Alfredo Stroessner
Alfredo Stroessner; drawing by David Levine

To most people who have heard of it at all, or do not confuse it with Uruguay, the word “Paraguay” is associated with fascism: a place in the sun for fugitive Nazi leaders and the domain (since 1954) of General Alfredo Stroessner, longest-lived and most right-wing of Latin American dictators. It may perhaps also suggest a rather attractive kind of folk music.

None of these impressions is incorrect. The modest immigration statistics of the country show a rather marked jump in 1946 and 1947. As for the General (also of German origin), he has seen to it that his presence is not easily overlooked, from the moment one arrives at the Presidente Gral. Stroessner airport in Asunción or at Puerto Presidente Stroessner across the river from Brazil, which is where most of the few overseas tourists come from, on a quick side trip from the Iguassu Falls. Continental tourists come in bus loads for a quick duty-free shopping spree and (if male) for the girls in the night clubs, in which Paraguayan harp acts and acrobatic folk dances survive among the tangos for the Argentine patrons. Paraguay, least known among the South American republics, is at best a whistle stop for most foreigners. Its somnolent charm—curiously like that of a remote inland Ireland—can be very great. However, neither refugee SS-men nor the dictator himself offer the best way to understand it.

For most of its history Paraguay has been on the road to nowhere, on the outermost margins of Iberian colonization, isolated and in general militantly proud of its isolation. Squeezed between the two giants of Argentina and Brazil, overshadowed by whoever dominates the world economy, it has always had to face the problem of maintaining relations with the outside world without being completely swallowed by it. Paraguay is frontier rather than Indian territory. The 2.4 million Paraguayans who have not emigrated (probably 600,000 have) distinguish sharply between themselves and the, say, 40,000 Indians, whom they harry as much as settlers do anywhere else in the South American interior and who, in spite of some recent signs of good will, are likely to disappear or to survive merely in human zoos for tourist inspection. But Paraguay (and a few adjoining stretches in neighboring countries) forms the only region in any part of the Americas where the settlers themselves became culturally as well as biologically Indianized.

Everywhere else between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego the language of culture, of urban communication, of officials and high status, is of European origin. Here people are genuinely bilingual. Not only is Guaraní the first language of most citizens, but it enjoys official status and even enters the culture of the educated: the Municipal Theatre of Asunción, between performances of La Traviata by a touring company from, presumably, the hinterlands of Argentina, proudly announces a “comedia comica” in Castilian and Guaraní, certain that the public will follow both.

Bilingualism, now a subject of passionate controversy among the local intellectuals, is in fact as good a point of departure as any for considering the peculiarities of the country. Its existence is based on the marginal toe hold which small handfuls of conquerors and missionaries, paddling from the La Plata estuary up the great rivers which define and limit Paraguay, established for Spanish culture in this isolated and empty zone. But it also expresses the results of this marginality: an unusually small and weak oligarchy of those who could claim a white skin; unusually feeble links with the world economy; and an unusual degree of independence of a self-contained, agreeable, but—as all its history proves—extremely tough and warlike peasantry.

Paraguay has an impressive record of lengthy dictatorships, from the paternalist Indian mission-colonies of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuits, through the formidable Dr. Francia (1812-1840), Carlos Antonio López and his son Francisco Solano López in the nineteenth century, to General Stroessner today. Their purpose was always to control the world’s access to Paraguay, though the megalomania of Solano López, who took on Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay simultaneously, achieved the opposite result.

Paraguay also has a unique record of martial achievement against the odds, commemorated by a modest Pantheon and numerous pieces of military statuary and nomenclature. All of them, unlike those in other Latin American countries, commemorate neither civil wars nor independence from Spain, but wars against neighbors. But for the known and proved fighting capacity of its people, there would probably be no Paraguay today. They beat Bolivia in the Chaco War (1932-1935). They fought their way through what is probably the relatively greatest catastrophe of military history, the Triple Alliance War of 1864-1870, which wiped out, at an absolute minimum, two-thirds of the adult male population,1 and up to 99 percent of its cattle.2 But Paraguay is still there, carefully playing off its two giant neighbors against each other and keeping Big Brother happy by an anti-communism that would satisfy even the late J. Edgar Hoover.


The point is that in general the dictators and the peasants got on well enough, so long as both concentrated on keeping the outside world at bay. The dictators neither were nor are modern populists—nothing in Paraguay is very modern—but they did not get in the way of the peasants cultivating their manioc (which their wives still pound with heavy wooden pestles in mortars roughly hollowed out from logs). But the white oligarchy did so, especially if they were landowners, liberals, or both. By contrast, the ferocious Dr. Francia, to whom Asunción’s official squares owe their air of modest provincial neoclassicism, abolished the export trade and practically all the country’s links with the outside world. He both courted and enjoyed the support of the peasants, for whom fewer exports meant more food or leisure. As a historian, George Pendle, has put it: “The individual rights of the majority may not have been officially recognized, but they were not interfered with. And that, doubtless, is democracy of a kind.” Especially for Latin American peasants.

Though General Stroessner certainly interferes with his citizens’ individual rights, he is in one sense a reversion to the traditional alliance of dictator and peasant, as witness his formal support of the Guaraní language, now compulsory in primary schools. In fact he has taken over the old conservative Colorado party, long a powerless minority opposition to the Liberals who prevailed after Paraguay was forcibly integrated into the—then British-dominated—world economy after 1870. The Liberal era, which has filled Asunción with the architecture of a back-country belle époque (say around 1890), did not outlast the Great Depression and the Chaco war, when Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell fought each other for oil deposits in that large area of sun-baked scrublands. Liberals and Colorados, young military insurrectionaries, a new radical populist party (the Febreristas) which never got mass support, and communists fought and combined with one another for a couple of decades until General Stroessner exiled or jailed all opposition.

Though Paraguayans are not much given to effusiveness, it is a mistake to think of Stroessner’s regime as one of total silence and fear, at any rate today. The limits of public discussion are by now well understood—they exclude the personal and business affairs of “el hombre,” his family, and lesser officers—but there is now a sense of cautious relaxation, perhaps rather like that of Spain ten years ago, except (naturally) for communists. (Still, there has obviously been quite a lot of Marxist discussion among students.) There is even reference to torture in the papers. Communists and anyone trying to organize peasants are jailed. The Febreristas are allowed their journal, but some are jailed from time to time to remind them who is boss.

The Liberal-Radicals are tolerated. Since they stand for Spanish instead of Guaraní, for anti-clericalism against superstition, and for other ancient symbols of progress unlikely to attract the masses, they are not dangerous. What is more, they are virtually a family organization, rather like the British Whigs during the Napoleonic era. They are a party which would not really know what to do with a Liberal who was not a son or daughter of a “good” family, educated in Europe or at least Buenos Aires, and suitably related by blood or marriage to other “good” families: a party that is indestructible because not worth destroying, but only worth muzzling.

The most vocal and active opposition comes from the growing student population (which probably worries the General more than anything else at the moment) and the Catholic Church, the Conference of Paraguayan Bishops being surprisingly radical, though the army chaplains and certain congregations remain conservative and the village clergy is somewhat divided. The Church cannot be easily silenced. Its publication of labor news is probably not much of a headache, since there are few organizable workers and, except possibly for a carpenters’ society, no unions. The biggest industry is smuggling, which Paraguayans practice with a skill much admired by their neighbors and with encouragement from the authorities (if paid off). On the other hand the Church can get to the peasants. It gives undesirable publicity to the attempts by the more radical priests to organize peasant communities and to the subsequent jailing of their members; not to mention awkward reminders of those still in jail after up to eighteen years. And almost two-thirds of Paraguayans are still peasants.

About 80 percent of these live on small family plots, growing a little extra for sale in addition to their subsistence crops. Like so many other peasants on small holdings, they are difficult to classify: working their own plots, hiring a hand or two to help in harvesting a little cotton or sugar (if they have enough land), and hiring themselves or their families out at home or—more likely—on Argentinian farms. There is little unemployment, since land is still available and the surplus rural population emigrates en masse—overwhelmingly abroad, thus incidentally saving Asunción from the familiar pullulation of shantytowns. Probably a substantial majority of the peasants are squatters, without land titles, a situation which the local bosses, a complex hierarchy of trader-politicians, working closely with police and army, can use to keep them politically in line.


Who knows what they think as they sit among framed family photos on their earth porches, eating manioc, polenta, beans, and maybe a little pork cooked in primitive earth kitchens by their wives (who eat separately)? What goes through their minds as they speak politely to the señores or to anyone with a brick house on a brick platform—less comfortable than adobe and thatch, but a status symbol? Probably that the traders are their main enemies. Some people even claim that the communists have been active in the central part of the country, but while the General is around, the peasants will certainly not express an opinion on the matter, in Castilian or Guaraní.

There is not much to threaten the regime in the short run, though the discovery of a “people’s prison” and stock of explosives maintained by some Argentinians, and presumably intended to blow up “el hombre,” recently caused a temporary panic and clamp-down in what remains a period of cautious relaxation. And yet, conservative dictatorship can no longer be what it once was. It works, in so far as Paraguay is still backward—and in most respects it still is the sort of Latin America we read about in Joseph Conrad, only less vulnerable, because it has not much to sell, and certainly no major monoculture export.

The army officers, recruited from the lower and lower middle classes of the interior, are given economic opportunities beyond the dreams of their fathers, shares in pay-offs and rackets, perhaps the chance to acquire estates of cattle ranches somewhere in the large and empty country, but most of this does not affect the poor directly. The 200,000 or so Paraguayans whose jobs depend on government—and membership in the Colorado party—will mainly keep their thoughts to themselves. Even though the General does not bother about organizing a mass movement for himself, he can always rely on the Paraguayan sense of independence from the big neighbors, on the fact that unlike them his people talk Guaraní. By the miserably modest standards of the South American poor, they have not done too badly during the decades of the great global boom.

Nevertheless, the bases of this Paraguayan isolation are slowly being undermined by the accelerating pace of economic progress. Guaraní, for instance, is essentially a language of speech, not writing.3 What effect will television, which is entirely Spanish, have on it? Already in the lower middle class the more status-conscious women tend to opt deliberately for the more “cultured” language of the consumer society, though not yet the men. And modern society is slowly approaching. Last year Asunción even installed traffic lights, though it has not yet gone so far as to drain its main streets (which therefore turn into rivers when it rains), and it still has only two long-distance paved highways—the one to Argentina and the one to Brazil.

What is more to the point, the foreigners have finally discovered something very big to export from Paraguay: hydroelectric power. To the horror of Argentina, unconsoled by a rather more modest dam of the same kind, Brazil is going ahead with the Itaipú project, which is to be the greatest hydroelectric complex in the world. Having escaped the fate of the banana republic, Paraguay may well become the first “hydroelectric republic.” Brazilian economic expansion has long been colonizing beyond its southern and southwestern borders. Already the cruzeiro rather than the guaraní is the effective money up to halfway into Paraguay, and Brazilians are buying up land which is, by their standards, both cheap and underused. The Itaipú project is, of course, a joint venture, half the energy going to Paraguay, which will not need more than 5 percent of its share; Brazil is kindly offering to buy the rest at a price fixed for the next half-century.

Moreover, though the contract is theoretically binational, the businessmen of the Union Industrial Paraguaya bitterly complain that the gravy train swerves sharply toward Brazil. Paraguayan firms are kept in the dark about building specifications, which just happen to suit Brazilian firms. Except for the cut which doubtless goes to high-powered generals and others favored by Stroessner, it does not look as though much economic development will come the way of the smaller country. And, unfortunately for Paraguay, the balance of power between Brazil and Argentina is at the moment too one-sided for much maneuvering. Still, the Itaipú project will need 30,000 laborers, and Paraguayan labor is cheap.

But hydroelectricity is merely one aspect of “development” which, with all its temptations for local generals, enormously complicates the task of an old-fashioned dictatorship. For instance, by bringing unknown Paraguayans, with stamped papers from the United Nations, from Development Banks, authorized by the government, into a countryside where, until recently, the local boss and the local police chief could work to the simple rule that any outsider who was not a superior official had no business there.

It used to be so simple. Anyone who wanted to get in touch with the peasants—say, for election meetings—went to the comisario (who was not a local man) and the presidente de sección of the Colorado party (who was), and both would call out the peasants to listen and keep quiet. It was not hard to keep an eye on the peasants, especially since the great Dr. Francia, with his enthusiasm for science and eighteenth-century logic, had laid out the settlements in tidy supervisable square blocks. But these new visitors, surveying, interviewing, may either be the expected subversives—though their official papers make this unlikely—or subordinate or equivalent functionaries who “ought to” work through old authorities. But what if they are superiors, short-circuiting local authority, perhaps with a direct line to the top? Ought they to be treated with respect even if they go directly to the population? Ought they to be told about local rackets and rivalries? Ought something to be done about those land disputes so that by the time they get to the spot they will have only efficiency and tranquillity to report back to Asunción?

Such are the headaches of “development” for hard-working local bosses in a remote dictatorship. Once the visitor has gone, all ranks are closed again and the old hierarchy is re-established. But the long-term effect of such visits is to weaken it, and to reinforce the elements of uncertainty and possible subversion. Paraguay, urban and rural, remains a quiet place. Indeed, its old-fashioned, rickety backwardness, Stroessner or no Stroessner, has an enchantment which some visitors find it impossible to resist, and which the government preserves from unsuitable explorers.4 But, though President General Stroessner is only a vigorous sixty-two, by the time he dies or retires it is unlikely to be such a simple country to run.

This Issue

October 2, 1975