Paraguay's strong man pushed his country into 20th century

When Alfredo Stroessner came to power in Paraguay in 1954, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, Fulgencio Batista was dictator in Cuba, and Juan Domingo Peron was in power, although Argentina's military would oust him the following year.

And today Paraguay's strong man - who has ruled longer than any other leader in the Western Hemisphere's - seems as strong as ever.

To the majority of Paraguayans, Stroessner has a father image. Storekeeper Rogelio Santos calls him ''a grandfatherly figure.''

A small but growing number of Paraguayans, however, view Stroessner as a dictator, although perhaps a benevolent one.

Whatever his image, Stroessner has brought profound changes to this backwater of the Western Hemisphere. Before he took over, this landlocked country was best known for having lost three-quarters of its male population in the Chaco war in the 1800s and for being a smugglers' paradise.

Smuggling is still a way of life here, but three decades of Stroessner rule have brought a semblance of prosperity to the country.

During the 1960s, the nation's economy began to change as cattle ranching was developed and timber resources were exploited. After years of economic stagnation, Paraguay recorded growth rates of 3, 4, 5, and even 8 percent a year.

Per capita income for the nation's 3.5 million people, half of whom now live in cities, also began climbing.

Then came ''the Itaipu windfall,'' as banker Carlos Solis put it.

In the early 1970s, Brazil and Paraguay jointly began construction of Itaipu, the world's largest dam and hydroelectric facility on the Parana River, which separates the two nations.

Per capita income quadrupled in the area to $1,357, and in 1981 Paraguay experienced Latin America's highest growth rate - 8 percent. It was a heady era for Paraguayans.

New roads were built, schools constructed, public health clinics put up, and a host of other projects put in place.

Itaipu is in operation. Although some auxiliary building continues, the big construction boom brought on by Itaipu appears over - and the general recession in Latin America has caught up with Paraguay. Last year the economy registered its first negative growth in more than two decades - a loss of 2 percent. It could be a 4 percent loss this year.

But few Paraguayans are worrying yet. Indeed, banker Solis suggested, ''This is a time of readjustment. Give us a year or so, and we'll be soaring again.''

That, of course, is what General Stroessner counts on. ''He does not need economic prosperity to stay in power,'' says an editor here. ''He has the Army and secret police to deal with anyone opposing him. But economic prosperity helps him.''

But the opposition has begun to bother Stroessner, especially through the press. ''Why else would he send his goons to hassle editors and reporters (at opposition paper ABC)?'' asks one of the paper's reporters.

None of the editors or reporters want to be quoted by name, for fear of reprisals. But they are determined to go on criticizing the government and General Stroessner ''whenever the occasion warrants,'' as one said.

To thousands of Paraguayans, however, Stroessner remains a respected figure who involves himself in the needs of Paraguayans. He could teach US politicians a thing or two in baby-kissing, for example.

This helps explain why Paraguayans gave Stroessner 90 percent of the vote last February.

Opposition politicians Stroessner made it difficult for them to campaign, but even if the election had been completely aboveboard, Stroessner would have won hands down.

Maybe. But opponents also note that the opposition is growing in numbers. ''It will become increasingly effective in the next several years,'' says one of the opposition editors on ABC Color.

Meanwhile, Strossner is getting ready to celebrate three decades of rule next year, marking the day in 1954 when he seized power. He is also looking ahead to 1988, when he expects to seek his eighth term.

''He won't have named a campaign manager until 1986,'' a Stroessner crony said. ''But you can be sure he is thinking about it.''

This same associate notes that Paraguay never had elections until Stroessner came along. Last February's vote, in which the general won his seventh term, was the sixth election in Paraguay's history.

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