Dictators: Goodbye to all that

Ben Davies on Alfredo Stroessner, former leader of Paraguay

General Alfredo Stroessner, one of Latin America's longest-serving dictators, ruled Paraguay from 1954 until his removal in a coup in 1989. His death on 16 August, aged 93, draws a line under an era in which South America became notorious for its dictatorships. His home country, where he was wanted for human-rights violations, issued a terse statement that the general would not be honoured.

A friend of Pinochet, Stroessner was an active supporter of Operation Condor, the US-backed effort by right-wing Latin American regimes to eliminate perceived leftist threats. But by the early 1980s, most of the regimes had begun to crumble. Argentina's military junta collapsed in the wake of its ill-fated Falklands invasion and in 1985 another neighbour, Bolivia, began a transition towards democracy after a series of regimes had misruled the country for more than 20 years. Brazil's military dictatorship, dating from 1964, also crumbled in 1985.

Stroessner's political longevity can be explained partly by his brutality, partly by his corruption. Those political opponents not imprisoned or forced into exile were thrown from planes into the impenetrable undergrowth of the Chaco region. Meanwhile, he allowed his henchmen to make fortunes through smuggling cars, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, weapons, rare animals and plants. Contraband is still reputedly Paraguay's biggest industry.

Paraguay, like its neighbours, has struggled with the aftermath of autocracy. Since Stroessner's removal, the country has been far from stable. A vice-president has been assassinated, the last president is facing corruption charges, his predecessor was forced to resign and there has been at least one attempted coup. In 1992, a new constitution laid the foundations for a democratic future including freedom of the press, but critics say not enough has been done to implement economic and social reforms.

The current president, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, came to power in August 2003, ensuring that Paraguay is still ruled by Stroessner's Colorado Party - as it has been since the 1940s. Slow economic reforms are on the cards - under Frutos, some of the rich are beginning to pay income tax. But little has changed for Paraguay's poverty-stricken "mestizo" majority, which subsists in slums such as La Chacarita, on boggy marshes just yards from the shiny new parliament building.

Ben Davies is editor of newstatesman.com

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