Among the scores of Latin American dictators, probably only Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz rivals the long-term success scored by Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner. While many scholars have studied the Porfiriato, Lewis is the first to present a nonpolemical view of the Stroessner phenomenon. The author’s study of Febreristas in The Politics of Exile (1968) prepared him for a bold foray into the intricate maze of contemporary Paraguayan politics.
Part One of this excellent study very briefly sketches conditions conducive to dictatorship in Paraguay, and describes the welter of plots, counterplots, and revolution that preceded and followed Higinio Morínigo. Part Two summarizes Stroessner’s early career, brings him to center stage, and shows him as a master of intrigue whose mistakes were few and never crucial. Only 41 years old when he deposed President Federico Chaves on May 5, 1954, Stroessner revealed exceptional qualities as a master plotter skillful in the art of neutralizing or eliminating rivals.
Of particular interest to students of politics is Part Three, “The Machinery of Dictatorship,” in which Lewis analyzes Stroessner’s control over every part of local and national government, the Colorado party, labor, and other organizations—a control so thorough that successful defiance of the dictator would appear impossible. Much of Stroessner’s success is credited to his remarkable administrative ability, tireless attention to details, liberal distribution of rewards to the faithful, and a security network that makes “the ratio of both military and police personnel to the whole population … one of the highest in the world” (p 128).
Paraguay’s economic growth under Stroessner has been phenomenal. Inflation and unemployment are minimal; the guaraní, in sharp contrast with neighboring currencies, is remarkably stable. Congress, of course, enters into no programs without Stroessner’s approval, nor does it refuse to sanction the dictator’s projects, such as the tremendous Itaipú hydroelectric development undertaken jointly with Brazil. Although “Stroessner’s programs have been aimed at securing for him the support of the wealthy and powerful” (p. 166), the entire country has benefited.
Stroessner has had to overcome opposition from dissident Colorados, a splintered Liberal party, inconsequential Communists and Febreristas, and a resurgent Church. The outcome of this struggle is surveyed in the final section of two fascinating chapters, which reveal the brutally effective methods used by the regime against all dissidents.
Lewis has made judicious use of the limited resources available for a serious study of Stroessner’s closed political system. He has skillfully accomplished a very difficult task and has summarized his findings with such perception that this volume should be required reading for every diplomat posted to Paraguay from any country.