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  • Paraguay After StroessnerDemocratizing a One-Party State
  • Charles G. Gillespie (bio)

Late on the night of 2 February 1989, General Andrés Rodríguez, commander of the First Army Corps, launched a surprise coup against Paraguay's President Alfredo Stroessner, By the next day, Stroessner's 35-year-old dictatorship had been overthrown and a new government sworn in. Though the fighting was brief, as many as 250 soldiers may have died. From this bloody beginning, General Rodríguez promised Paraguayans something that they had never before been able to achieve: democracy. Observers, however, remained skeptical that a country with Paraguay's past history of authoritarianism and repression could join the worldwide tide of democratization.

Few political scientists have paid much attention to Paraguay. It has no valuable minerals; it has suffered no guerrilla insurgencies; there is only a little drug trafficking and not much actual production of narcotics. Yet the degree to which this nation of four million in the heart of South America has been left alone is one of the most interesting things about it. Perhaps Paraguay's greatest claim to fame was that its ruler, General Alfredo Stroessner, was until his ouster in February 1989 the longest-reigning dictator in the noncommunist world. Indeed, even among socialist strongmen, only North Korea's Kim I1 Sung had the edge in seniority over the septuagenarian general. Perhaps Kim is now the object of Stroessner's envy from his exile in Brazil, for it was Stroessner's urge to have his son succeed him-an urge also acted on by Kim-which set off the power struggle that toppled South America's last dictatorship.

The interesting thing about Paraguay is precisely that it has been so [End Page 49] thoroughly ignored by political science. Not one of the multiauthored volumes on democratic transitions that have appeared over the past decade has paid any attention to the country's plight. It was simply given up as a lost cause-so backward and isolated, it was assumed, that it could not even hope to inaugurate democracy.1 The recent theoretical literature on democratization, moreover, is of surprisingly little relevance to the Paraguayan case. This literature focuses on the question of how to get the military to withdraw from politics as a precondition for democratization. But Paraguay's 35-year-long authoritarian regime, although headed by a general, had an unusually large civilian component drawn from the ruling Colorado Party.

Paraguay's historical pattern of development has been unlike that of the rest of Latin America. Lacking a coastline or a major natural resource, it never experienced the export-led boom that swept most of the continent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. On the contrary, Paraguay's economy declined for several decades after the country's devastating defeat at the hands of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay in the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70). Half of Paraguay's total population, including 90 percent of its adult males, perished in the war. But Paraguay's martial tradition survived and was bolstered by the Chaco War of the early 1930s, in which the Paraguayan army conquered vast tracts of arid land from Bolivia.

The classic development pattern in twentieth-century Latin America featured the rise of populist dictators in the wake of the Great Depression and the subsequent inauguration of industrialization by means of import substitution. The crisis of populism in the 1960s and 1970s led to the rise of "bureaucratic-authoritarian" regimes in the more advanced countries. According to the famous definition of Argentine political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell, these are highly repressive regimes designed to exclude an activated urban popular sector.

Paraguay does not fit this mold. Even today only 41 percent of Paraguayans live in urban areas-the smallest proportion in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti and Guyana. Paraguay has never undergone the import-substituting industrialization that so rapidly swelled the urban populations of most other Latin American countries. Thus while it remains one of the poorer countries in the region, with a per capita GNP only half that of Uruguay, it has nothing like the awful shanty towns that sprawl around Lima, Guayaquil, Bogot...