Dictatorship with Charm

Alfredo Stroessner
Alfredo Stroessner; drawing by David Levine

To most people who have heard of it at all, or do not confuse it with Uruguay, the word “Paraguay” is associated with fascism: a place in the sun for fugitive Nazi leaders and the domain (since 1954) of General Alfredo Stroessner, longest-lived and most right-wing of Latin American dictators. It may perhaps also suggest a rather attractive kind of folk music.

None of these impressions is incorrect. The modest immigration statistics of the country show a rather marked jump in 1946 and 1947. As for the General (also of German origin), he has seen to it that his presence is not easily overlooked, from the moment one arrives at the Presidente Gral. Stroessner airport in Asunción or at Puerto Presidente Stroessner across the river from Brazil, which is where most of the few overseas tourists come from, on a quick side trip from the Iguassu Falls. Continental tourists come in bus loads for a quick duty-free shopping spree and (if male) for the girls in the night clubs, in which Paraguayan harp acts and acrobatic folk dances survive among the tangos for the Argentine patrons. Paraguay, least known among the South American republics, is at best a whistle stop for most foreigners. Its somnolent charm—curiously like that of a remote inland Ireland—can be very great. However, neither refugee SS-men nor the dictator himself offer the best way to understand it.

For most of its history Paraguay has been on the road to nowhere, on the outermost margins of Iberian colonization, isolated and in general militantly proud of its isolation. Squeezed between the two giants of Argentina and Brazil, overshadowed by whoever dominates the world economy, it has always had to face the problem of maintaining relations with the outside world without being completely swallowed by it. Paraguay is frontier rather than Indian territory. The 2.4 million Paraguayans who have not emigrated (probably 600,000 have) distinguish sharply between themselves and the, say, 40,000 Indians, whom they harry as much as settlers do anywhere else in the South American interior and who, in spite of some recent signs of good will, are likely to disappear or to survive merely in human zoos for tourist inspection. But Paraguay (and a few adjoining stretches in neighboring countries) forms the only region in any part of the Americas where the settlers themselves became culturally as well as biologically Indianized.

Everywhere else between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego the language of culture, of urban communication, of officials and high status, is of European origin. Here people are genuinely bilingual. Not only is Guaraní the first language of most citizens, but it enjoys official status and even enters the culture of the educated: the Municipal Theatre of Asunción, between performances of La Traviata by a touring company from, presumably, the hinterlands of Argentina, proudly announces a “comedia comica” in Castilian and Guaraní, certain that the public will…

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