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General Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, dictator of Paraguay, died on August 16th, aged 93

General Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, dictator of Paraguay, died on August 16th, aged 93

NOT only Africa has a heart of darkness. South America has one too, squeezed in the tight embrace of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil. Two great rivers, the Paraguay and the Paraná, flow through Paraguay and past it, but travellers have little reason to come to this empty, landlocked place. The dry western chaco has no gold or oil, though wars were fought on the supposition it did; the east is more fertile, but still poor. The people are mostly Indian farmers, the army dangerously unpredictable. It is good ground for dictators.

For 35 years, from 1954 to 1989, Alfredo Stroessner ruled there. Under him, although he brought electrification, asphalt roads and friendship with America, the place became yet more isolated and benighted. The economy was based on contraband: whisky, cigarettes, passports, coffee, cocaine, luxury cars, rare bird skins, anything, until the unofficial value of Paraguay's exports was said to be three times the official figure. The style of government was a spoils system, underpinned by terror of a vicious network of spies and secret police. Foreign policy was a buddies' brigade with other dictators"Videla of Argentina, Pinochet of Chile"to co-ordinate counter-terrorism and assassinations. And the most .famous tourist was Josef Mengele, the fugitive doctor of Auschwitz, riding into a village in the Paraguayan wilderness to be welcomed and protected.

General Stroessner himself was not seen much. His blue-eyed portrait, in white uniform with gold braid and multiple medals, stared down from walls in offices and private houses alike; but he was stocky and dull, the typical son of a German immigrant brewer, and preferred desk-duties to speeches and parades. He would work, breaking only for siesta, from six in the morning until nine at night. Much of his day was spent, like some Roman emperor, receiving the petitions of the long lines of ordinary citizens who filed towards his inner sanctum. He did not give interviews to the press, having no wish to reveal himself. A single conversation, with Isabel Hilton of Granta when he had just begun his long exile in Brasilia in 1989, is almost all obituarists have to go on. In this he prided himself especially on bringing Paraguay peace. He had avoided "negative political movements", imposing stability and order. As he said the word, orden, he rolled it sensuously round his mouth. But it had a different meaning for him: the political opponent "disappearing" in a bricked-up cell, the newspaper ABC Color closed down for five years, or the "communist" agitator (he saw such phantoms everywhere, they unloosed American aid) silenced by near-drowning in a bath of dirty water. He told Ms Hilton there had been no torture. But five tonnes of secret-police files turned up three years later, stacked from floor to ceiling of a police station in suburban Asunción, to give the lie to that.

A party of his own

His main machine of power was not the army. Although he was a distinguished soldier, rising to brigadier-general by the age of 36, and indeed had done nothing else in life since he was 17, he did not trust military men. He himself had skilfully ridden the divisions in the army to seize power from a civilian president in 1954. His policy was to keep the officers sweet with a cut from the smuggling revenues or a share of the contracts for his grandest project, the Itaipu hydroelectric plant built with Brazil on the Paraná. Some cronies amassed fortunes. General Andrés Rodríguez, who eventually overthrew him in what he contemptuously called a cuartelazo, or barracks revolt, built himself a replica of the Palace of Versailles.

As a firmer, more loyal base than these soldiers, General Stroessner used the Colorado ("Red") party, a right-wing body that became steadily more so as its moderate politicians were ejected. Membership of the party was compulsory for all teachers, doctors, engineers, officers or those who hoped for government service. In a population of 3.8m, 900,000 belonged to it, their party dues docked from their salaries. Every four years, in a conspicuous show of phoney democracy, General Stroessner stood as the Colorado candidate and was elected, sometimes"as his supporters joked"with more than 100% of the vote. He won eight straight elections, and the constitutional bar to three consecutive terms or more was quietly set aside.

There was some resistance. The Catholic church got restive, especially when the general ignored calls for land reform from the indigenous poor. The Americans, fed up at last with his wiliness and his human-rights abuses, began to part company with him in the late 1970s. Paraguayans as a whole, however, were much slower to be disillusioned. It was true that he treated the country as his fief, to the point of picking out teenage girls for himself when he presented school diplomas; but he paid for the girls, set them up in houses, and gave their relatives money. You could argue that the Itaipu project left Paraguay with only 2% of the energy and 15% of the contracts; but that 15% had given the country, for eight years in the 1970s, the highest rate of growth in Latin America. General Stroessner was a master-dispenser of illegal spoils. Yet the dark truth of his Paraguay was that he co-opted even his opponents into that system with him.

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