Two years ago a socially engaged bishop, Fernando Lugo, upset Paraguay’s long-running dictatorship instituted by Alfredo Stroessner, but with his hands tied by a corrupt judiciary, he has been unable to implement much-needed reform. And already Stroessner’s grandson waits in the wings


By François Musseau*

altIn the centre of Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, there’s a small, single-storey colonial building on Calle Chile with wire mesh on its windows. Squeezed between two large administrative buildings, it scarcely attracts a second glance. But on the wall as you enter, there’s a small gold plaque that reads Museo de la Memoria (museum of memory). And inside, there are countless photographs showing life under one of the most brutal far-right dictatorships in South American history, that of Alfredo Stroessner which lasted from 1954 to 1989.

In its labyrinth of darkened rooms, visitors come to the office of Robert K Thierry, the American colonel who trained Stroessner’s henchmen in torture techniques. The most notorious of these was the infamous pileta, a bath of excrement into which opponents of the regime – often communists – were plunged until they could bear it no more. At the back of the courtyard, visitors discover two torture cells. They contain two baths and equipment used to administer electric shocks. This museum, which opened in 2006, is situated in the former dreaded técnica (the torture centre of the regime), through whose doors some 10,000 victims passed.

“In all, I’ve been arrested 19 times,” Waldimiro Valois Cabañas told me. He was visiting the museum on a sort of pilgrimage. “Of all the prisons I’ve known, this place was the worst. I remember Comandante Alejandro Scheiber – he was a real Nazi!” Cabañas, upright and dignified at 88, has also come to the museum in search of reparations. “I’ve copied out all the information about my brother and me to request compensation from the government. But I’m not getting my hopes up. They want to forget us victims of the dictatorship. In Paraguay today we cause upset because we’re a reminder of a shameful past.”

It’s only 20 years since the fall of Stroessner. But if you walk around Asunción today you get the impression that the dictatorship never existed. Apart from this small museum, there is no commemorative plaque, no monument to the memory of the 19,862 prisoners and 18,772 torture victims (1). Paraguayan politicians, many of whom had links with the former regime, keep their mouths shut and the media only mention this dark period with the greatest caution.

In a taxi zigzagging through noisy downtown Asunción, Cabañas pointed out the police stations: “They were well-established centres for interrogation and torture. Today these places look so normal that sometimes I ask myself if we didn’t just imagine the whole nightmare.”

Bishop of the poor

Contemporary Paraguay has opted for democracy, and amnesia. On 20 April 2008, tired of decades of negligence, corruption and authoritarianism, 40.8% of Paraguayans voted for the “bishop of the poor”, Fernando Lugo, a socially engaged politician and former Roman Catholic bishop who was uncontaminated by financial scandal or compromising ties (2). It brought to an end 61 uninterrupted years of rule by the Colorado Party to which Stroessner belonged. It was a seismic shift politically and symbolically in a country that in all its history had never been run by the democratic left.

In President Lugo’s circle, they concede that the country’s past is “embarrassing”, but stress their priority must be the economy. Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is showing no signs of taking off economically. Moreover the president’s room for manoeuvre with regard to the past is, his spokesmen claims, “very restricted” or “almost zero”.

However, the authorities did arrest Sabino Montanaro, 87, who was interior minister during the dictatorship. When he returned from exile in Honduras last May, he was picked up and put in Tacumbú prison near Asunción. His movements since then, between prison and military hospital on account of his very poor health, have captivated the attention of Paraguayans, astonished by what had until then been unthinkable – that someone who embodied the terror of the Stronista (or Stroessner) regime would appear before a court.

“It’s clearly big news, but there’s a danger that we miss the bigger picture,” said Carlos Portillo, a professor of law. “No military figure in the dictatorship has paid for his crimes. To date, a total of just five police officers and their boss Pastor Coronel have received prison sentences. In Chile and Argentina the judges are going about things the right way. Meanwhile here, impunity rules.” Portillo was one of the nine-member Commission for Truth and Justice between 2003 and 2008. This body was “carefully kept in obscurity by political and media circles”, he explained with a look of regret.

Could it have been otherwise? The Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), which brought Lugo to power, is simply a coalition of eight political parties. Prominent among those is the Liberal Radical Authentic Party (PLRA), to which the vice-president Federico Franco belongs. The leaders of this group, long-time rivals of Colorado, have also been (and continue to be) immersed in countless corruption scandals. “How can Lugo take forward his great promise to the electorate, land reform?” asks Jorge Torres, a columnist on the daily ABC Color.

Tackling land reform is something this predominantly agricultural country (agriculture represents 30% of its GDP) has always been reluctant to do. According to official figures, 1% of landowners own 77% of the land, while 200,000 peasants are desperately waiting for redistribution of land to take place. A further 100,000 landless Paraguayans who had previously swelled the size of the cities Asunción and Ciudad del Este have emigrated to the US or Spain since 2004.

Tomas Zayas, a leader of the National Central Farmers, Indigenous and Popular Organisation (CNOCIP), is fighting against what he calls a flagrant injustice. He also encourages the landless to occupy large properties that are unproductive, though there is a considerable risk that anyone who does so will receive a beating from the police or private militias in the pay of the big landowners.

In 1989 this tactic paid off for Zayas himself in Alto Paraná near the Brazilian border. Today, under his leadership, 170 peasant families share 762 hectares in a colony named El Triunfo, which they won through a hard-fought struggle. This land allows them to survive, even if it is dwarfed by the tens of thousands of hectares belonging to their neighbours, mostly Brazilian GM soya farmers.

“We’re an exception,” Zayas admits. “Most communities don’t put up a fight against the advance of the big producers. We need genuine land reform, otherwise this steamroller (large-scale soya farming) will reduce the whole of rural Paraguay to abject poverty.” Grown on 2.7m hectares, GM soya needs very little labour – one peón (agricultural worker) for 500hectares – and only a tiny part of the billion dollars it generates each year end up in the state coffers.

Land disputes

Redistributing land is easier said than done, though. The state doesn’t have the funds to buy it back. It could certainly take it back, since vast tracts of land in the country were given out arbitrarily and illegally during the dictatorship to members of the military and other friends of the regime. Here people speak of tierras mal habidas – ill-gotten land that often, amid Paraguayan administrative chaos, has conflicting title deeds. For the many peasants who have suffered, the only hope of recovering their land lies in legal action; thousands of land disputes are clogging up the courts. “This touches a nerve in the system, that is to say judicial power,” says Mirta Barreto, president of the Centre for Rural Services and Studies (CSER). “The judges are utterly corrupt and so defend the rights of the big landowners. The way things currently stand, it’s impossible to get justice when it comes to land ownership.”

This judiciary is one of the biggest obstacles to Lugo’s reform plans. Without the collaboration of the magistrates, land reform will remain no more than an idea. The same goes for any constitutional change that would give the president greater room for manoeuvre. Things are made all the more difficult as the nine top magistrates in the supreme court have declared they cannot be removed from their posts until the age of 75. “A permanent coup d’etat” is how one western diplomat based in Asunción describes it. “How can structural change take place when the ultimate arbiters of such change are the creatures of the old regime and fiercely opposed to change?”

There’s nothing surprising in this: unlike other former dictatorships in South America such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Paraguay hasn’t had a true break with the past -in 1989 the leader of the putsch that overthrew Stroessner, General Andrés Rodríguez, was none other than his own son-in-law. Behind a democratic façade, he established a regime that was just as authoritarian as his father-in-law’s and involved at the highest level in smuggling and drug trafficking. The Colorado Party retained the reins of power: whoever was the president (Juan Carlos Wasmosy, Raúl Cubas Grau, Oscar Nicanor) the same system of vote-catching remained in place, with the active complicity of judges, senators, members of parliament and senior civil servants.

Those with links to the Colorado Party or the PLRA relentlessly pour their bile on Lugo using the press, which is devoted to the conservative cause. As a result of his excellent relations with the member countries of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance of the People of our America: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua etc), the former bishop is accused one day of a Chavez-style drift towards populism; the next he’s charged with being in cahoots with the leftist guerrillas who abducted Fidel Zavala, a rancher whose kidnap in October 2009 triggered a huge effort to get him released.

Opponents of change

altThis offensive led the president to dismiss the military top brass on 6 November on suspicion of planning a putsch. The shadow of Honduras, where a coup d’etat overthrew President Manuel Zelaya last June, hovers over Paraguay. And as he attempts to put his reform agenda in place, Lugo has to confront a parliament in which he has no support – as the PLRA have now joined the right and far right opposition (3). There are pressures on all sides to end his mandate and remove him from office on a wide variety of pretexts. And Vice-President Franco never misses an opportunity to mention that he is ready to govern.

“The opponents of change are all-powerful. They control this country,” said Augusto Barreto, a music producer and journalist who, with telediez.com (an internet television channel), tracks abuses of power and corruption scandals involving the country’s ruling elite. Barreto, in his 50s, with a caustic sense of humour, does not lack courage. On 20 November 2005 four hired assassins killed his father for denouncing General Rodriguez as a drug trafficker. “The unbelievable thing is the way in which the worst elements of the dictatorship strut about quite openly,” he said. “Men such as Martin Chiola, who was close to Stroessner and a diehard Colorado senator. Or Diogenes Martinez, a torturer who was appointed foreign minster and chief public prosecutor.”

In the centre of the capital is one of those white colonnaded houses belonging to the oligarchy. It’s the office of Senator Alfredo Stroessner, grandson of the former dictator, who died in Brazil in 2006. With his impressive build and seductive smile, Stroessner has made his mark as one of the new generation of the Colorado Party. He has condemned the “attacks on human rights” of his grandfather, but hasn’t repudiated his inheritance. Everywhere he goes, Goli, as he is known, is received respectfully, even triumphantly.

This scion of the Stroessner family knows how to make use of the fear he inspires, and he’s not lacking in confidence. He has already declared his intention to run for president in 2013 and is unlikely to have trouble financing his campaign. He inherited the family’s holding company (which includes finance, construction, livestock farming and transport) and a share of his grandfather’s fortune, estimated at US$900 million. And now the dictator’s grandson is already presenting himself as the candidate for change.


Translated by George Miller

* François Musseau is a journalist

(1) Figures established by the Truth and Justice Commission and made public in late 2008. Their report estimates the number of direct and indirect victims of the dictatorship – forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, detention, torture, rape and political exile – at 128,076.
(2) The participation rate in this election, which required a simple majority in a single round, was 65%.
(3) Fernando Lugo has retained the support of just three senators out of a total of 48, and two MPs out of 80.

Le Monde Diplomatique