- The Dictator Dilemma: The United States and Paraguay in the Cold War by Kirk Tyvela
The “dictator dilemma” was often at the core of U.S. policy toward Latin America during the Cold War. U.S. policy makers professed commitment to democracy, yet commonly supported pro-U.S. dictatorships to advance U.S. security interests. The dilemma played out clearly in Paraguay, where dictator Alfredo Stroessner ruled by force and won elections with around 90% of the vote from 1954 to 1989. Kirk Tyvela’s book on the bilateral relationship is a deeply researched and compelling addition to the literature on U.S.-Latin American relations.
Policy maker “skeptics,” to use Tyvela’s label, saw Paraguayan democratization as dangerous because it was uncertain and unpredictable, not to mention unlikely. “Reformists” preferred to push Stroessner toward democracy and viewed dictatorships as more liable to generate anti-U.S, rebellions, which—as in Cuba and Nicaragua—would be even worse for security. For the case of Paraguay, which was peripheral for U.S. officials, these voices played out mostly in the State Department, both in Washington, D.C. and on the ground in the embassy.
Tyvela uses material from nine archives, including the Paraguayan Supreme Court. He is open (and, safe to say, frustrated) about the relative dearth of Paraguayan sources, which stem not from his inattention but from the fact that they either do not exist or are inaccessible. After all, even the infamous Paraguayan Archives of Terror, which shed much light on Plan Condor, were found largely by chance in a police station on the outskirts of Asunción. Perhaps there are more documents awaiting discovery, but they are not available now.
The basic arc of U.S. policy toward Paraguay was similar to other Latin American countries. Where early Cold War administrations strongly supported Stroessner, President Jimmy Carter changed course by making human rights more central. President Ronald Reagan’s first term reduced human rights emphasis, which returned once again in his second term. By the mid-1980s, Stroessner had no supporters in the administration and his efforts to play up anti-Communism received mostly chuckles.
In the early years, documents reveal plenty of U.S. references to reservoirs of good will, good friends, full partners, and the like, while privately State Department officials referred to Paraguay as “the kind of nineteenth-century military regime that looks good on the cartoon page” (108). Stroessner was, as the U.S. Ambassador wrote in 1963, just like the “Franco Spaniards” (53). An official skeptical of political liberalization began an analysis acknowledging he was “not an expert on Paraguayan affairs” and concluded they needed a president like Grover Cleveland [End Page 172] (84). Paraguay represented stability in an uncertain region, but otherwise was deemed a backwater.
The regime did whatever it could to squeeze more aid out of the U.S. government. Stroessner sent troops for the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and offered more for Vietnam (which the Johnson administration declined). He threatened to become neutral in the Cold War (which no one believed). Eventually the U.S. called that bluff. As Congress became more active in advocating for human rights in the 1970s, it used denial of aid as a lever for changing repressive behavior. As much as he tried, Stroessner had no leverage.
A central Paraguayan player was Raúl Sapena Pastor, who served as Foreign Minister from 1956–1976 (at which time he entered the senate). He worked closely with successive U.S. administrations, constantly reminding them (even to the point of having one of his ambassadors write a letter to The New York Times) of Paraguay’s staunch anti-Communism but also its need to be rewarded for it. It was the only card Paraguay could play. It is truly a shame that researchers cannot use Paraguayan documents to flesh out that side of the relationship. Tyvela and the rest of us can only make inferences from their statements.
Someday, perhaps, that gap can...