As I sat in a crumbling, empty hotel in Asuncion, it was hard to imagine a good reason for coming to Paraguay unless one was a fleeing Nazi or fancied a career in smuggling. I gazed at the city from the panoramic terrace by the pool, which had long since ceased to be cared for. It looked utterly unappealing in the pouring rain.
Days earlier, I had crossed from Argentina, nearly 40 years after Graham Greene entered the country. He came looking for something "exotic and dangerous"--somewhere to base the closing chapters of Travels With My Aunt. Later, he wrote about his trip up the River Parana and how he found a country still in the iron grip of General Alfredo Stroessner, a brutal dictator of German extraction who held power from 1954 until a coup in 1989. Greene described a place of considerable attraction: few cars, bountiful fruit trees and zero personal income tax. But he questioned whether he could ignore the stories of torture, detention and murder just to live in an old colonial house surrounded by servants for a few pounds a month.
In the time since it parted company with Stroessner, Paraguay has been far from stable: a vice-president assassinated, the last president tried and jailed on corruption charges, his predecessor forced to resign, and an attempted coup. The current leader, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, came to power in August 2003 pledging to root out corruption, yet Paraguay is still ranked among the most corrupt of countries. It is, to put it mildly, a basket case of a place. Perhaps that in itself is reason enough to come and take a look today, just as it was in 1969.
The general's long rule can be explained by his brutality and by his having allowed his henchmen free rein to smuggle what they liked into the country. In the process, many of them acquired large personal fortunes. Greene wrote that, after agriculture, smuggling was the country's chief industry. Today, in Stroessner's home town of Encarnacion, on the border with Argentina, there is evidence everywhere of counterfeit and smuggled goods. A constant stream of hawkers goes from bar to bar selling dodgy electrical items and fearsome-looking flick knives. Violence and aggression are just beneath the surface, as young men parade noisily around the city in powerful, expensive vehicles. There are numerous gun shops--perhaps this accounts for the heavy armed presence outside the town's banks.
Paraguay's population is largely indigenous and poor. Those Europeans who moved here often came because they were fleeing persecution or prosecution. Some were trying to create new societies--religious, political, or, in the case of Friedrich Nietzsche's sister, Aryan. Others were just very badly informed. Around Encarnacion, the German presence is particularly strong, with a number of colonies, and many of them were already long established when Nazi war criminals such as Josef Mengele sought refuge in the country.
Greene wrote of Israeli spies coming and failing to penetrate these close-knit communities, whose members were averse to "making trouble". In San Bernardino, a pleasant lakeside town not far from the capital, Asuncion, the teenagers speak a strange hybrid of Spanish and German. …