María Eugenia Heikel, 57, the former wife of the late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner’s son Gustavo, is just one victim of the ruthless regime that ruled one of Latin America’s poorest countries for 35 years. (Click to see Spanish version of the article in El País of Madrid).
Even though the Stroessners fled the country 19 years ago in 1989, neither Alfredo nor Gustavo Stroessner have been brought before a Paraguayan court for human rights violations and amassing huge fortune estimated at somewhere between two and three billion dollars through a well-organized network of coercion and corruption.
But all this may change after April’s presidential elections, when 56-year-old cleric Fernando Lugo caused a political earthquake by ending Colorado Party rule after 61 years. Edgar Ruiz Diaz, a journalist who works at ABC Color, Paraguay’s leading daily, has been investigating the Stroessners for a long time. “Even though the Stroessners fled the country in 1989, the system [of cronyism and corruption] they left behind is still intact,” he said, adding that the main reason why Paraguay’s former rulers have not been brought to justice is because the judges are Stroessneristas.
Heikel, who is the daughter of Finnish immigrants that settled the country in the 1920s, told this journalist 10 years ago that her former husband had amassed a fortune between “$300 and $500 million” that was deposited in US and Swiss banks. Today, she’s not that certain any longer. “The investigation into his finances was halted,” she says. “I cannot confirm how much money he has abroad.”
How is it possible that a Paraguayan air force colonel can amass such a fortune? Heikel said that apart from the insurance and construction companies that her husband ran, he received a percentage of the profits that casinos and bingo establishments made. “It paid to be the president’s son,” she said a decade ago.
Heikel’s problems with her former husband started when the family fled to Brasilia after a 1989 coup. “Gustavo was the most affected by living in exile,” she says. “He changed and started to pray all day and would not even give me money to buy a Coke. He was not well. People who know him tell me that he has not changed.”
Heikel explains that in 1993, when she left for Rio de Janeiro to take part in an equestrian competition,
she made the decision never to return to her husband’s side. “It was a very difficult moment in my life because I had lost everything,” she said. Heikel said that her ex-husband’s reaction to abandon and leave her penniless was “cowardly.”
While in Rio de Janeiro, Gustavo Stroessner spread false accusations about Heikel. She states that her former husband had channeled these lies through his sister-in-law Marta Rodríguez, who was married to “Alfredito” Stroessner before Gustavo’s brother died of a drug overdose at the age of 50. “Nothing was ever proven [when I returned to Paraguay in 1998] and neither did I steal anything from anyone,” Heikel says.
“When I lived in Rio, I feared for my life and was always very careful about my movements [in public].” In Paraguay, Heikel waged a tireless legal and media battle against her husband. She even exposed sensitive information about her husband in the Paraguayan media. She said, however, that an agreement was reached in 2002 with Gustavo Stroessner over compensation. Heikel did not reveal the sum but denied she was a millionaire. “I can now live without worries,” she said. Even if Gustavo Stroessner was seen as the heir -apparent to succeed his father, Heikel stated that Alfred Stroessner was against him becoming president. “He never wanted to be president,” she says. “I told him not to get involved in politics.”
Heikel claims that Stroessner’s harsh rule in Paraguay was due to communism. “We were fighting against communism,” she concludes. “We did not have the same problems as Uruguay and Chile [in the 1970s].”
*The article appeared in the June 4th issue of IHT’s El País edition.