The 1989 Coup d’Étát in Paraguay: The End of a Long Dictatorship, 1954–1989 (Latin America at War Book 11) – Antonio Luis Sapienza

paraguayIn the Colombian capital of Bogotá, protests which began on April 28 have increased and has resulted injuries to more than eight hundred people. The demonstrations are the result of public frustration with the country’s economic crisis that has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The country has a long history of social unrest and what is taking place today is a scene common across Latin America, a region familiar with political and social unrest.  The issues that have plagued Latin American nations have been compounded the by tyranny of right-wing dictators that solidified their power in the wake of World War II.   On May 4, 1954, the Commander-In-Chief of the Paraguayan Army, Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006), led a coup d’état that placed him in power of the small South American nation for more than thirty years.  In 1989, he was removed in another coup d’état  that return a sense of democracy to the country.  Author Antonio Luis Sapienza is a native of Paraguay and here he recalls the reign of Stroessner and its impact on his nation.

Personally, I have always wanted to visit Paraguay. I have seen Argentina, Chile and Brazil and will surely make a return to South America post-Covid 19.  But how many of us are even aware of Paraguay? The nation is landlocked and largely unknown to the rest of the world. In fact, the late Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) perfectly explained the country’s place in the world with this quote:

“For most people, Paraguay is an empty space on the map of Latin America: a country of only 6 million, where a vast percentage of the land is steaming hot jungle or a huge scrub desert known simply as the Chaco. Only a few large cities offer a respite from the oppressive heat.”

Readers familiar with Latin America will easily recall the names of other dictators whom Stroessner appears to be a clone of.  As I read through the story, I began to think of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006) in Chile, Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974) in Argentina and Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina (1891-1961) in the Dominican Republic.  Of course, they are only a few of dictators that seized power across the globe during the 1950s, 1950s and 1970s.  Stroessner rises through the ranks of the military and seizes the moment to gain control of the government.  And it is soon clear that he is another despot seduced by power and lacking the skills needed to bring true democracy to Paraguay.  The people could not have known then that they would live under his rule for more than three decades.  Sapienza discusses Stroessner’s reign and the events that led to his removal in 1989 in this short but direct book that provides an excellent summation of the many aspects of revolution.

It is true that Stroessner did bring some positive changes to Paraguay, in the form of public services and economic agreements with neighboring countries. But the general also had a dark side and made no secret of his right-wing leanings.  During World War II and after Nazi Germany’s defeat, former Third Reich officials found a home on the continent where they could reside in relative peace without the threat of extradition back to Germany.  Paraguay was  one of several countries that accepted former Nazis and the author drives home the point with this reference:

“In 1959, a controversial decree gave Paraguayan citizenship to Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS medical doctor who worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and conducted inhuman experiments using Jewish prisoners.” 

Mengele never faced justice at Nuremberg and lived until age sixty-seven.   On February 9, 1979, he died after suffering a stroke while swimming near the municipality of Bertioga in São Paulo, Brazil.  Undoubtedly, other former officials escaped and lived quietly across the continent. And even here in the United States, former Nazi officials were welcomed and utilized as the Cold War heated up.  In Asunción, Stroessner ruled the nation with an iron fist while he sat on the throne surrounded by his immediate family and on occasion several mistresses.  As the mid-1970s approached, human rights campaigns began to focus highly on Latin America.  The missing persons  and murders that occurred in Argentina and other nations due to Operation Condor, had caused the world to take notice.  In Paraguay, dissention was brewing and another general began to set his sights on Stroessner’s seat.  Like the president, General Andres Rodriguez (1923-1997) has risen through the ranks in the military. But unlike Stroessner, he did not share the same view of power. And while Rodriguez had his own dark past which is discussed in the book, he was the man who gained the support of those who supported change in Paraguay.  Sapienza provides a biographical sketch of Rodriguez, allowing the reader to see how and why he played such a major role in the events of 1989.

As the coup approaches, readers can feel the apprehension in the story.  Incredibly, everyone but the president seems to be aware that something is brewing.  But the arrogance common to dictators who believe they will always be in power takes hold.  Stroessner may have believed that no one would ever take his place but as Sapienza explains, the country was ready to move on from his regime.  Rodriguez had his own reign, but it did not last nearly as long and he did allow democratic elections while in office, a process that continues to this day.  However, the country will never forget the tyranny of Alfredo Stroessner and his regime that held Paraguay in a vice grip for too many years.   This is the story of his rise and fall on a continent that continues to go through revolution.


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