Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay

Alfredo Stroessner launched a military coup and began a thirty-five-year dictatorship that suspended Paraguay’s democratic government and repressed social, political, and other human rights. Under Stroessner, the Paraguayan economy did see some recovery after it constructed, with Brazil, the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant and sold its electricity.

Summary of Event

Alfredo Stroessner, a career soldier, was born in Encarnación, Paraguay. His father was a German immigrant and his mother was a local of Guarani (indigenous) descent. Stroessner joined the Paraguayan army at the age of seventeen and became an officer two years later. In 1932, Bolivia attempted to seize control of the Chaco area that lay between the two countries. It was assumed at the time that Bolivia would easily defeat its southern rival because the Bolivian army, headed by German officers, was better armed and trained. This did not prove to be the case. The Paraguayan army defeated the Bolivians in the field and ultimately won the war. Revolutions and coups;Paraguay
Paraguayan military coup of 1954
[kw]Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay (May, 1954)
[kw]Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay, Military (May, 1954)
[kw]Dictatorship in Paraguay, Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of (May, 1954)
[kw]Paraguay, Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in (May, 1954)
Revolutions and coups;Paraguay
Paraguayan military coup of 1954
[g]Latin America;May, 1954: Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay[04440]
[g]Paraguay;May, 1954: Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay[04440]
[c]Government and politics;May, 1954: Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay[04440]
[c]Human rights;May, 1954: Military Coup Begins Thirty-Five Years of Dictatorship in Paraguay[04440]
Stroessner, Alfredo
Chávez, Federico
Rodríguez, Andrés

During this war, Stroessner was decorated for bravery and cited for superior performance of duty. Following the war he was appointed to the country’s Superior War College, excelled academically there, and was swiftly promoted. By 1948, he reached the rank of brigadier general and became the youngest general officer in South America.

Paraguay was plagued by political turmoil during the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. In May, 1954, Stroessner managed to gain control of the reins of government through his control of the Colorado Party Colorado Party, Paraguayan and the army. The incumbent president, Federico Chávez, was forced by Stroessner to resign. Stroessner then established a dictatorship that suspended the country’s democratic process. His tight political, economic, and social control allowed the country to achieve some degree of political and economic stability. During most of his presidency the Paraguayan economy sustained a low rate of inflation and incurred little external debt.

The era of the late 1950’s was one of stabilization for the country and for its dictatorship. Stroessner demanded that the business sector adopt an economic program recommended by the International Monetary Fund. He also crushed any attempt by the labor movement to promote strikes. In the 1960’s the country experienced very little economic growth but it remained politically stable. Only the Colorado Party, controlled by Stroessner, was permitted to operate. Any attempt by any other political groups to organize was ruthlessly suppressed.

During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the country benefited from the construction of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam Itaipu hydroelectric dam
Dams , the largest of its kind in the world. Brazil, Paraguay’s neighbor, was desperate for electric power, so it provided the financing necessary for the construction of the dam. In turn, Brazil received most of the power the dam produced. The dam also furnished all the power that Paraguay needed, provided jobs for its domestic workforce, and stimulated the country’s export of its major crops, soybeans and cotton. Stroessner also used his economic partnership with Brazil to force Argentina to adopt a foreign policy favorable to Paraguay as well.

The Stroessner regime opened up hundreds of acres of land for the peasantry in Paraguay’s underdeveloped eastern border region and provided scores of bureaucrat positions in a greatly expanded civil sector. Foreign aid, much of it from the United States, was utilized to improve the country’s infrastructure. With it the government built roads, schools, and power plants. The United States also provided military assistance as well as training to more than two thousand Paraguayan officers in counterintelligence and counterinsurgency. Stroessner was fiercely anti-Communist, allowing him to maintain strong ties with the United States throughout most of his political career. The dictator refused to allow the establishment of embassies by Communist countries within Paraguay during that period.

Paraguay, however, also became South America’s leader in terms of contraband activities. The armed forces were under Stroessner’s complete control, and he permitted them to enrich themselves through a wide range of illicit activities, including prostitution and drugs, provided that they maintain loyal to him.

Stroessner used the Colorado Party, the sole political institution permitted, as his vehicle for the control of the general population. Any evidence of protest on the part of the public resulted in extreme forms of repression, including arrest, torture, death, and exile. Political action was permitted only by members of the party faithful and the military.

By the 1980’s, the Stroessner regime began to encounter serious economic difficulties. The completion of work on the Itaipu dam resulted in the loss of the numerous jobs that its construction had provided. The government began to spend beyond its income. The foreign debt began to rise, and Paraguay sought foreign loans from both Brazil and the World Bank. A great deal of this borrowed money was wasted on government projects such as cement plants and a steel mill, projects that turned out to be economically inefficient.

The contraband trade thrived because of Paraguay’s proximity to both Brazil and Argentina. Illegal drug shipping, especially, proved to be an extremely lucrative portion of the smuggling business. Increasing international pressure forced the government to attempt to control the drug flow more effectively.

In 1983, the United States began to pressure Stroessner to open the political arena to other parties within the country. A political front called Acuerdo Nacional Acuerdo Nacional was formed, composed of a number of opposition political parties. The Roman Catholic Church joined this group in calling for political freedom.

The end to the Stroessner era came when General Andrés Rodríguez launched a coup in February, 1989. Rodríguez was able to take advantage of divisions within the Colorado Party and in the army to achieve his goals. His coup surprised most of the country’s politicians, primarily because he was regarded as a favorite of Stroessner and also because he had received substantial economic largess in terms of property, banking, construction, and manufacturing. Within two days, however, Rodríguez had the old dictator bundled aboard a plane and sent into permanent exile. Stroessner died in Brazil in August, 2006, at the age of ninety-three.

True to the promises that he had made prior to his coup, Rodríguez began the gradual implementation of democratic reform. In the presidential election of May, 1989, Rodríguez won the presidency in a contest considered the least corrupt in Paraguayan history.


Stroessner’s long thirty-five-year dictatorship—a tenure surpassed among twentieth-century Latin American leaders by only Cuba’s Fidel Castro—held tight control of Paraguay’s economic, political, and social arenas. The dictatorship, however, also led to Paraguay’s financial recovery and its catching up with the economic development of its major trading partners, Argentina and Brazil. Yet, Stroessner’s legacy and presidency, long supported by the United States, remains controversial. Many consider him a brutal dictator, others a brilliant politician and leader who saved Paraguay from economic collapse. Revolutions and coups;Paraguay
Paraguayan military coup of 1954

Further Reading

  • Lambert, Peter, and Andrew Nickson, eds. The Transition to Democracy in Paraguay. New York: Macmillan, 1997. Describes the 1989 takeover from Stroessner by his successor, Rodríguez, and the gradual restoration of political democratization in Paraguay.
  • Miranda, Carlos R. The Stroessner Era: Authoritarian Rule in Paraguay. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990. The author, an Argentinean, analyzes how the Stroessner dictatorship maintained its power throughout its lengthy domination of Paraguayan institutions, and how this political structure gradually deteriorated until its downfall in 1989.
  • Roett, Riordan, and Richard Scott Sacks. Paraguay: The Personalist Legacy. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. The authors outline the conditions in Paraguay that led to the rise of the Stroessner dictatorship.
  • Schemo, Diana Jean. “Stroessner, Paraguay’s Enduring Dictator, Dies.” The New York Times, August 16, 2006. Stroessner’s obituary provides a brief account of his life and accomplishments in a readable format.

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