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Alfredo Stroessner: revisiting the general

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

I can see now where this story ended, although for a long time I was playing with other endings, reluctant to let go. It ended with that moment of cinema, crossing General Stroessner's spongy lawn and looking back to see him, framed in the doorway, waving. I waved, went through the gate and into the General's car, and the world rushed in around me, hotels, luggage and airports — everyday people, everyday lives. [...]

But where had the story begun? It had been there for years, but I always found something else, wars, elections; Latin America was never short of events clamouring for attention. Except in Paraguay. Paraguay was a situation, rather than an event. It was wrapped in a layer of clichés, and, when events poked through, they seemed only to reinforce the clichés. Josef Mengele was in Paraguay; fascist army officers from Argentina fled to Paraguay when their coup plots failed; Indians in the Paraguayan jungle were hunted by fundamentalist American missionaries with rifles. Stroessner had been there for ever and always would be.

Then, suddenly, in February 1989, he wasn't.

I wasn't there either. I was in Jamaica, watching a more orderly change of government. I called my newspaper from Kingston, cursing my bad luck – a journalist in the wrong place. It was too late. Stroessner had been hustled out of the country and had gone to ground in Brazil, where he sat in his beach-house, under siege from a press corps in bathing-suits. No interviews, no comment, no recriminations. Nothing.

He had never been a great one for interviews, but now he had a further excuse. He was in asylum and that imposed silence. After an interlude of disorderly scenes at the beach-house – photographers on step-ladders peeping over the wall, helicopters chartered by TV companies chattering overhead – he was moved. Some said to São Paulo; others said Brasília. At any rate, he had vanished behind another set of walls, another set of guards. He was rumoured to be ill and had a brief spell in hospital, then silence.

This article contains selected excerpts from "The General", an article in Granta magazine (issue 31, April 1990) by Isabel Hilton based on her interview with the former dictator of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner

openDemocracy thanks Granta for its kind permission in reproducing these extracts.

Six months later, I decided I would try to find him, to talk to him, and I had mixed feelings about the prospect. I knew nobody had and I didn't really see why I should be different, though I also knew that the unpredictability of Latin America could precipitate you as easily into a president's office as into a jail. I had set out on similar quests before and knew that they followed no timetable and that you just had to go where they led you until you either gave up or found yourself pushing an open door. I also knew that the last door always opened on to another, that it was hard to stop going through them and that there was never going to be enough time; I would end up, I feared, with one of those hollow-hearted stories which reconstructs the drama without the main character.

But even with that risk, it was a tempting drama. I knew that Stroessner's Paraguay had featured a kind of rampant official gangsterism, racketeers masquerading as high officials, contraband pretending to be business. There was a constitution, a state structure; there were laws, elections: but none of them was real. What was real was power, cronyism, corruption, the righteous men in jail and the criminals in government. [...] I wanted to follow a thread to the Presidential Palace.

I set off for Asunción at the beginning of September 1989 with a suitcase of research I had only just begun to read and a list of names and numbers. Apart from one detailed academic political study and some slim volumes published by human rights organizations, there was remarkably little about Stroessner's Paraguay. [...] It was like the silent planet, on a different radio frequency from the outside world. It fought savage wars with its neighbours, in which thousands died; created passionate myths and legends, but who cared? It changed presidents so often that when Alfredo Stroessner staged his coup, in May 1954, then sanctified his newly acquired throne with rigged elections, he must have seemed like just the latest man through the revolving door.

When he fell, thirty-five years later, he held a number of records. He was the longest-serving dictator in the western hemisphere and the second longest in the world: only Kim Il Sung outlasted him. The world had lived through thirty-five years of history, but three-quarters of the population of Paraguay had known no other leader, and there was not an institution or political party in the country that had not been shaped by his presence.

[Isabel Hilton travelled from Asunción to Brasília. There, a contact told her that the general would see her. Following a chat with Stroessner's son, Gustavo, a car was sent to bring her to his home.]

I turned round from the garden at the moment the General made his entrance. It was as though the photographs had come alive. That heavy face, the pouchy blue eyes, the full underlip beneath the moustache and the slightly receding chin that folded into a flabby neck. His blue-silk suit was carefully buttoned over a paunch.

"Welcome," he said, "a great pleasure to receive you"[…].

Stroessner cleared his throat and began to make a speech. "In Paraguay," he said, "there was democracy. A fully democratic system, with absolute independence of the judges and the parliament. Then there was great progress. Great progress. Development".[…]

"We can't make any statements here. We can't talk about the internal politics of Paraguay." My heart sank. "A lot of people have asked for interviews, but we have said no. This is a special case. But we are in political asylum. We have to be careful."

I wondered why they had made an exception. […]

[Stroessner listed countries he had visited, other leaders he had met, infrastructure improvements under his rule – and asked what people were saying about him in Asunción.]

But the attempted revolutions in Paraguay? The guerrillas? […]

"A few," said the old man. "But they were very small in number. They were of no importance."

I thought of those peasant massacres, armed assaults on people seeking land-reform, tortured oppositionists, all condemned as communists. [...]. Of the language of the Cold War, preserved in the rare air of Asunción. And he didn't believe it? Never had?

"There was no reason for a revolution in Paraguay," Stroessner added, by way of explanation.

I tried a few other ways of asking the question and gave up. Stroessner simply refused to worry about communism.

I tried another line of questions, on the problems of authority. Did he feel, always, that he was being told the truth by those who served him?

"Yes, always," he said. Another dead end, I thought. "Though," he added, after a pause, "one can always be wrong, given what happened."

I looked up at him. He was smiling at the floor. I hadn't expected irony.

He seemed to be thinking about it, talking from inside at last. "I was always confident that I knew. I never expected this … this" – he searched for the word – "this cuartelazo". For reasons that are not hard to find, there is, in Spanish, more than one word for a coup d'etat. The most derogatory is "cuartelazo", a barracks revolt, a rabble got out of hand. […]

How did he feel about it, I asked him. [...]

"Look, what can you do in these circumstances … 'A lo hecho, pecho' – take it on the chin. It happened. Taking into account all the other things that happened in the past, what happened to me is not extraordinary."

He returned to his consolatory recital. "Paraguay had a long period of progress, tranquillity and peace. It took giant steps."

[Isabel Hilton returned later to continue the interview, Stroessner in the same upright chair, "with the same disciplined stillness".]

The General had dusted off the president, put on a suit and performed for history as well as his rambling old age would allow. […]

[…] I had come for my second interview wanting to get some sense of how the General felt about the coup - what led to it? why he thought it had happened? did he think that things could have turned out differently? – but I was not to have much success.

There were so many things Stroessner clung to: that the army had not been unhappy; that he had never insisted that officers join the Colorado party; […] that those who ousted Stroessner were members of a small clique who did it for no other reason than that of squalid personal ambition.

Under Stroessner, life in Paraguay had always been marked by peace, order and an absence of serious social conflict. The problems with the Church were a matter of a few individual priests. The problems with the United States were some minor difficulties (with one ambassador). The problems with the "exiled"opposition were exaggerated […] The problems with the press were only because some members of it had been advocating violence. Paraguay, under Stroessner, was a fully democratic society. […]

I was starting to see that, at the heart of it all, there were just too many things that could not he reconciled: a clear white space between the Paraguay of Stroessner's vision and the Paraguay I had got to know. There were also two Stroessners: one, the beloved father of the people, progressive and popular; the second, the man who, for thirty-five years, ran a state of terror in the name of national security and the fight against communism. Now, in exile, he chose to forget the second Stroessner: or, at least in my company, he had chosen to forget him, and there seemed to be little that I could do about it.[…]

[The next day, Isabel Hilton was to see Stroessner for the third and last time.]

I had little to lose, I thought, in confronting him with some realities. That's what I decided I would do: I would make Stroessner confront Stroessner.

I would talk to him about torture.

I began by citing Amnesty International. A simple statement: that Amnesty International had consistently reported that in Paraguay there was torture.

"Rupture? "said Stroessner. "No, there was no rupture. We always answered the questions."

There was never a rupture or there was never torture? I asked, deflated by this attack of deafness.

"No," he said, "never a rupture. We answered all the questions quite normally."

But what about the allegations themselves? I said. The physical mistreatment in the prisons?

"No. Absolutely not," he said. "I don't remember any such allegations. Or any such information coming to me through such organisations."

"So the behaviour of the Paraguayan police was—"

"—Correct," he interrupted.

"Correct?" I said.

"Correct," he repeated.

What about the state of siege? I asked, determined to poke my finger through the ideal democracy of Paraguay. "Did not the state of siege act as an impediment to justice?"

I had made him irritated.

"Look," he said. "The state of siege was necessary. There was subversion in Latin America. It was more of a preventive measure. It wasn't used much." He said he would have preferred to have lifted it. It was not what he wanted.

But I had crossed the line.

"These are things that have already been judged. Things in the past," he said. "I have to think of my status as a resident in this country. But I do insist that in Paraguay there was order [orden]; the judiciary had the power of complete independence; justice was fully exercised."

I asked him if he regretted the way things had turned out.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I went in by the front door and had always wanted to leave by the front door. But circumstances didn't allow it. But I don't want to make any accusations. Everything that happened, happened, and, if I had known – well, we are all wise after the event…"

"Well," he said abruptly, "I think we have talked quite a lot. I was at the head of the government – by popular choice – and Paraguay progressed. That's all I can say, Isabel Hilton […]"

[…] His greatest gift had been his power to corrupt. His great good fortune that so many were willing to be corrupted. He had distorted meaning so far that finally there was none. How long would he last, I wondered, in this little domestic prison, adding up the mileage of asphalted roads?

[…] "I saw Stroessner," I said to one friend, a man who knows as much about Latin American dictators as anybody.

"Did he say much?" he asked.

"No," I replied.

"I'm not surprised," he said. "They never do."


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