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Alfredo Stroessner, the former Paraguayan strongman who died of a stroke in a Brasília clinic on Wednesday aged 93, turned his country into a corrupt police state during his 35-year rule.
News of the death of one of Latin America's last old-style dictators was greeted coolly by the government in Asuncion, but some loyal politicians demanded public honours for a man they said had brought Paraguay into the modern world.
In a coincidence that served as a stark reminder of the brutality of his regime, Stroessner's death came on the day torture survivors and relatives of those murdered by his secret police inaugurated a Museum of Memory in a former detention centre in Asuncion. The museum exhibits photographs of torture victims and some of the tools used by the state intelligence officers who, like Stroessner himself, were largely never been brought to justice.
Sebastian Brett, a senior researcher for the Latin American division at Human Rights Watch, said Stroessner had been guilty of “gross human rights abuse and extensive corruption”.
The blond son of a German immigrant and Paraguayan peasant, Sroessner seized power in a coup in 1954. He harboured Nazi war criminals - including Josef Mengele, the infamous “Angel of Death” - and his government was revealed in secret police archives to have been deeply involved in Operation Condor, a covert, US-backed Latin American intelligence attempt to root out leftists.
The number of victims of the regime was far lower than those of Argentina or Chile, but human rights groups say the government's methods were no less brutal. A truth and justice commission is at work in Paraguay to shed light on the human rights crimes of the Stroessner era, which ended in 1989 when he was deposed in a coup and fled to Brazil.
The former dictator, who cultivated a sense of paternalism by plastering his name all over schools, squares and public buildings, still has his admirers. Diehards gather every November 3 on his birthday in a part of Asuncion to remember him. Stroessner will also be remembered for the Itaipu hydroelectric project with Brazil, the biggest such operation in the world. “Everything you can see in Paraguay is thanks to him,” said Juan Manuel Boveda, a Paraguayan senator.
But human rights activists say he also siphoned off more than $1bn and encouraged a system of patronage that still taints Paraguay today.
“The thousands of victims who wept for people who disappeared, were tortured or died must be left with the feeling that justice was not done,” said Raul Filizzola, an opposition politician.
The government of President Nicanor Duarte Frutos said no state funeral was planned.
Relatives of the former strongman said they were considering burying him in his home town of Encarnacion, south of the capital.
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