The 1954 Coup
Despite his reputation as a democrat, Chaves imposed a state of
siege three weeks after he took office, aiming his emergency powers
at the supporters of González and ex-President Felipe Molas López.
Mounting economic problems immediately confronted the new
government. Two decades of extreme political and social unrest--
including depression, war, and civil conflicts--had shattered
Paraguay's economy. National and per capita income had fallen
sharply, the Central Bank's practice of handing out soft loans to
regime cronies was spurring inflation and a black market, and
Argentina's economic woes were making themselves felt in Paraguay.
Still, Chaves stayed in office without mishap; the country simply
needed a rest.
By 1953, however, the seventy-three-year-old president's
political support began to erode markedly. His decision to run for
reelection disappointed younger men who nursed political ambitions,
and rumors that Chaves would strengthen the police at the army's
expense disappointed the military. Early in 1954, recently fired
Central Bank Director Epifanio Méndez Fleitas joined forces with
Stroessner--at that time a general and commander in chief of the
armed forces--to oust Chaves. Méndez Fleitas was unpopular with
Colorado Party stalwarts and the army, who feared that he was
trying to build a following as did his hero, Juan Domingo Perón,
Argentina's president from 1946 to 1955. In May 1954, Stroessner
ordered his troops into action against the government after Chaves
had tried to dismiss one of his subordinates. Fierce resistance by
police left almost fifty dead.
As the military "strongman" who made the coup, Stroessner was
able to provide many of his supporters with positions in the
provisional government. About two months later, a divided Colorado
Party nominated Stroessner for president. For many party members,
he represented an "interim" choice, as Morínigo had been for the
Liberals in 1940. When Stroessner took office on August 15, 1954,
few people imagined that this circumspect, unassuming forty-one-
year-old commander in chief would be a master politician capable of
outmaneuvering and outlasting them all. Nor was it apparent that
his period of rule, known as the Stronato, would be longer than
that of any other ruler in Paraguayan history.
Data as of December 1988