‘Constitutional democracy is the desirable norm everywhere, but there are only approximations of it around the world. . . .It is more realistic to view democracy as a process in time and place. I’m more interested in purpose and direction than in the status at any given moment.’ Thus Lincoln Gordon, former us Ambassador to Brazil, explained his views of military dictatorships to reporters just after taking office as Johnson’s new Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs (Newsweek, January 31st, 1966). Gordon, who has been a kind of godfather to the Brazilian military government, did not mention Paraguay specifically, but his view clearly reflects the thinking of the United States vis-`-vis the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. Inherent in Gordon’s theory is the idea that dictatorship today may well lead to democracy and progress tomorrow. In the case of the Stroessner government, us diplomats are convinced that the situation is ‘improving’.
A predatory military caste forms the small ruling elite in Paraguay, while a profound sadness based on hunger and misery dominates the countryside, where more than 60 per cent of the population lives. The average income of a peasant family is $55 a year. In the cities, the finest homes are air-conditioned, imported cars are owned and enjoyed by Stroessner’s ministers and army cronies, in some cases identical. It is more than just a curious fact that the major religious festival in Paraguay,
Stroessner frequently visits the countryside and uses his authority and prestige to command the respect that comes naturally to the peasant, accustomed to feudalistic personal relationships. The government, for all its superficial paternalism, is patently unconcerned with the fate of the population. Public works are rare, and the limited school and road construction that has occurred is financed and directed by Americans. In 1965, throughout the 157,047 square miles of the republic, only 90 miles of new telegraph and telephone wire were laid, giving some idea of the extent of government outlay. One third of the government’s expenditures are for the military.
The country’s main economic activity is cattle farming. Huge ranches covering 27 million hectares are owned by 1,551 landowners, some of them holders of government posts. By contrast, some 111,000 small farmers occupy 1.9 million hectares—but 85 per cent have no title to the land. Paraguay’s chief export is processed meat. But most of this industry is exploited by two foreign firms, Liebig (British-Argentine) and International Products Co. (us). The third largest company is Paraguayan. While other countries have moved toward more sophisticated partnership arrangements with foreign investors, Paraguay continues to be a victim of what might be termed ‘total imperialism’.
Perhaps the most revealing statistic of all concerns the nation’s population. There are 1,900,000 people living in Paraguay—and about 600,000 living outside of Paraguay. While many of these exiles merely seek better economic opportunities, a substantial number are political refugees. Paraguay’s jails are filled with the less fortunate, though it is impossible to know exactly how many political prisoners there are. Estimates go as high as 2,000, and it is generally agreed that most, though not all, are leftists. Many of the prisoners endure medieval conditions. There is forced labour in a dismal prison camp on the outskirts of Asunción, and prisoners reportedly wear an apparatus resembling the ball and chain.
When the Alliance for Progress was launched by the Kennedy government, Stroessner was urged to soften his dictatorship. But the pro forma nature of this expression of the Alliance in Paraguay became apparent. In 1962, Stroessner’s Minister of the Interior, Edgar Inzfrám, engineered a plan whereby a group of dissident members of the Liberal Party would receive official recognition and permission to run candidates in the forthcoming elections against Stroessner and the rest of the Colorado (government) slate. The rump Liberals thereby convened a ‘convention’ in September, 1962 in the home of their leader, a small-time politician named Carlos Levi Rufinelli. In the February 1963 presidential elections, the rump Liberals got 34,000 votes to the Colorados’ (Stroessner) 620,000. The parody of this ‘democracy’ was made complete with the sending of the Liberal candate,
Aside from the rump Liberals, certain political freedom has been given to the Febreristas and the Christian Democrats, two groups which are somewhat more authentic in their opposition. Both are miniscule, however. The Febreristas are vaguely linked to the Parties of the so-called ‘democratic left’ such as Venezuela’s Acción Democrática and Peru’s apra. However, just as these parties have shifted drastically to the right, alienating urban workers and left-wing students, so the Febreristas are losing any popular force they once had in Paraguay. The Febreristas participated in municipal elections in October 1965, giving legitimacy to balloting of dubious honesty. The Febreristas got 28,000 votes, the rump Liberals 58,000 and the Colorados 315,000. Given the probability of rigging at worst and the presence of a black military shadow at best, the Febreristas played into the hands of the Stroessner government and its attempt to look ‘democratic’. Furthermore, only one political group, the Colorados, has access to the normal tools of politics—the radio, the press and extensive contact with the electorate. The Christians Democrats only last year completed formal organization as a party and they expect government recognition later this year. Although they are without traditional roots in Paraguay, they are well-financed from abroad. Paraguay’s Roman Catholic Church, from the top hierarchy down to parish priests, is closely allied with Stroessner. For this reason, it is unlikely that the Christian Democrats will receive grass-roots impulse through the activities of rebellious young priests and Pope John-oriented bishops, as occurred in other countries.