was among the Colorado members who resisted Stroessner’s control of the party in the late 1950s, and he was subsequently forced out. Said Riera: “The government has only hardened.”

Indeed, the response to the demonstrations in the spring of 1986 was harsh. Police and the military used tear gas, clubs and cattle prods to break up the rallies. Dozens of union and political leaders were arrested. Since then, Paraguayans have not engaged in open demonstrations and have instead expressed the need for change in private gatherings. But the army has even been called out to keep those from taking place: recently the military thwarted efforts by

Colorado dissidents to hold a private party by surrounding the house and denying entry to guests.

At the same time, many Paraguayans seem unaccustomed to the idea of an alternative to Stroessner. “In Paraguay we only have one leader,” said Lorenzo Rodriguez Estigarribia, who operates a woodcutting business near Coronel Ovie-

do, about 130 km east of Asunción. “He has given us peace and a country without communism.” Indeed, before Stroessner assumed power, the country had lived through seven years of civil war and a string of coups and countercoups. And Stroessner is credited with bringing about many improvements in Paraguay, including the construction of hundreds of schools, community clinics and roads, and the g extension of electricity to I the homes of thousands I of peasants.

1 But Stroessner’s age

2 alone ensures that the

1 debate over the country’s

2 future will grow more vocal. Many critics say that an orderly change

will only be possible if Stroessner acts in an enlightened manner. His most astute move may be his own peaceful resignation. “Stroessner is the key,” said Ynsfrán. “We need him to provide an opening. Then the country could come out winning—and so could he.”

— KATHRYN LEGER in Asunción