Remembering the ‘Stronismo’: How ghost of a brutal dictator haunts Paraguay

Seventy years since General Alfredo Stroessner seized power in the small Latin American country, memories of his bloody legacy and the massacre it triggered in 2012 live on.

Farmers protest in June 2012 holding pictures of people who died when they were fired upon by police evicting them from a reserve on the outskirts of Curuguaty, Paraguay. The events of that day have come to be known as the Curuguaty massacre [Jorge Saenz/AP Photo]

Marina Kue, Curuguaty, Paraguay – A lonely dirt road leads to Marina Kue in eastern Paraguay; 2,000 hectares of arable land forever marked as a last stand between the heirs of Paraguay’s late dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner, and the victims of his brutal dictatorship, the landless peasants.

At dawn on June 15, 2012, a 350-men unit of Special Police Forces encircled the disputed land lot to evict 60 families who lived there. To the women, men, children and elders who had claimed access to Marina Kue, this was “Farm No 53”, a property incorporated within Stroessner’s controversial land distribution programme and agricultural colonisation scheme of eastern Paraguay.

The arriving police forces were fully armed, while the strongest ammunition held by the landless peasants was a legal verdict from 1999 when the Commission of Human Rights of Paraguay had ruled that the property was public land.

Many of the dispossessed peasants now surrounded by police forces had lived on these lands since the late 1960s when the previous owner, the Paraguayan Navy, returned the land to the state. But a powerful businessman, Blas Riquelme (now-deceased), had other ideas. A prominent member of Paraguay’s long-ruling, right-wing Colorado Party – formally titled the National Republican Association – he had set out to lease the Marina Kue lot for growing genetically modified crops. The police forces present that day were obeying his command.

Curuguaty massacre
Relatives bury a peasant farmer killed in the Curuguaty Massacre on June 18, 2012. At least 17 people were killed and dozens hurt during armed clashes on June 15, 2012 that occurred when police attempted to evict landless peasant farmers from a farm in Paraguay, officials said [Reuters]

Recalling the horrific events of that day in 2012, Nestor Castro, a thin 40-year-old small-scale farmer, pours water from a plastic pitcher into a glass and infuses terere (a cold variant of yerba mate tea) outside his house in the rural outskirts of Curuguaty, a city in Paraguay’s easternmost corner bordering Brazil. Years ago, Castro built the house himself on the disputed land, carrying all the wood and building materials by hand or motorbike.

He recalls how peaceful it was just before the first rounds of fire erupted. “It was like a silent movie,” he says. There were rifles and guns in the hands of some of the peasants, but in terms of firearms, they had little to offer any resistance against the surrounding police forces. They were outnumbered and now they were being sprayed with bullets. Witnesses recall snipers hidden in the bushes, and Castro and his friends could do little but fall to the iron-red soil.

“We were sitting ducks,” he recalls. “One bullet ripped my chin apart, but I managed to flee into the woods. There, I almost bled to death.” Castro was taken to a nearby healthcare centre. His body was lame, but he survived what was to be recalled as the “Curuguaty massacre”.

Eleven peasants and six police officers died, but even though Castro was neither armed nor technically tied to any of the 17 deaths, he was nonetheless charged and sentenced for instigating the massacre, along with other peasants who, to this day, solely shoulder the official responsibility for the atrocity. United Nations human rights experts slammed the resulting legal process which found them guilty.

“It was a cover-up that continues to this day,” says Castro. “I was released in 2017, after five years in prison, but everything my family had to go through, the fact that I only have four natural teeth left in my mouth – nothing’s been properly investigated.”

Relatives of five landless farmers, Felipe Balmori Benitez, Adalberto Castro, Nestor Castro, Arnaldo Quintana and Ruben Villalba – accused of causing riots that resulted in the deaths of six police officers and 11 farmers in June 2012 in what is now known as the Curuguaty massacre – protest outside a military hospital where the farmers were held, in Asuncion, on April 11, 2014 [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

The ghost of Stroessner

Castro’s life’s story intertwines with the “Stronismo” or “Stronato”, the name given to the Stroessner dictatorship, as the child of poor parents who settled close to the Curuguaty River, built a house and made their living as small-scale farmers.

The seeds for the Curuguaty massacre he would become victim to were sown 70 years ago when Stroessner first came to power in a coup in May 1954.

The land colonisation programme that Stroessner implemented once he was in power, through which he handed vast swaths of land to his own rich supporters, had turned eastern Paraguay’s “tierras malhabidas” (“ill-gotten lands”) into a vast soy field, managed by influential businessmen with ties to the Colorado Party and Brazilian capital. According to historian Andrew Nickson: “Eight million hectares [20 million acres] of virgin forest land illegally [were] distributed to ‘family and friends’ by the Stroessner regime in the 1970s and 1980s under the cynical guise of ‘land reform’, as well as increasing their holdings by buying up provisional land titles from impoverished small farmers.”

In 2008, the progressive wave that swept through South America reached Paraguay, following a host of left-wing governments installed in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Ecuador at the turn of the century. The former bishop and liberation theologian, Fernando Lugo, won the presidential election and made history as Paraguay’s first president rooted in the political left. One of his primary goals was to bring land reform to benefit the peasants. For Lugo’s supporters, the new administration awakened hopes for progressive and social change, especially when it came to Paraguay’s unequal land distribution. (With a population of 6.8 million, a mere 12,000 people own 90 percent of all Paraguayan land, the rest is split between about 280,000 small and medium-sized producers.)

“For Paraguay’s many landless peasants, Lugo’s presidency brought us hope for a better future,” says Castro.

But his mandate was fragile and dependent on support from right-wing opponents.

It left powerful land colonisers who had flourished under Stroessner unchecked. And, tellingly, the eviction party that surrounded Marina Kue on this crisp autumn morning in 2012, answered the call of Riquelme, who planned to take this land for himself.

Curuguaty peasants
Paraguayan farmers (standing, from 2nd left) Adalberto Castro, Arnaldo Quintana, Ruben Villalba, (sitting, from left) Felipe Balmori Benitez and Nestor Castro, who were accused of causing land-related riots that resulted in the deaths of six police officers and 11 farmers in June 2012, sit in a bus after being released from the military hospital in Asuncion on April 15, 2014 [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

‘We’re part of this earth’

As Castro relates the events of the massacre, and the history behind it which has defined his life, his two daughters are playing close by. He points towards the river, a few hundred metres away, where he and his family first settled in the early 1990s. By then, Stroessner had been removed and democracy was said to have been brought to Paraguay.

But Castro has seen little evidence of any democratic society. The closest he’s come was during the Lugo administration when land reform and social rights for famished masses topped the political agenda. The Curuguaty massacre, however, marked the end of any kind of progressive turn in Paraguay.

“The Curuguaty massacre was the result of the oligarchy’s interplay,” Esperanza Martínez, the health minister during the Lugo administration, tells Al Jazeera. “The soy lobby and Paraguay’s united political right used the massacre as a pretext to call for a halt for reform packages and environmental laws … to pave the way for an expansion of genetically modified versions of soybeans, maize, and rice.”

Indeed, on June 22, 2012, just one week after the massacre – as Castro and other wounded peasants dangled between life and death – President Lugo was toppled in a parliamentary coup (or a “no-confidence vote”, depending on who you ask). He was impeached on charges of being responsible for the massacre and “abuse of power”, and given just 17 hours to prepare his legal defence. In the end, Lugo stood no chance and was forced out of office.

Paraguay’s President Fernando Lugo rides a military vehicle before the start of a mass to commemorate the country’s 201st year of independence, in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Asuncion, in Asuncion on May 14, 2012, one month before the Curuguaty massacre [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

An interim government was formed and hastily dismantled his progressive policies regarding social welfare programmes and environmental laws against genetically modified crops. In 2021, the Congress even criminalised the occupation of state-owned lands, even when the purpose was small-scale farming.

The economic and political system established by Stroessner had been challenged, and shaken, but now reinstalled by the right-wing Liberal Party in tandem with the Colorado Party.

The Curuguaty massacre remains a topic of taboo and controversy in today’s Paraguay. Seventeen symbolic crosses have been raised on the slope where the massacre erupted. Ants cross the dirt road carrying cracks of red soil. The silence is peaceful.

Along with silence from Paraguay’s legal chambers and political corridors regarding blame for the massacre, Nestor Castro is forced to bear the nightmare and post-traumatic stress he suffers without any public assistance. Marina Kue remains an occupied lot where landless peasants continue to survive as small-scale farmers, surrounded by expanding fields of soy, maize, rice, and rice.

For now, the risk of new prison sentences for “occupying private land” continues to hang over him and his family, but there’s no other choice but to keep living.

“I’ve lived here almost my whole life,” Castro concludes. “We’re part of this earth; this is where my children eat, sleep, live and dream of a better future. To occupy land and cultivate it is the only way to fend off hunger.”

A peasant farmer works on a farm near Curuguaty, Paraguay, on November 14, 2012, a few months after the massacre which killed 11 farmers and six police officers when negotiations between farmers and a rich politician ended in a barrage of bullets. Residents have long alleged that the land was effectively stolen from the state by Blas Riquelme, a leader of the Colorado Party which backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989 [Jorge Saenz/AP]

Paraguay – a lucrative business venture

The collective, systematic and planted hunger – both physical and political – which continues to plague Paraguay today was born out of the military coup in May 1954 led by the 42-year-old General Alfredo Stroessner, which overthrew then-President Federico Chavez.

Two months later, on July 11, Stroessner sealed the presidency through an election where he was the sole legal candidate and clinched close to 100 percent of the votes.

Stroessner was born in 1912, the child of a native Paraguayan woman and a German immigrant father who encouraged his son to join the military at the age of 16.

In 1932, the Chaco War erupted. A heated border dispute with Bolivia over the semi-arid forest region of Gran Chaco in western Paraguay ended in a bloodbath and was the culmination of a perfect storm of political hardships. The Great Depression struck hard, and rumours of unexplored oil reserves under Chaco’s desert-dry soil had the Paraguayan oligarchy hoping for personal riches. For Stroessner, the war functioned as a stepping-stone to political influence. He received medals for bravery and continued to rise within the military hierarchy while political turmoil erupted in Paraguay, culminating in civil war in 1947.

Despite being relatively unknown to the outside world before his rigged electoral triumph, Stroessner, who died in 2006, became one of the longest-ruling despots of the 20th century. British novelist Graham Greene described him as “a fleshy, good-humoured and astute owner of a beer cellar who knows his customers well and can manage them”.

Until another coup overthrew Stroessner and forced him into exile in 1989, he reigned over Paraguay as if it were a private enterprise, supported by the United States and lauded by Western capital as a gatekeeper for lucrative business facilities.

Stroessner also cemented the Colorado Party as a political concierge for Paraguay’s ruling elite and military interests and paved the way for the privatisation of the country’s public lands and publicly owned natural resources. Following the 1954 coup, Paraguay became an integral part of US foreign policy – during the Cold War, the United States launched 72 documented attempts at regime change, among many in its political “backyard” in Latin America.

Former Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, right, is seen with former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet on May 14, 1974 in Asuncion, Paraguay [Eduardo Di Baia/AP]

In the early 1950s, US capital and intelligence services helped turn the tide against various progressive developments. In Cuba, American interests – mostly tied up in sugar, prostitution rings and casinos – were secured when Fulgencio Batista initiated a coup in 1952. The following year, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 had Iran’s democratic prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh – and his initiated nationalisation of Iran’s oil production – replaced with Shah Reza Pahlavi’s more Western-friendly dictatorship.

In 1954, mere weeks following the coup in Paraguay, Guatemala’s democratically elected and progressive president Jacobo Arbenz was removed in a military coup initiated by influential landowners in tandem with the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita), and executed by the CIA.

Indeed, Stroessner’s primary years as a dictator were guided by the US embassy. Arthur Ageton, US ambassador between 1954 and 1957, wasn’t merely a staunch anti-Communist, but also a retired vice-admiral with war experience from World War II, who became a political ally and mentor to Stroessner.

Stroessner himself regarded Ageton as “the most influential member of my cabinet”. The embassy acted as the link to Washington, which ensured Stroessner political stability, financial aid and military funds for the Paraguayan dictatorship that paved the way for the involvement of the military in organised crime through large-scale smuggling schemes and money laundering.

When asked about it by an American reporter, Stroessner merely stated that the smuggling and illegal trade was “the price of peace” as it kept potential political foes rich and happy.

Military dictators Alfredo Stroessner (left) of Paraguay and Augusto Pinochet of Chile ride through the centre of Santiago during a state visit by Stroessner in September, 1974 [File: Reuters]

‘It’s a miracle I’m still alive’

To many people, however, Stroessner became the leader of a living hell. “He turned Paraguay into one giant prison where everybody was doing time. It wasn’t even a country any more,” recalls Constantino Coronel, a 93-year-old land reform activist and former political prisoner, who was in his early 30s when Stroessner clinched his electoral victory in 1954.

On his family land (“chakra”), situated deep in southern Paraguay’s rural corner close to the Argentine border, Coronel leads the way to the mango tree that his mother planted in the 1920s. The tree still stands, strong and tall, surrounded by livestock and fields, serving as a testament to the desperate times that the old man – and Paraguay – has survived since then.

“It’s a miracle that I’m still alive,” he says.

In the 1960s, Coronel and other rural land activists founded Ligas Agrarias Cristianas, a non-violent social movement whose demands for democratic and sustainable land reform became a threat to the Stroessner regime at a time when the land was hard currency and a way to secure political stability through a corrupt and arbitrary distribution of Paraguay’s “ill-gotten lands”.

“By reminding people of the roots of their hunger, despair, and lack of land we opened their eyes and senses to the reasons why they were suffering,” says Coronel. “Our mere existence threatened the foreign capital from Brazil and the West.”

The Stroessner regime wouldn’t have that. Paraguay was the land of the oligarchy and land was the path to power, and therefore any kind of social organisation – political gatherings, public meetings and union organisations – was outlawed and conducted with one’s life at stake during prolonged spells of states of siege. “We stood no chance,” laments Coronel, who summarises his life during the “Stronismo” in numbers of terror: “I spent five years in an isolation cell, I was subjected to numerous sessions of torture, and forced into exile many times.”

Coronel was among 20,000 arbitrarily arrested civilians during the Stroessner dictatorship, among whom 94 percent were tortured as part of the regime’s “preventive repression”, in tandem with “Operation Condor”, a state-run “anti-communist programme” that was funded and guided by the United States and contemporary South American dictatorships.

Human rights group Verdad, Justicia y Reparacion (Truth, Justice and Amends) holds a ceremony to honour the returned remains of people who went missing during the dictatorship government of Alfredo Stroessner in Asuncion, Paraguay, on February 10, 2017 [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

Leaning his back against the mango tree, the autumn blue sky above him, on the other side of the branches and leaves, Coronel says he is reminded of a vast and calm sea.

To flee into exile in Spain or Argentina, or quit the struggle for a better tomorrow for Paraguay’s small-scale and self-sufficient farmers was never an option, despite the harsh reality that political victories have been few and far between.

“It’s always been about the fight for human dignity,” he says. “That fight goes ever on.”

The old man walks back to the house where red wine, terere and the company of his children and relatives await while the sun starts to set over rural Paraguay. The main topic of conversation around the long table this evening is the rule of “Doctor Francia” – or “El Supremo” – Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia y Velasco, Paraguay’s first ruler following the country’s independence from Spain in 1811. Like many of their neighbours, the family still yearns for the long-ago past.

“If you look closer into Paraguayan history, you’ll find an alternative way of organising life, agriculture, land distribution and natural resources,” says Coronel. “For us who are unhappy with how things work in Paraguay, it’s an inspiration.”

While most Western intellectuals focus on the mysticism and brutality that encapsulates Paraguay’s first independent societal project, it’s Francia’s collectivism and determination that no natural resource – be it land, water, wind or plants – could be owned by private citizens that are the source of inspiration among small-scale peasants in rural areas such as this.

After its independence in 1811, the landlocked nation had become an isolated island ruled by the “Dictator for Life”, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, whose policy of self-sufficiency shut the door to the world. Throughout Francia’s regime, Paraguay’s economy was rooted in collectively owned and jointly administered agriculture and cattle farming.

A member of Paraguay’s Truth and Justice Commission examines skeletal remains found at the National Police Special Forces headquarters in Asuncion, Paraguay, on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. This was the 14th skeleton found at the location which was used as a clandestine prison during the military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner [Jorge Saenz/AP]

What Paraguay lacked in real political influence on the international stage, it replaced with “quiet pride,” writes historian Thomas Whigham. But Francia’s death in 1840 opened the gates for new actors, springing from the military garrisons, manoeuvring a geopolitical landscape in which Argentina and Brazil regarded Paraguay as a rebellious breakaway province that ought to be reunited with the Motherland. Francia’s political collectivism – or “way of life,” as described by small-scale farmers in rural Paraguay – was entombed by the “War of the Triple Alliance” (also known as the Paraguayan War, 1864–1870).

The war remains the bloodiest armed conflict in Latin America’s history during which an alliance formed between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay defeated its neighbour. Paraguay lost 25 percent of its territory and two-thirds of its population in the conflict or in subsequent starvation and diseases, among them 90 percent of all adult men.

Stroessner’s rule merely continued Paraguay’s dramatic collapse in the 1870s. His rule “was not a classic military regime by any means”, writes the historian Nickson, but rather centred on the Colorado Party, which in many ways replaced the state itself as the leading governmental institution. The vertical power structure of the “Stronismo” was based on a network of party branches (“seccionales”) which acted as providers of social services in return for party loyalty.

‘Paraguay’s Al Capone’ – the heir to Stroessner?

Paraguay has continued to be ruled by patriarchal strongmen, predominantly springing from the Colorado Party. After the short-lived progressive spell during President Lugo, Horacio Cartes (president of Paraguay from 2013 to 2018 and now president of the Colorado Party) came out on the other side of the Curuguaty massacre and the coup in June 2012, and has since then continued to concentrate political and economic power in a way that mirrors that of Stroessner. After having served as Paraguay’s president, Cartes now controls the Colorado Party and, as described by various observers, “owns three-quarters of Congress”.

“Cartes was one of many products of the Stroessner era; an apt pupil of the dictatorship’s economic and political system,” says Aristides Ortiz, investigative reporter and editor of the independent newspaper, Hina.

During Cartes’ presidency, many “narco-politicians” – those tied to Paraguay’s lucrative illegal trade of arms, cigarettes, and drugs – were elected to office, making them dependent on his legal protection in exchange for political loyalty.

In this April 5, 2013 file photo, Horacio Cartes, presidential candidate of the Colorado Party, dances during a campaign rally in Capiata, Paraguay, the year after Paraguay’s Senate removed then-President Fernando Lugo from office in a rapid impeachment trial [File: Jorge Saenz/AP]

Cartes, who has been dubbed “Paraguay’s Al Capone” by ex-President Mario Abdo Benitez (who served straight after Cartes from 2018 to 2023) began his ascent of the Colorado Party ladder as a businessman during the last phase of the “Stronismo”. He spent several months in prison in 1986 and 1989 for currency fraud and a plane belonging to him, which was carrying marijuana and cocaine, was seized by the authorities on his private ranch in eastern Paraguay, in 2000. Through a family-run conglomerate, the Cartes tribe owns large swaths of land, controls various media outlets, and exports lucrative commodities such as tobacco, meat and illegal drugs.

The rule of Cartes, first as president and subsequently as the puppeteer controlling both the Colorado Party and Congress, exercises power in a profound and distinct way. It makes use of the post-Stroessner installed structures of democratic institutions to provide the oligarchy with capital, land titles and political leverage.

Cartes’ deepening control over Paraguay would not have been possible without the “strong party-weak state” relationship established by Alfredo Stroessner. Corruption and mismanagement, as described by Nickson, lay the ground for “the tolerance of smuggling by the armed forces of a range of goods, switching from mainly cigarettes and whisky in the early years of the regime to narcotics and arms” after Stroessner’s removal in 1989.

“The rule of Cartes is enormous and, above all, financial,” says Ortiz.  Cartes’ way of governing, he adds, depends on the continuing support of the Colorado Party that has dragged Paraguay to the brink of “failed state” status.

Paraguayans commemorate the 30th anniversary of the end of Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship in Asuncion, Paraguay on February 2, 2019 [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

In May 2022, Paraguay’s leading anti-corruption prosecutor, Marcelo Pecci, was assassinated in front of his pregnant wife during their honeymoon in Colombia. According to Colombian police authorities, the murder was the result of a “highly planned transnational crime system” and Paraguay’s attorney general, Emiliano Rolon, is currently investigating Cartes’s “possible involvement” in Pecci’s death.

Pecci became a threat to Paraguay’s organised crime groups through his border-crossing investigating initiative known as “Ultranza Py”, which successfully tied crime groups in Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay to numerous contraband shipments.

Cartes was “blacklisted” by the US State Department in 2022, which labelled the ex-president as “significantly corrupt” with involvement in drug trafficking, cigarette smuggling, association with Brazil’s largest organised crime group, Primeiro Comando da Capital, and ties to what it calls “foreign terrorist organisations” through Lebanese trading partners in the triple frontier city, Ciudad del Este.

“In Cartes, Paraguay has found Stroessner’s true heir,” Mercedes Canese Antunez, former vice-secretary of mines and energy in the Lugo administration, tells Al Jazeera.

Like Donald Trump, Cartes has shifted the expected loyalty to the Colorado Party into personal loyalty, where the door between public office and the private sector has been removed. Cartes is aware of his reliance on Stroessner’s political heritage, which is why the late dictator’s date of birth, November 3, has been dubbed a “happy date” (fecha feliz) by the former president.

Paraguayans remember the murdered and missing as they commemorate the end of Alfredo Stroessner’s rule in Asuncion, Paraguay on February 2, 2019 [Jorge Adorno/Reuters]

“When it comes to the ‘collective memory’ of the Stronismo, it depends on whose recollection of the past you talk about,” says Ortiz. “Since it’s the same party that governs Paraguay today, there’s no such thing as a collective memory or intention to remember the dictatorship in any real sense. Some remember and talk of the Stroessner dictatorship in a critical way, just as some like to talk about the ‘peace’ and ‘order’ of the Stronismo.”

In authoritarian states, even in those hidden under the veil of democracy, nostalgia is an important tool. The 1954 coup may not be remembered fondly, but its subsequent “stability” and “security” – despite some 18,000 homicides being reported in the press during the Stroessner dictatorship – are drawn on by conservative voices when they mirror the epoch of “Stronismo” against a modern society where insecurity and crime are rampant.

These voices, however, forget to mention that the same political party and the late dictator’s heirs remain in total control of Paraguay’s future.

“The concentration of power that Cartes has, the absolute majority of Congress, control over justice and the prosecutor’s office, in addition to the executive branch and most of the local and national governments, is unprecedented since the new democratic constitution was implemented,” concludes Mercedes Canese Antúnez. “The 1992 constitution was supposed to be the final nail in the coffin of Stronismo. It wasn’t.”

Source: Al Jazeera