ON FEBRUARY 14, 1988, General Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda was elected for his eighth consecutive term as president of the Republic of Paraguay. Stroessner, the candidate of the National Republican Association-Colorado Party (Asociación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado), officially won 88.7 percent of the vote. At the time of the election, the president was seventy-five and in his thirty-fourth year of rule. He had held power longer than any other Paraguayan and was five years ahead of Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz for longevity in office in the hemisphere. Among contemporary international leaders, only Kim Il Sung of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria had been in power longer. When Stroessner first took office in August 1954, Juan Domingo Perón was president of Argentina, Getulio Dornelles Vargas was president of Brazil, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States.
Stroessner's enduring power was based on the twin pillars of the armed forces and the Colorado Party. The former--from which he emerged and in which he maintained positions as commander in chief of the armed forces and commander in chief of the army--provided the institutional base for order and stability. The latter, of which he wrested control in the mid-1950s, furnished the links with large sectors of society, provided for mobilization and support, and allowed him to legitimate his rule through periodic elections. The overall system, based on these two institutional pillars, functioned through a combination of coercion and cooptation involving a relatively small sector of the population in the slightly industrialized and partly modernized country.
As Stroessner and the enduring small group of supporters around him aged, the regime was increasingly unable to respond to popular demands to begin a transition toward democracy, despite much speculation in the mid-1980s that change was in the air. The demands for change originated from a variety of sources, both foreign and domestic. As the neighboring republics of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Uruguay underwent political transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes in the early 1980s, Paraguay was often considered with Chile, on the far side of the Andes, the only remaining analogous regime in South America. Pressure from these new democracies for a similar transition in Paraguay was low; however, in the 1980s the United States was clearly in favor of a political opening for a peaceful transition in the post-Stroessner era. Support for democracy with broad participation, as well as a pointed critique of the Stroessner regime's human rights policies, also were prominent in the speeches of Pope John Paul II during his visit to Paraguay in May 1988.
In addition to the external isolation and foreign pressure, there were important internal pressures for a transition. After very high rates of economic growth in the 1970s, Paraguay's economy stagnated in the 1980s. In addition, the external debt nearly doubled during the same period. Within Paraguay the major opposition political parties, which had formed a National Accord (Acuerdo Nacional) in 1979, began to promote public demonstrations in April 1986. This growing, heterogeneous movement was joined in its opposition by other organizations and movements, including the Roman Catholic Church and sectors of business, labor, and university students.
Despite these pressures, Stroessner was once again nominated by the Colorado Party for the 1988 election, although the nomination split the party into a number of competing factions. The state of siege declared by Stroessner in 1954 was finally lifted in April 1987, but opposition politicians and leaders of movements were arbitrarily arrested, meetings broken up, and demonstrations violently repressed. With the closing of the daily ABC Color in March 1984, the weekly El Pueblo in August 1987, and Radio Ñandutí in January 1987, of the independent media, only the Roman Catholic Church's Radio Caritas and its weekly Sendero remained. Under these conditions, most opposition parties advocated abstention or blank voting in the elections. The church also registered its reservations on the validity of the elections by admitting the acceptability of blank voting.
Paraguay had had barely two years of democratic rule by law in its entire history. It lacked any tradition of constitutional government or liberal democracy to serve as a reference point. Traditionally, out-of-power groups had proclaimed their democratic commitment but repressed their opponents when they took over the reins of power. Thus, a transition to democracy for Paraguay would not mean a return to a previous status, as in the case of its neighbors, but rather the creation of democracy for the first time.
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