By Alex Shoumatoff
And now, for a change of pace, a blast from the past: a piece called “The End of the Tyrannosaur,” about the overthrow of Paraguay’s long-time despot, General Alfredo Stroessner, that was published in the September, l989 Vanity Fair, with Goldie Hawn doing an exuberant shimmie on the cover. Not many American journalists were writing about the rest of the world, and Tina Brown, impressed by my ability to move around in exotic places, had me writing about a succession of tropical dictators who were toppled in the late eighties and nineties: the Central African Republic’s Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Paraguay’s Stroessner, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Meriam, and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko. It was a new genre for me, having been attracted to the tropics by their flora and fauna and traditional people, but I was beginning to realize that everything in these places– including saving their rainforests and native people— depended on politics, as everywhere. To delineate the trajectories of these bad guys, I developed a more worldy and ironic voice than the gentler, more lyrically descriptive natural-history travelogue of my far-flung New Yorker pieces.
Here is Tina’s Editor’s Letter for that month:
An environmentalist or cultural preservationist might ask what
is this piece doing as a Dispatch? Because it is about flux, and what this site is really about is the flux and diversity of the life on this planet (for now, until we get some extraterrestrial input),
whether “natural” or “cultural” — a distinction that I don’t find, in
the end, necessary or very useful. The era of these grand monstres
is over, Tina Brown left Vanity Fair in l992 and ran the New Yorker
for a few years, then started her own magazine, Talk, which went
under, and I don’t know what she’s doing now, except probably going on weekends to my mother’s best friend’s house in Bedford, which she and her husband Harry Evans bought in the nineties. Looking back on her, I realize that I was never sufficiently grateful to Tina for her efforts to make me a star. The world of 15 years ago already seems so innocent and quaintly passe. The modern culture is flipping every year and a half now.
As dictators go, General Alfredo Stroessner was about a seven. He couldn’t compare with Pinochet or Galtieri; he didn’t eat his enemies, as Bokassa and Idi Amin did. I saw him only once, in 1979, at the inauguration of Joao Baptista Figueiredo, the penul¬timate president of Brazil. He was in classic dictator garb: brocaded aviator cap, white uniform with sash streaking like a comet tail across a chest blazing with decorations-the Argentinean and Brazilian orders of military merit, the Order of the Chaco, a bejeweled star the size of a dinner plate over his rib cage, a medal bestowed for unknown reasons by a visiting American gener¬al in the fifties. His face-the thin mustache, the full, sensu¬al lower lip drooping slightly below the lower teeth, the steady, piercing dark eyes-was unmistakably German. He looked like a Bavarian butcher. On this occasion he seemed to be ostracized by the other guests. Brazil was opening up after two decades of oppressive military rule, and Stroessner seemed the very embodiment of everything Latin America was trying to put behind it.
The aura of evil was undoubtedly enhanced by Paraguay’s reputation as a haven for Nazis and by his German name, which no one seemed able to pronounce correctly. One heard Stressner, Strohssner, Strussner as in strudel, Streuzner as in the Kreutzer Sonata, when in fact it was Stroessner, as in Goebbels. A South American who has never been there once described Paraguay to me as Nuremberg with a mambo. Jo¬sef Mengele, the Angel of Death, had been approved for citizenship. There were rumors that he was a close associate, a bosom buddy, of Stroessner, that at the very least Stroess¬ner had known where he was and didn’t tell.
One morning this spring, a few months after Stroessner’s fall, I drove around Asun¬cion with a man I’ll call Roberto. A scholar of the regime and of the black hu¬mor it engendered, Ro¬berto was nervous about being identified even now, in the heady days of rela¬tive openness following the coup. “Please-don’t quote me,” he pleaded, “or I might become a so¬prano.”
We were making a tour of the capital’s oligarchic residences. For a city of only 800,000 in the swampy, urticating heart of South America, Asuncion has a surprising number of pa¬latial homes. The first wave of mansion-building began in the 1860s, when squat, megalomaniacal Francisco Solano Lopez, the third in Paraguay’s unbroken succession of dicta¬tors after it shook off Spain in 1811, brought over architects from Italy to design palaces for the local gentry. Those along the A venida Mariscal Lopez are now embassies and offices for the civil and military bureaucracy. Roberto pointed out several of their delicate-columned fac;ades that had been strafed during the eight-hour firefight leading up to Stroessner’s abrupt departure for Brazil on February 5, after which Paraguay emerged with a new president, General Andres Rodriguez, the father-in-law of Stroessner’s coke¬addled son, Freddy.
Asuncion’s second wave of mansion-building occurred be¬tween 1978 and 1982, when the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, Itaipu, was being built across the Parana River, which separates Paraguay from Brazil. Financed entirely by Brazil and by multilateral banks, the project pumped around $2 bil¬lion into the Paraguayan economy, half of which is “infor¬mal” -a thriving trade in contraband whiskey, cigarettes, soybeans, VCRs, P.c. :s, counterfeit Rolexes, stolen cars, smuggled Brazilian babies, you name it. Most of the Itaipu money slipped under the table and after a year or two of frenzied untraceable transactions-kickbacks, shakedowns, payoffs, all manner of usury, graft, and carruptela-several thousand garish new villas of prodigious square-footage ap¬peared in Asuncion, especially along the airport road and in the barrio of Villa Mora. The houses were built in an exuber¬ance of styles-Swiss chalet, tropical-alpine kitsch, Neo¬Gothic, neo-Niemeyer, neo-Khashoggi, neo-Trump. Their only unifying elements are a satellite dish on the roof and a Mercedes in the driveway. The size and flamboyance of one’s mansion depended, of course, on how close one was to the Tyrannosaur, as Stroessner’s subjects called him, on how high up one had risen in the hierarchy of corruption that he had institutional¬ized and was fond of de¬scribing as “the price of peace.”
Roberto drove me past a walled Arabian palace, known locally as Aladdin’s Castle, that belonged to Stroessner’s flamboyant former son-in-law, Hum¬berto Dominguez Dibb. The Dominguez Dibb fam¬ily controls the casinos, the slots, the baccarat tables, and the Loteria Paraguaya. Humberto, whose latest plaything is the newspaper Hay, tools around in a white Rolls-Royce con¬vertible. There was a ru¬mor that he was behind the 1980 assassination of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the ousted dictator of Nicara¬gua, to whom Stroessner had given asylum in Asun¬cion. Roberto discounted this theory, although he said that it was true that Hum¬berto was furious because Somoza, who was un peli¬gro, a terrible womanizer, had stolen his beautiful young mistress.
We pulled up behind a Volkswagen Voyage with Paraguayan plates. It had probably been stolen from Brazil, since no Volks¬wagen dealer in Paraguay sells Volkswagen Voyages. Indeed, half of all the cars in the country are said to be hot. They are either stolen outright in Brazil, or their owners sell them to Para¬guayans, report them stolen, and collect the insurance. Ro¬berto was explaining the logistics of such transactions as we cruised past the stately manse of the former main whiskey and cigarette smuggler (Kents, Marlboros, and Johnnie Walker Black are cheaper in Paraguay than they are in the States), and the even statelier manse of the new booze and butt king, President Rodriguez’s son-in-law Gustavo Saba. Then we hit some heavy-duty ostentation, the compounds of the four men-the so-called cuatrinomios-who ran Para¬guay during the final two years of the regime, when Stroess¬ner had lost it physically and mentally and the ruling Colorado Party split into two factions, the tradicionalistas, who wanted him out, and the militantes, who remained loyal to him. Led by the cuatrinomios, the militantes succeeded in purging the tradicionalistas, and in 1987 and 1988 there was a new eruption of corruption that was impressive even by Paraguayan standards.
Soldiers were guarding Mario Abdo Benitez’s home, which had been impounded by the state. A remote second cousin, Benitez was the Rasputin of Stroessner’s court. “All our Polish jokes are about him,” said Roberto. “He was a dum-dum, but he wielded incredible power.” Benitez started as the president’s valet and worked his way up to private secretary. He controlled access to the president, as Eva Pe¬ron’s brother did to Peron. In his last years in power, Stroessner had stopped signing documents, but his signa¬ture-an ‘unforgeably idiosyncratic chicken scratch-was needed for everything. No corporal could be promoted to sergeant, no foreign diplomat’s car could be exempted from duty, without it. Benitez kept blank documents ready for Stroessner to sign on the rare occasions he was up to it. Traffic in the signature was one of the most profitable activi¬ties of Benitez’s entourage.
“If Rodriguez had not staged the coup,” Roberto ex¬plained, “Benitez would have become president of the party and would have secured the presidency of the republic for [Stroessner’s elder son] Gustavo. This was his pro¬gram.” Gustavo was a col¬onel in the air force. He specialized in flying C-47 transport planes. It was widely believed that he was also gay, and that he had started arranging high posi¬tions in the military for his boyfriends. “Paraguayans are conservati ve in these matters,” said Roberto. “They never would have stood for the country being run by Gustavo and his co¬ronelitas. So the coup was inevitable. ”
“Where’s Benitez now?” I asked. Roberto pulled down his left earlobe, a Par¬aguayan gesture meaning he’s in prison (as a teacher might haul off a misbehaving pupil by the ear). “He’s cleaning the First Cavalry Divi¬sion’s stables.”
Benitez’s place was quite modest compared with the com¬pound of Sabino Montanaro, a very greedy man. Montanaro had raked it in every way he could: drugs, money laundering (it had just come out that there was a discrepancy of a billion guaranis, a million dollars, in the public-works budget of the Ministry of the Interior, which he had headed for decades), and trafficking in passports. Middle-level Hong Kong busi¬nessmen, anticipating the collapse of that commercial hub in 1997 but not influential enough to get visas to the States or Europe, were re-establishing in Paraguay, and Montanaro had charged them $5,000 to $10,000 apiece for the proper papers. (This was one of Stroessner’s dreams, that Paraguay would become the new Hong Kong.)
Nearby was the residence of the Honduran ambassador, where Montanaro had taken asylum. And what about the other two cuatrinomios, Eugenio Jacquet and Godoy Jime¬nez? I asked. Roberto pulled down his left earlobe again.
But no house in Asuncion could hold a candle to President Rodriguez’s replica of Versailles, which climaxed our tour. It was built in the early seventies, when Rodriguez was thick with Auguste Ricord, the heroin kingpin of the’ ‘French con¬nection,” who smuggled $145 million worth of the stuff from Marseilles to New York via Paraguay, overseeing the operation from a nightclub in Asuncion, until-despite Ro¬driguez’s efforts-he was finally extradited in 1972. Rodri¬guez provided the planes and the landing strip on his ranch, and Montanaro the fake passports. But now, following the coup, Rodriguez was eager to bury the past. “You can be sure that at no moment will it be possible to demonstrate that I really had any connection to these things,” he told the press three days after he overthrew his mentor. Asked how he had managed to build a house like this on an army salary of only
$500 a month, he is said to have replied, “I gave up smoking some time ago.” His other assets include a money-changing house that nets $25,000 a day, farms and ranches totaling a hundred thousand acres, a brewery, and shares in several banks and construction companies. After the Stroessners, he is the richest man in Paraguay.
Down the street from Rodriguez’s opulent vision of Euro¬pean haute culture, a member of the Chinese Mafia had erected a pagoda. In an adjoining lot was the vine-smothered shell of a mansion started by someone who had apparently suffered a reversal, and looming in the background was the windowless concrete hulk of the Central Bank, which sprawled over twenty-five acres and from which the militantes had made off with $100 mil¬lion. The president of the bank, Cesar Romeo Acosta, was arrested at a cheap motel, his pockets bulg¬ing with dollars and incriminating documents.
The official story was that Rodri¬guez had turned over a new leaf. Having delivered the country from Stroessner, he was genuinely com¬mitted to leading Paraguay into a new political era. Two things had al¬legedly effected his transformation. One, his miraculous survival some years ago in the crash of a small Brit¬ish experimental plane, and, two, the terrible suffering his daughter had endured from Freddy’s drug addic¬tion. (This had been another factor in the bad blood between him and Stroessner.) He was said to be really down on drugs now.
The amazing thing ‘was that the Paraguayan people, who have been deceived so many times, who live in what may be the most refined culture of deceit on the planet, except possi¬bly for Hollywood, seemed willing to believe this story. “Our only hope is now that they’ve got enough for them¬selves, maybe they’ll start thinking about the country,” Ro¬berto said.
Finding it hard to believe that this was the Third World, 1 had taken a cab from the strikingly modem Presidente Stroessner International Airport, as it was still being called then, to the swank, wood-paneled Excelsior Ho¬tel, which is owned by Stroessner’s longtime friend and busi¬ness associate, Nicolas Bo. Bo belonged to the group of intimates that lunched with the Tyrannosaur every Thursday. He had started out poor and had been rewarded for loyal service with the newspaper El Diario, the Fiat dealership, an insurance company, and a TV station. Eo was now one of the ten richest men in Paraguay, a gran sinvergiienza, as Roberto described him-completely unscrupulous. “He doesn’t approve pf drug smuggling, because he wasn’t cut in.”
The phones at the Excelsior were bugged—on whose instructions, I wondered, the government’s or Bo’s? But apart The first Nazi from that the postcoup loosening-up, or apertura, seemed to guay in 1932 , be for real-or a very convincing facsimile. Things that had hundred thous been absolutely ineditos, unheard of in Paraguay, were going brands of beel on. There were actually two candidates from different parties German descei campaigning for the presidency. Asuncion’s four dailies who were part were givihg balanced coverage to the race without fear of the ear.” The censorship, and the people in bars and living rooms were from Africa’aft sitting speechless before TVs as the opposition candidate, nies there. The hoarse, bearded Domingo Laino, who had spent many of the ed converting Stroessner years in exile or prison, railed against the neo- prairie, swamp colonialism of the superpowers. Laino was the choice of the two-thirds of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, which had split from the Radical Liberals in 1977 when the constitution was re¬amended to give Stroessner yet another term.
If it was a euphoric time, it was also a time of internal crisis, as the full horror of the last thirty-four years came out and the people confronted their complicity in it. Bodies were surfacing like locusts in a plague year. The papers were full of photographs of bones being disinterred from secret mass graves and of the testimony of those who had been tortured. The human-rights organization Americas Watch had docu¬mented only 47 desaparecidos, but it looked as if the final death toll would be closer to 1,500.
Paraguay has a long tradition of torture, going back to the regime of Jose Francia, El Supremo, who was dictator for life from 1814 to 1840. But there are apparently no particu¬larly Paraguayan torture techniques. In the nineteenth centu¬ry something called the uruguayana, in which the victim was trussed up with half a dozen muskets stacked on the back of his neck, was used a lot. Under Stroessner the police weren’t scientific, like the Argentineans. They used the usual whips, cables, belts, cattle prods, cigarettes. One of their favorite techniques was the pi/eta, immersion in a tubful of urine and excrement, also known as el submarino. Graphic testimony of what they did comes from victims like Maria Baez, a hairdresser who was accused of belonging to the pro-China wing of the Paraguayan Communist Party and was taken to the Departamento de Investigaciones for questioning in 1982. Baez was suspended by her wrists for six days without food or water, then for forty-two days she was tied to a chair at night in a room full of biting ants. The interrogation of prisoners was often supervised by Pastor Coronel, the infa¬mous chief of investigaciones. One of his victims, Regina Chaparro, a maid accused of theft, described how he tor¬mented her with la corriente electrica. Sitting by a phone before Chaparro, who was lashed to a chair with wires attached to her pinkies, he would lift the receiver and give her the shock of her life. Coronel was now “by the ear,” cleaning the stables of the First Cavalry Division with Benitez.
The centennial of Hitler’s birth occurred a few days after my arrival, and I thought it might provide a show. Ex¬treme right-wing and Fascist organizations thrive in conservative Paraguay-not only ex-Nazis but Spanish and Argentinean Falangists who do the straight-arm salute. The first Nazi Party in South America was formed in Para¬guay in 1932 and it wasn’t dissolved until 1946. There are a hundred thousand ethnic Germans in the country. The two brands of beer are Munich and Pilsen. Stroessner was of German descent, as were Generals’ Clebsch and Johansen, who were part of the Thursday lunch group and are now’ ‘by the ear.” The Germans came in several waves. Some came from Africa after World War I, when Germany lost her colo¬nies there. The Mennonites arrived in the twenties and start¬ed converting the Chaco, the godforsaken wilderness of prairie, swamp, and thorn forest that takes up the northern two-thirds of the country, into orderly farming communities. “But as for ex-Nazis,” a Lutheran priest who worked with the Indians told me, “there may be a barbecue or two on the Fuhrer’s birthday. There are always some locos. Some peo¬ple still think it was a gran epoca. But, please, how many years has it been since the war? What’s your expression? Give me a break. ”
Nevertheless, that day I drove out to San Bernardino, the oldest of the German colonies, twenty-five miles from Asun¬cion, and had lunch with Luisa Buttner, whose grandfather had been one of its founders, on the porch of the gracious old Hotel del Lago. It was here in Nueva Bavaria, Miss Buttner told me as butterflies skipped from flower to flower, that Nietzsche’s brother-in-law, Bernard Forster, killed himself. In 1881, Forster, a schoolteacher in Berlin, had been one of the leaders behind a petition designed to limit the participa¬tion of Jews in German life. Discouraged by the lack of immediate progress along these lines, he came to Paraguay and tried to create a pure German utopia. “But within a generation the intellectuals who came with him degenerated completely and he got a mezcla instead of a pure race-just what he didn’t want. There are two theories about why-he killed himself. Either because his wife was having an inces¬tuous affair with her brother or because he was broke and Nietzsche refused to send him any money because he thought he was crazy.” Miss Buttner wasn’t even aware whose birthday it was. There had been no mention of it in the Asuncion papers.
As for Stroessner, “1 never heard that he moved in the German environment,” she told me. Stroessner’s father had come with a group of Bavarians to visit Hohenau, one of the colonies in the South. There he met a beautiful dark-skinned Basque-Guarani woman named Heriberta Mattiauda. The others went on to Buenos Aires, but he stayed and married her. They settled in Encarnacion, where he started a brewery and became part of the rural Paraguayan bourgeoisie. Their son, Alfredo, who was born in 1912, had little contact with the German community. It was only later, in the thirties, when his ideological development took place, that he was influenced by the Fascism of Hitler and became more of a Germanophile. When he was president, he would often speak about “the Paraguayan race.”
THE ELUSIVE ANGEL OF DEATH
One of Stroessner’s German buddies was Hans Rudel, a flying ace in the Luftwaffe who flew more missions than anyone, destroyed a cruiser, a battleship, 519 Russian tanks, was shot down twice, lost his right leg below the calf but continued to excel at tennis and waterski¬ing, was the idol of the postwar German right, the embodi¬ment of Aryan perfection. Hitler created a special medal for him-the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves. After the war he tried out planes for the Argentinean government, and when Peron fell in 1955 and was given asylum by his friend Stroessner and Argentina was no longer safe for ex-Nazis, Rudel weat to Paraguay as well and worked in the Ferreterfa Paraguaya in Asuncion, selling BMWs, telephones, cement, and iron. He also worked for ODESSA, the secret organization for smuggling former officers of the Waffen SS out of Eu¬rope and finding them new lives in South America.
PHOTO OF STROESSNER EXLIED
One evening I called on Rudel’s good friend and colleague at the Ferreterfa Paraguaya, Colonel Alejandro von Eckstein, a bullet-headed, barrel-chested, remarkably robust eighty¬four-year-old Russian whose ancestors had come from Prus¬sia at the invitation of Peter the Great; all that was missing was the monocle. Von Eckstein was the last living veteran of an all-Russian volunteer company in the Chaco War-a senseless border conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay that took 85,000 lives in 1930. He showed me his photo album: himself in pith helmet, arm around bare-breasted Indian girl in feather headdress; Bolivian casualties skeletonized by army ants. His friendship with Stroessner went back more than fifty years. He had taught the Stroessner children how to water-ski. Gustavo, he told me, was a khoroshii sportsmen¬a good athlete (the interview was conducted half in Spanish, half in Russian). But von Eckstein had not joined the band¬wagon, to judge from his modest house in a not particularly elegant part of town.
One day in 1959, he told me, Rudel brought a fellow German to the office. He was very cultivated and correct and he was selling manure spreaders for his family’s firm in Germany. His name: Josef Mengele. “I didn’t know he was a doctor,” von Eckstein assured me. He didn’t know that Mengele had conducted grotesque experiments on 1,500 sets of twins and fatally injected blue “dye into the eyes of Gypsy children in an effort to perfect the Master Race. Did he know him well? “We knew each other,” von Eckstein went on. “He was very suave but not very alegre. He didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor.” How many times did you meet? “Maybe twenty. It was always at the office. We talked about business, never about the war. Rudel had brought by others like them and helped them settle in Para¬guay. I figured he didn’t want to talk about it. ”
But von Eckstein knew Mengele well enough to sponsor him for citizenship with another colleague at the Ferreterfa Paraguaya, Werner Jung. I asked von Eckstein if Stroessner knew Mengele, and he said no, which seemed strange, be¬cause Rudel was a good friend of both of them. In any case, Mengele left Paraguay for good in 1960 and hid in Brazil, lonely, tormented, undetected. He drowned in 1979. “Look at how he ended his life, poor devil,” said another old ac¬quaintance. “Do you think if he had been under Stroessner’s protection he would have lived that way?”
Colonel Thomas Chegin, who was the military attache at the American Embassy in the late fifties, believes he met Mengele in Filadelfia, one of the Mennonite communities in the Chaco. “I was shown a medical dispensary,” he recalls. “A doctor came out in a white smock. I’m pretty sure it was Mengele. He said hello and kept out of sight. A lot of guys with shady pasts have hidden in Paraguay. It’s a good place to get out of the mainstream.” There are stories that Martin Bormann and Eduard Roschmann, the Butcher of Riga, melt¬ed into the German community in Paraguay, but none of them have been confirmed.
Another scoundrel welcomed into the bosom of Stroess¬ner’s Paraguay was the Croatian anti-Communist terrorist Miro Baresic, who killed the Yugoslav ambassador in Stock¬holm. Baresic was teaching martial arts at a military college outside Asuncion when he mistakenly killed the Uruguayan ambassador to Paraguay while trying to get a visiting Yugo¬slav official. “Stroessner was a friend of Muslim, Mason, Jew, white, Indian,” a close associate told me. “He only drew the line with blacks. As long as you had plenty of hard currency, he didn’t care how you got it. Another pirate on the pirate ship was always welcome.”
RISE OF THE TYRANNOSAUR
In 1929, at the age of sixteen, Stroessner was enrolled in a military school. Three years later the Chaco War broke out, and he joined as a young artillery officer, command¬ing by the end of it his own mortar group, already attract¬ing notice as a hard worker and good leader. His pastimes were nauseatingly wholesome: chess, fishing, flying, a weekly poker game, the matches of his favorite soccer team, Libertad. In 1940 he married a schoolteacher several years his senior, Eligia Mora, who in later years would come to resemble Mrs. Khrushchev. Settling into the life of a sober, churchgoing family man, he produced three children. Also in 1940 he was selected for further training at a Brazilian mili¬tary college. Returning home as a major, Stroessner was hailed by his superiors as “a complete offi¬cer with a great future in the army” who was “discreet and circumspect. ”
In 1947 there was a bloody civil war. Around a fifth of the population fled to Argentina. (Argentina and Paraguay are the traditional countries of each other’s exiles. At the moment, Paraguay is play¬ing host to 10,000 Argentineans.) Over the next two years there were half a dozen coups and countercoups. Stroessner took part in four of them. In 1954 it was his turn. With the support of the military and the conservative “democratico” wing of the Colorado Party, he grabbed the presi¬dency. The coup took place while all of Asuncion society was at the Philharmon¬ic. Legend has it that the shooting started just at the thunderous beginning of Bee¬thoven’s Fifth-da-da-da DUM-and ev¬eryone thought it was part of the show until soldiers burst onto the stage and an¬nounced that a coup was under way.
Thus began the stronato, the Stroessner era. But making it to the top was one thing, and staying there was another. Poli¬tics in Paraguay is governed by the princi¬ple of mbarete, a Guarani word meaning clout, the law of the strongest. It is very Darwinian. Take, for instance, the case of Napoleon Ortigoza, an attractive, upper¬class cavalry officer who ended up being the longest-held political prisoner in Latin America. The theories about why he was arrested are many and baroque, but some of them involve a sinister plot to over¬throw Stroessner. When a young cadet, Alberto Benitez, was killed-either by other officers to cover up a homosexual claque or because he was being tortured by the police as encouragement to reveal the details of the coup plot-the minister of the interior, Edgar Ynsfnin, or so one theory goes, hit upon the brilliant idea of pinning the murder on Ortigoza, who was not actually involved in any plot yet, but was just the sort you had to watch out for. Putting him away would be what is known as an aca pete, a “warning slap,” to any¬one who got ideas about moving against the president. Ortigoza’s insistence on his complete innocence fell on deaf ears. He was not allowed to be present at his trial, and one of his lawyers was arrested and beaten. He was condemned to death, al¬though Stroessner later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment after a priest threatened to break the seal of confession and tell who the real murder¬ers were.
Such perversions of justice wouldn’t have been so easy to pull off if Paraguay hadn’t been in a state of siege in which the right of habeas corpus was suspended. The state had to be renewed every ninety days, which Stroessner did until 1987, cit¬ing the threat of international Commu¬nism. In fact, a state of siege had been in effect almost continuously since 1929. It is important to realize that none of the techniques Stroessner used to stay in pow¬er were invented by him. Let’s not give the man more credit than he deserves. The code of power, the mad vision of perfect order, the acts of arbitrary cruelty fol¬lowed by sudden unpredictable acts of kindness, the ubiquitous spies, known in Guarani as pyragiies, or “feet with feath¬ers” (usually translated as “hairy soles”), the incondicionalismo that he demanded because he was Paraguay, the paternalism that he justified because the people were like children, weak, ignorant, not yet ready to take charge of their lives-this was pure El Supremo, techniques used by Dr. Francia in the nineteenth century.
Communism was absolutely verboten. In 1958 an anti-Peronista general, Te¬ranzo Montero, attempted a guerrilla inva¬sion of Paraguay. Four hundred and fifty¬eight subversives trained in Argentina and pretending to be campesinos infiltrated the province of Alto Parana. But the govern¬ment got wind of their arrival and sent six thousand soldiers to take care of them. Three months later only seventeen of the subversives made it back to Argentina. There were no prisoners. The others were dropped from planes, fed to the piranhas. Their bloated bodies were floated down the river to Asuncion as an aca pete. In 1975 the secretary of the Paraguayan Communist Party, Miguel Soler, was me¬thodically dismembered by chain saw in the presence of Pastor Coronel.
Some responsibility for this kind of ac¬tivity must be laid on the United States, because Stroessner would never have sur¬vived without its support. The early word from American intelligence sources had been that he was “a known friend, austere and honest, a hero of the Chaco War.” His government had been recognized quickly. A month later U.S. development aid to Paraguay increased 50 percent. Be¬tween 1954 and 1960 the country got $23.8 million, and the figure kept going up. American and Taiwanese advisers were sent to Paraguay, as they were to Uruguay and Brazil, to train the police in counterinsurgency and interrogation tech¬niques-like how to jog the subject’s memory by grinding your thumb into his jugular below the ear. In fact, the United States contributed more to the state terror of stronismo than the ex-Nazis did, and intelligence from the C.I.A. station in Asuncion, which monitors transmissions in the Southern Cone, helped Stroessner stave off four of five attempts to remove him. In 1958 Nixon stopped by on his way to Caracas, where he would be stoned by demonstrators. He got a much friendlier welcome in Paraguay. There are pictures of him and Stroessner hugging, standing side by side in a finned convert¬ible whose hood is draped with the flags of both countries.
The mid-fifties was an age of expan¬sion and optimism in South America. In Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek was build¬ing a new capital in the middle of no¬where, airlifting the first bricks to the empty central savanna. In Venezuela, Marcos Perez Jimenez dreamed of “con¬quering the physical environment,” of blasting tunnels through mountains and running aerial trains to hotels on their summits, of bridging gorges and stitching the countryside with four-lane highways. In As.uncion there was no running water; it was brought in on the backs of burros. The only electricity came from a wood¬burning generator. There were no storm drains. Stroessner tackled these problems energetically, addressing himself to what one of his policymakers calls el determi¬nismo geogrGfico. “We have a glorious river,” the old bureaucrat told me in Asuncion, “but it was the only way in or out of the country. ” So Stroessner floated an old project-a road to Brazil. Kubi¬tschek offered to finance the building of the Friendship Bridge over the Parana gorge in a spirit of integration, and in gratitude Stroessner named an avenue af¬ter him.
Stroessner brought stability and growth to a country that hadn’t known much of either. He turned the guarani into real money. For twenty-five years, while all the other currencies in South America kept adding zeros and losing ground to the dollar, he managed to hold it at 125 to one. But there was a price for all this. When student and labor groups demon¬strated in the recession of ’59, he crushed them. When the Congress objected to po¬lice brutality against students protesting a bus-fare increase, he dissolved it. The downside to order and progress with Stroessner was one of the largest military¬and-police-to-general-population ratios in the world, and the highest proportion of unsentenced prisoners in the Western Hemisphere. He purged the old generals and four hundred of the old democraticos and replaced them with loyal members of the bandwagon. Membership in the party became compulsory for military officers and civil servants, and strongly advised for anyone else who wanted to get any¬where. In the various sham elections, he received more votes in some rural areas than there were registered voters. The heavy leonine face of El Gran Lfder was posted everywhere, and radio stations be¬gan the day with the Don Alfredo polka, followed by the message’ ‘The constitu¬tional president of the republic, General Alfredo Stroessner, salutes the Para¬guayan people and wishes them a pros¬perous day. ”
LEVELS OF THE GAME
The current American ambassador, Timothy Towell, had arrived in Asun¬cion last September expecting a quiet post that would demand not too much more than getting on the Tyrannosaur’s case about human rights and drugs every once in a while. A conservative Yalie, he was hardly the human-rights zealot that his predecessor, Clyde Taylor, the son of missionaries, had been. Taylor’s hatred of Stroessner had been so undisguised that it was rumored that the State Department brought him home lest it be thought the United States had something to do with a coup. Not that it would have. Paraguay was “a throwaway country that nobody gives a rat’s ass about,” in the words of one veteran of the Latin-American desk.
But it turned out that Towell had lucked into one of the most exciting experiments in democracy in the hemisphere, and he was a major player. The Rodriguez gov¬ernment was being extremely responsive to American wishes. When Towell and a visiting congressman mentioned that it might be about time to release Mella La¬Torre, a Chilean photographer who had been in prison for years on suspicion of involvement in the assassination of So¬moza, the next day LaTorre was a free man. “Your wish is my command,” I had heard one of Rodriguez’s aides tell Towell with mock obsequiousness over another matter.
“This man Rodriguez just might do something truly historic,” Towell mused one afternoon between sets on the embas¬sy’s green tile tennis court. We played al¬most every afternoon that I was in Asun¬cion, which probably got back to the palace, since the Paraguayan staff at the embassy were undoubtedly all “hairy soles.” Towell was a veteran of the Washington political-tennis scene, and his forehand was unreadable.
On Saturday morning Towell invited me to fly with him to a mission way out in the Chaco where several hundred Indians of the Ayoreo tribe were being brought into the fold by a group of American Bible Belt evangelists. The missionaries were getting a lot of flak from anthropologists, who were accusing them of genocide and ethnocide and wanted them thrown out of the country. It was apparent as soon as we got up in the missionaries’ Cessna-“Fa¬ther, we just want to thank you for the opportunity of going up there,” the pilot said as we prepared for takeoff-what a bubble Asuncion is. Just north of the city the landscape becomes a prairie dotted with islands of thorn forest and pools of water whose surfaces gleam like tarnished mirrors, with an occasional wildly looping river vanishing into the sand to break the monotony.
We flew over Sabino Montanaro’s es¬tancia, which was as big as Rhode Island, and a ranch that had recently been picked up by Marcos Perez Jimenez, the Venezu¬elan dictator who was ousted in the fifties. Most of the departamento of Presidente Hayes, which took the first half-hour of flying time to pass over, belonged to friends and followers of Stroessner. Ruth¬erford B. Hayes was the most famous and best-loved Yanqui in Paraguay, more fa¬mous even than J.F.K. or Muhammad Ali. It was he who had kept the country from being annexed by Brazil or Argenti¬na after the War of the Triple Alliance.
After an hour we were over Filadelfia, the Mennonite community whose medical needs had been taken care of by Dr. Men¬gele. Until the Mennonites came along, the Ayoreo, nomadic hunter-gatherers about whose vision of the world almost nothing is known, had had the Chaco pret¬ty much to themselves. They wore long ponytails and sandals they made from tires left by oil companies in the twenties. They burned down wooden bridges to get the bolts, which they ground into spear¬points, and they stole the Mennonites’ cattle. This particular clan, which called themselves the Pig People, had been “brought in” ten years ago, one of the missionaries told me. “They worshiped a bird that they had to keep appeased be¬cause if anybody died she probably killed them,” he went on. “They also believed in invisible snakes, so our worm medicine worked out well, because they finally got to see them.”
On the twenty-fourth of December 1986, Dean, the pilot, spotted a previous¬ly unknown village to the north and the Pig People went up to bring them in. The villagers thought the Pig People were a raiding party, but they let them come cl~e anyway. After the ritual touching of friendship, the Pig People put down their spears, but as soon as they had done so one of their wild cousins picked up his spear and plunged it into one of the Pig People’s backs. Four more of the Pig Peo¬ple were killed before they finally per¬suaded the villagers to come back with them to the mission. That bit of treachery by the wild Ayoreo was interesting. So it wasn’t just the Spanish-Moorish conquistador influ¬ence that created Paraguay’s incredible culture of deceit, I realized. The Indians themselves were into it.
IN THE CORRIDORS OF POWER
In phase one of the dictatorial syn¬drome, as a Paraguayan diplomat post¬ed abroad described it to me, Stroessner was the caudillo militar who gained popu¬larity with the people and control of the party and the army. Phase two was “more of the same.” By phase three he had “oc¬cupied the total panorama of the coun¬try, ” and had become so used to wielding absolute power that he could not conceive of giving it up. “He wanted to be eter¬nal.” The next-best thing was to set up a dynasty. Of his two male offspring, Freddy had’ snorted so much coke and drunk so much alcohol that he was, ac¬cording to Roberto, a cirrhosing vegeta ble, a drooling zombie who was in and out of institutions. He was obviously not pres¬idential material. That left Gustavo, who was very ruthless, even more ruthless, perhaps, than his father. The only real problem was his reputation for being a ho¬mosexual.
All this seems right out of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Phase three is the “over¬reaching” or “hubris” stage. The story is like that of one of the late Roman emper¬ors in Gibbon: The old emperor is losing it. He is surrounded by flatterers and no longer getting the real picture. The crown prince is a degenerate, and the country is really being run by a corrupt triumvirate, so an upright general (Andres Rodriguez, after a heavy makeup session) comes in from the provinces and overthrows him. The general had been a trusted protege. Et tu, Brute. And the dissidents, to complete the picture, are like the Christians thrown to the lions, except that their pinkies are wired by Pastor Coronel.
There was also an element of opera buf¬fa in the recent goings-on in Asuncion. On the morning of the coup, when the city was buzzing with rumors, Rodriguez was supposed to attend a meeting of the high command, but he learned that one of the officers, Colonel Mieres, had orders to shoot him if he did, so he put his right foot in a cast and stayed home. Several curious militantes went to see what was wrong and reported that the general had broken his leg, so there wouldn’t be a coup that day. In the evening Rodriguez removed the cast and overthrew Stroess¬ner. This is very Paraguayan.
The presidential palace, another of the light neoclassical fantasies of Solano Lo¬pez, is itself like an opera set. An insom¬niac and workaholic, Stroessner would arrive at the palace punctually at the crack of dawn. Newly posted diplomats had to get up at an ungodly hour to present their credentials. Rodriguez’s day also started early. I got to the palace late-7:30. After being frisked by dark-suited guards with walkie-talkies on their belts and Colorado Party buttons on their lapels, I was shown into the huge high-ceilinged sala de au¬diencia, where dozens of petitioners sat along the walls, staring into space as cat¬tle grazed and the river glided past tre¬mendous open windows. I waited six hours and at the last moment my ap¬pointment with the president was can¬celed so he could congratulate the new Miss Paraguay.
I stayed to talk with Rodriguez’s chief of staff, Conrado Pappalardo, who had also been Stroessner’s chief of protocol¬an incredibly smooth transition, but then, men like Pappalardo don’t grow on trees. Pappalardo had been rewarded by Stroess¬ner with the Ford dealership for his good work, but in the end he was one of the men who put the money on the table for the bullets for the coup. As a precaution¬ary measure Stroessner had left the First Cavalry Division with enough rounds for only an hour of fighting, but he hadn’t taken into consideration how fluid the borders are, even though he had made them that way, how arms and ammunition are routinely smuggled in. One of the offi¬cers was sent to usher in the shipment from Belgium.
“You want to know the truth?” Pappa¬lardo asked. “This was a great president until 1982, but something happened to his head: a hemorrhage. The militantes appro¬priated the country. If the coup hadn’t happened by June the social problems would have exploded. Stroessner had low¬ered the illiteracy rate from one in three to one in five. He had raised the educational and cultural level of the country to that of Italy, and enough of the money that c.ame in from the dam had filtered down to create a significant middle class. Such people logically want more, but he couldn’t accept that. He fomented the problems that brought him down. He did it to himself. “
THE CONSPIRACY OF TIME
The political landscape of Paraguay is littered with survivors like Pappa¬, tough birds who are either still in power or back in power, or lurking some¬where on the periphery of power. At the Colorado Party headquarters I sat for a while with Edgar Ynsfnin, Stroessner’s minister of the interior until 1966. Yns¬fran’s name was often preceded by the epithet tenebroso, sinister, and his nick¬name was Dracula. He had recently been indicted on torture and murder charges that were later dismissed because of the statute of limitations. He is very smart. After being out of the political picture for almost twenty years he had now been re¬accommodated as second vice president of the party. The pale, refined old man who looked just like the vampire count asked me with a warmed-over smile if I wanted some coffee, then chatted politely about his plan to have Communism legalized, because “they are acting underground, in¬filtrating other parties. They are doing more harm hidden.” I wondered what was really going on in his mind. Was he just trying to stay alive, to get in sync with the new Paraguay, or was it some¬thing really devious? We talked about his old boss. “Stroessner was intelligent, but he didn’t have political morals and he ruined his career because of his ex¬cessive greed for power, his large itiner¬aries. By 1983 the regime was enfranca decadencia. He lost lucidity, and his political sense was greatly weakened. His infirmity led to age, and age is a sickness. “
Ezequiel Gonzalez Alsina, who had been the chief ideologist of stronismo and the editor of Patria, its official mouth¬piece, was another survivor. But he was out of the picture now, rusticated to his estate in Lambare, where I called on him one afternoon. Watch out for him, Ro¬berto had cautioned. He is charming and brilliant and a complete charlatan. He’ll probably tell you some incredible cowboy story. And he did: sipping lemonade, he claimed that he had been one of the great advocates of democracy, that he’d “al¬ways pushed for organic pluralparti¬dismo,” when in fact it was he who had deviously doctored the constitution so that Stroessner could be president indefinitely. On a desk was a Spanish edition of Vir¬ginia Bouvier’s book on Stroessner, Decline of the Dictator. “Time,” he said, waving the book. “That’s what brought him down. El tiempo que pasa. No one can have it forever. ”
HIS ONLY WEAKNESS
Stroessner was no doubt aware of the inevitable waning of his powers, and his solution to the problem seems to have been schoolgirls, muchachitas. They were his elixir. Maybe he thought that the inter¬cambio de hormonas would keep him young. He wasn’t alone in his predilection for this therapy. His friend Peron (who liked boys as well) consoled himself with a fourteen-year-old after the death of Evita. In the opinion of Stroessner’s fam¬ily surgeon, Manuel Riveros, there was nothing abnormal about an old man hav¬ing a soft spot for nymphets. “Youth is contagious,” he told me. Trujillo cruised the streets of Santo Domingo looking for girls, Bokassa cruised the streets of Ban¬gui, Stroessner cruised the streets of Asuncion. It went with the turf. The girls were Don Alfredo’s droit du seigneur.
It is hard not to notice the schoolgirls¬slender, tan mestiza beauties budding in their white uniforms, who pour into the streets of Asuncion at noon. After a long morning Stroessner would park near one of the schools and watch them come out. When he had made his pick, his aides would find out who the girl was and ap¬proach the parents with an offer of cash or real estate. If all else failed the girl was kidnapped and given an injection that made her more cooperative. If she got pregnant she was sent to the best hospi¬tal and treated by the best doctors. How many children the Tyrannosaur pro¬duced is unknown, but there are thought to be many.
One of his procurers was Colonel Leo¬poldo Perrier, who scoured the country¬side for eight- to twelve-year-old virgin peasant girls and brought them to various safe houses and suburban villas that had playgrounds to keep them amused. One of Stroessner’s conquests was the fifteen¬year-old daughter of the head of the na¬tional cement industry. As part of the seduction she and her brother got a trip to Disney World.
When the muchachitas grew up he lost interest in them and distributed them to his young lieutenants. The only one he didn’t get tired of was Stella Legal. Stel¬la’s nickname was Nata, which means “flat-nosed.” She became his mistress and gave him a second family. He set her up in the contraband business and gave her brother the governorship of a departamento. He had been involved with her mother first, and then started with her when she was fourteen. Now she is in her forties. Everyone in Asuncion knew that he went to see her on Thursdays in her sumptuous low-slung ranch on the Avenida Aviadores del Chaco.
The story of Stroessner’s statutory pec¬cadilloes was broken by Jack Anderson in a column in The Washington Post in 1977, the year Carter cut aid to Paraguay because of human-rights abuses. Malena Ashwell, the dal!ghter of a Paraguayan•of¬ficial stationed in Washington, told an as¬sociate of Anderson’s that two years earlier, when she and her husband were living in Asuncion, they were having lunch at the home of one of her husband’s colleagues when they were summoned to an adjacent backyard and shown the un¬conscious bodies of three girls, two of them eight, the other nine. The girls were bleeding from between their legs and they showed signs of sexual abuse. Ashwell called the police, who came but then quickly left when they were told by a caretaker that he was employed by a cer¬tain Colonel Perrier. Ashwell learned that Perrier kept such girls for the use of high¬level military figures, and that General Stroessner was one of the habitues of the place they were housed. She reported her discovery to a newspaper editor, who was later arrested for Communism. Her un¬published denunciation was found among his papers and she was taken to Investiga¬ciones and tortured for three days. Only her parents’ connections saved her.
DOWN COMES THE CURTAIN
It was in phase [wo of the dictatorial syndrome, the “more of everything” stage, that the seeds’ of collapse were sown. One day a French Bolivian by the name of Degrave explained to Stroessner how profitable government monopolies could be; up until then the government it¬self had been involved only in small-time schemes of enrichment.
The first government monopoly, REPSA, refined Shell and Esso gas and sold it at inordinately high prices that Par¬aguayan motorists had no choice but to pay. Stroessner himself skimmed off mil¬lions, and many others on the bandwagon became very rich. REPSA bred other state monopolies: in steel, cement, river trans¬port, telecommunications, electric power, a national airline. As the cost of maintain¬ing them grew from 19 percent of total public expenditures in 1980 to 43 percent in 1985, they and the galloping corruption of the militantes began to severely undermine the nation’s economy. Suddenly merchants who had been dealing contra¬band with impunity found themselves be¬ing hit up for taxes by three separate collecting agencies.
New problems had been created in 1982, when the major work on the Itaipu dam was completed. Twenty thousand workers were laid off, and they began to clamor for land at the same time that the empresarios who had grown rich from the project were trying to acquire vast estan¬cias commensurate with their new status. Campesinos who already had land and were thus in the way of the rich were evicted by several methods: their villages were declared “centers of delinquency and subversion” and they were forced to evacuate them, or they were simply driv¬en out. As a result of this, Stroessner lost the support of the peasantry, and as a re¬sult of the activity of Gustavo and his co¬ronelitas, or “paragays,” as they were called, he lost the support of many in the military who were already disgruntled by low salaries and the refusal of the senior officers to retire so that mid-level officers could move up. Then he alienated the Church, which since the advent of liberal theology in the seventies had grown more vociferous about human rights and de¬mocracy.
Last year, 20,000 protesters marched silently through Asuncion to show their solidarity with the Church. On December 10, during a march to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the universal decla¬ration of human rights, seventy-two peo¬ple were arrested and ten were wounded, including Roberto. Stroessner was clearly on the defensive, as he had been in 1986 when a hundred goons stormed Radio Nanduti, manned by the bravely outspo¬ken Humberto Rubin. A band played the Don Alfredo and Colorado Party polkas to drown out the sound of breaking glass. (Rubin has a tape of the assault that he loves to play for visitors to the station.) Compounding the deteriorating economic, social, and moral pictures was the politi¬cal crisis precipitated in 1987 by the mili¬tantes’ takeover of the Colorado Party convention.
Tradicionalistas were pre¬vented by police from entering the con¬vention hall when key votes were being taken, and the party ultimately split into several factions.
But the real problem was Gustavo. On top of everything else, he was deeply in¬volved in drug trafficking. No sooner had the heroin trade been brought under con¬trol by the extradition of Ricord in 1972 and heat from the U.S. (though it is very unlikely that some heroin doesn’t continue to come in with all the other stuff from Asia) than cocaine started coming through as neighboring Bolivia got into ‘the busi¬ness in a big way. A kilo of coke worth $2,500 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, could be flown out to one of more than four hun¬dred landing strips in the Chaco and sent up the well-worn smuggling trail to Mi¬ami, where it was worth fifteen to twenty¬five grand, or flown to Madrid, where airport security is lax. Paraguay became not only an important conduit for drugs but a processing station. In a single opera¬tion in 1985,49,000 gallons of chemicals from West Germany-enough to make eight tons of cocaine-were seized at the border. Senior military officials were im¬plicated.
In 1981 the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration closed down its office in Asuncion because there was “no activi¬ty” (there must be a story behind this be¬cause there was a whole lot of activity), but when I got there it had been reopened. A few days earlier, helicopters had sprayed hundreds of acres of marijuana on the Brazilian border. “The pilots say it’s ten feet tall, the healthiest stuff they’ve ever seen,” Jimmy F. Bradley, the D.E.A.’s new man in Asuncion, told me. “They’re growing it in rain forest at a thousand feet, just like in Colombia, so it gets a bath of moisture every morning, then the fog lifts, and it gets sun the rest of the day. I asked who the big people in cocaine were and Bradley said, “The mil¬itary isn’t into direct trafficking anymore, but it’s still into ‘Pay me and I’ll look the other way,’ because you can’t cross the Chaco without them knowing about it. In¬formation of unknown validity says there are at least eight major trafficking ‘lines,’ and maybe one or two people running the show. I think Gustavo may be one of them, even now that he’s been thrown out of the country. There’s no way anyone can keep him from using the phone. ”
In 1986 the D.E.A. had almost pulled off a sting operation aimed at Gustavo. An undercover agent in Argentina posing as’ a member of the California underworld had arranged to buy a thousand kilos of coke a month from a middle-range Boliv¬ian operator. The coke, he was told, would flow through Paraguay, and the de¬tails would have to be worked out with Gustavo. The three of them were going to meet in a little town over the Argentinean border, and the D.E.A. was going to be on hand for the party. But at the last moment the American ambassador in Asun¬cion, Clyde Taylor, killed the plan, even though he had been outspoken about the Paraguayan government’s failure to com¬bat drugs. The days were past when American operatives could get away with busting the son of another country’s presi¬dent on a third country’s soil.
A NEW POLKA FOR PARAGUAY
Clearly, Gustavo was about as choice presidential material as Noriega. And as Stroessner’s dynastic intentions became more apparent, his relationship with Ro¬driguez, who had for some time seen him¬self as the successor, became increasingly strained. Rumors of an impending revolt began to circulate in Asuncion last De¬cember. On the morning of Thursday, February 2, they intensified to such a pitch that there was a rush on the super¬markets. By 9: 15 P.M. the next day, Sher¬man tanks and Brazilian-made Urutu and Cascavel armored cars were rolling out of the First Cavalry Division barracks near the airport and heading for the A venida Mariscal Lopez. Soldiers came in shoot¬ing through the back door of Nata’s house. As bodyguards held them off, Na¬ta’s family, including her daughter by Stroessner, and the daughter’s Virginian husband, John Reid, hid under beds. Stroessner bolted out the front door, jumped into his limo, and streaked away. The soldiers, frustrated that they had missed him, kept shooting. Several people were killed at Nata’s house. The official body count of the coup was twenty-nine, but the government has ac¬knowledged burying fifty, and the casu¬alties were probably more like several hundred.
The shooting lasted until four A.M. The following day, as part of the terms of sur¬render, Stroessner and Gustavo were al¬lowed to leave the country. At the airport the family was tearful, but the ex-presi¬dente himself was lucid, calm.,He walked up into the plane without pausing or wav¬ing good-bye.
Within a few days there was a new pol¬ka-the Rodriguez polka. Its words:
“May God help you and also the Armed Forces. ” And Rodriguez called for elec¬tions in three months, just as Stroessner had done when he came to power in 1954.
To the scheme of the dictatorial syn¬drome the Paraguayan diplomat had outlined for me, I would add a fourth and final phase (assuming the subject lasts that long): ousted. In this phase the dictator becomes a pathetic figure, a shadow of his former self. No country will have him, his health problems multiply, and he goes down fast. The Shah is a classic recent example.
Who wanted Stroessner? The first re¬ports said that Pinochet had given him asylum in Chile, but that didn’t pan out. Where he really wanted to go was Miami, the retirement home of so many deposed Latin-American heads of state, aquel valle de los cardos, that valley of the fallen, as Omar Torrijos of Panama once called it. The advantages of Miami are many: your money is safer, and so probably are you. While there weren’t any actual deposed heads in Miami at the moment, there were all kinds of relatives, assorted Somozas, Duvaliers, and Batistas, and no end of lesser right-wing exiles to commiserate with. So who wouldn’t have opted for a cushy retirement in this no-hitch, push¬button lalaland, a Polynesian palace in Coral Gables, maybe, with a Chris-Craft in the backyard fingerfill?
In fact, the Stroessners already had a pied-a-terre at the Key Colony in Key Biscayne, a garish condo in a Mayan temple right on the beach. Stroessner’s daughter and wife, Graciela and Dona Eligia, had arrived on six-month tourist visas and were waiting for the men to join them.
But that was not in the cards. Uncle Sam wasn’t welcoming lesser evils and old allies in the war against Communism into his bosom anymore, especially ones who were linked to drugs and ex-Nazis and who had repressed the democratic fe¬ver that was sweeping the hemisphere. To have let in Stroessner would have sent the wrong message to the world, especially to the current regime in Paraguay, which might have changed its mind about coop¬erating on drugs and democracy. Plus Stroessner would probably have attracted innumerable lawsuits under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which would permit his vic¬tims to sue for financial damages in American courts.
Even so, there was a rumor that Stroess¬ner was going to Miami “next week.” On my way south I had spent a few days at the Sheraton Royal Biscayne, which shares the Key Colony’s beach, playing shuffleboard, waiting for an introduction to the family that didn’t materialize. Colo¬nel Thomas Chegin was supposed to set it up. Chegin, the ex-American military at¬tache to Paraguay, had become so thick with Stroessner that he was made the Par¬aguayan consul in Miami-quite a feat for a gringo. He took care of the Stroessner family’s Florida business. A State Depart¬ment source told me that Chegin “loves intrigue.” He kept dangling the hope of seeing the family, and retracting it. At last he told me that they weren’t seeing any¬body, because they “didn’t want to rock the boat,” and that there were no plans for Stroessner or Gustavo to come to Mi¬ami anytime soon. The rumor had been started by Gustavo and was “wishful thinking. ”
I was already in Latin America. I had been in Latin America, in fact, the minute I stepped on the plane in New York. Ev¬erybody was speaking Spanish. A foul¬mouthed Colombian dripping with gold chains refused to surrender his oversize suitcase to the stewardess, and they had a little tug-of-war. “You can’t have it,” he kept telling her. “There’s lotsa mon¬ey in here.”
The Stroessners-the general, Gusta¬vo, and Gustavo’s wife, a blonde Finnish amazon named Marfa Eugenia Heikel whom his father had virtually or¬dered him to marry in 1984-had been reluctantly given asylum in Brazil by President Sarney. The exiles were first put up at a government guesthouse in the state of Goias. Outside the walled, heavily guarded compound the Workers Party staged a protest. “Why do we have to take in all this garbage from abroad?” their placards read. Mengele, Ronald Biggs (who pulled off the Great Train Robbery in England and became the dar¬ling of Rio society), and now Stroessner. The rich right-wing ranchers of Goias who are destroying the Amazon staged a counterdemonstration in his favor, and Stroessner held a rare press conference. “It’s very difficult to know what the fu¬ture has in store for us,” he said. “Noth¬ing can be definite.”
These were melancholy days for the old general. The Rodriguez government, hav¬ing recently discovered how much money Gustavo had stolen from Paraguay-may¬be $500 million or so-started extradition proceedings. It was unclear whether Bra¬zil would give him up, but the Stroessners felt uneasy, and they were looking into alternatives. Switzerland was a possibili¬ty. Stroessner was rumored to have $2 to $3 billion in Swiss banks, and Nata was already there, waiting for him. But the Swiss are muy vivos, very shrewd and greedy, a Paraguayan who was following the situation told me. They want the mon¬ey of the corruptos, but not the corruptos themselves.
Meanwhile, Freddy and his wife, Mar¬ta, had got their American visas but had kept delaying the trip to Florida. For a long time Marta had wanted a divorce, and had always been told to wait until af¬ter Stroessner stepped down. But now that he was out she didn’t seem to want it anymore; in a curious change of heart, she had shifted her loyalty to the Stroessners. Chegin told me that when at last they flew up to Florida they went straight to Disney World.
After several weeks in Goias, the Bra¬zilian government allowed Stroessner and Gustavo to move down to their house on the beach in the southern part of Brazil, in a little place called Guaratuba. The house, according to the Brazilian press, whose veracity quotient is not the highest, had a blue carpet that rolled out to the sea. A few days after I arrived in Asuncion, El Diario reported that Stroessner had had an episode of tachycardia and had flown up to Sao Paulo for treatment at the Instituto do Cora<;ao. There was a photo of him leaving the hospital, waving a hat and try¬ing to look chipper and hale, but in fact he looked awful.
As I drove over the Friendship Bridge into Brazil, I felt a surge of relief. This in spite of the fact that Brazil was having deep problems of its own. Because of budget cuts, I discovered when I caught a plane from Foz do Igau<;u to Rio, hijack¬ing-and-bomb surveillance at the airports had been suspended for six days of the week. “But don’t worry,” a guard who waved me past the idle X-ray machines said, “the only terrorists in Brazil are the president and the militares.” That morn¬ing, in fact, somebody had blown up a statue to the workers that had just been erected in the city of Volta Redonda. The explosion, which shattered many windows, was so powerful it was thought to have been the work of terrorists of the right; only the right had access to such good explosives.
The chances of ending up an anony¬mous corpse in the morgue of one of Rio’s hospitals were improving daily. Twenty people-two and a half times the rate of the Vietnam War-were being killed a day. But everything was copacetic in Co¬pacabana. Teenage gatinhas who would have made Stroessner’s mouth water were lying on the beach in dental-floss bikinis. A street vendor was selling sunglasses from Paraguay for “only one cruzado, which isn’t worth a thing anymore.”
I flew down to Curitiba, the beautiful capital of the southern state of Parana, rented an ethanol-powered Volkswagen Gol sedan, and drove to Guaratuba. It was a steep two-hour descent to the coast through gorges frothing with rain forest. I saw for the first time in their native habitat araucaria trees, primitive, majestic flat¬topped relatives of pines whose branching pattern is like a menorah. The road was full of trucks driven by madmen. Guara¬tuba is just down the coast from Parana¬gua, the free port where most of the contraband in Paraguay comes in-whis¬key, cigarettes, and Asian stuff from the Miami free-trade zone, hot German cars, cocaine chemicals, German, Israeli, and Taiwanese arms sold to South Africa through Paraguayan middlemen to get around the embargo.
Guaratuba was a gem. It had not yet been overcondominiumized and overrun by Eurotrash like the coast north of Rio. There was a very rich man named Trom¬bini who owned a lot of paper mills and had a house there, but the Stroessners were the only celebrities. I checked into a nice hotel right on the beach. I was the only guest. It was fall, when the tempera¬ture drops to the seventies and Brazilians complain of the cold.
The Stroessner house had a sentry box, but there were no guards. Across the street was a cheapo condominium com¬plex called Asa Delta, from which you could have seen over the walls and into Stroessner’s courtyard and blown him away with a bazooka as easily as Somoza had been in Asuncion. There was no blue carpet that rolled out to the ocean, as far as I could see. I hiked up my belt and rapped on the door. Stroessner and Gustavo were supposed to have returned from Silo Paulo earlier in the week. The door was opened by a barefoot house girl who said they had just gone back there. When are they returning? “They didn’t say.”
But I recalled that they had stayed at the Caesar Park when the old man got out of the hospital. So I put in a call to the Cae¬sar Park for Gustavo Stroessner. An aide answered. I explained that I was in Guara¬tuba, and fifteen minutes later Gustavo himself called me back. Amazing. I couldn’t believe it was him. He was in¬credibly warm and polite, but this was, I soon discovered, because he thought for some reason that I was a certain General Chin, a Taiwanese military historian who was apparently writing a military biogra¬phy of his father. When he found out that I was a journalist, his voice changed com¬pletely. I could feel his temper rising as he hastened to bring the conversation to a conclusion. Father is talking to no one, he said. Try again in forty days. How about you? I asked. What if I flew up to Silo Paulo and we had a drink for an hour.
No, he said emphatically. I’m not talk¬ing to anyone, either. Thanks so much for your interest and ique ldstima, que molestia!, what a pity, what an inconve¬mence.
It goes without saying that a week later Rodriguez won by a landslide. Not only is it axiomatic in Latin-American politics that the candidate of the party in power always wins, but Rodriguez had overthrown the Wicked Witch of the West and modern polling techniques had con¬firmed that he was a very popular man. Of course there were irregularities-a couple of the old rustic bosses couldn’t refrain from tampering with the ballot box. In an effort to discourage people from voting twice, the U.S. State Department had contributed bottles of indelible ink that proved to be not as indelible as had been hoped, but The Economist reported that it was “the cleanest dirty election in Para¬guay since 1926.” Even Roberto voted Colorado. “Rodriguez will be a good capo,” he explained. “He knows the mil¬itary and the drug businesses from the in¬side, and-who knows?-in a country with imitations on every corner, maybe he can achieve a convincing imitation of de¬mocracy.”
Two months later I called my contacts in Paraguay to see if the bloom was still on the rose. “It isn’t easy,” Ambassador Towell told me. “The judges have to practice being independent jurists, the legislators have to learn to legislate, the people in the executive have to practice dealing with legislative and judicial bodies. There are serious economic and land-reform issues to address. But it’s looking positive-the state-owned white elephants, for instance, that were creat¬ed as payoffs for party Pooh-Bahs and have been hemorrhaging at the rate of $9 million a month are being priva¬tized. ”
Roberto also sounded cautiously opti¬mistic. “There are coup rumors, rumors of a return of the stronistas,” he reported. “Last week someone called the radio sta¬tions and said forces loyal to Gustavo were about to storm the palace, but it was either a ruse by some of the military to remind people that something like that could happen, or someone was playing a very bad joke. I’d say the chances for an actual coup now are close to zero. Every¬one seems to have accepted that Rodri¬guez will be there until 1993. He is the caudillo. There is no number-two general strong enough to threaten him. But this is Paraguay. You never know. ”
My thoughts returned to the night of the coup, when Stroessner was pinned in the barracks of the presidential guard. For a long time, apparently, he refused to be¬lieve that Rodriguez, his old protege, was trying to overthrow him (particularly since he was under the impression that Rodri¬guez had a broken leg and that the First Cavalry Division had only an hour’s worth of ammunition). He thought that Rodriguez would be in there with him helping fight off an assault by junior offi¬cers. But finally he understood. Rodri¬guez was himself thirty-four years earlier, the once loyal general who had come to terminate the weak regime of his presi¬dent. He was the true successor.