#4: Rotting Away in Asuncion, Paraguay
Asuncion Port Paraguay.
10 Jan 2002
Flat, almost empty savanna plains interrupted by herds of cattle, isolated estancias (farms) and villages, and occasionally shops run by Asians – as indicated by signboards in Korean, Chinese or Japanese – in the middle of nowhere. Can you guess where I am?
Deepest Paraguay. A landlocked country in the middle of the South American continent, Paraguay is the size of California, but only has 5 million people. It is also one of the poorest countries in South America, with underdeveloped infrastructure, so much so that Brazilians told me that they feel like people from the First World when they visit Paraguay.
Even then, Paraguay is not just another boring banana republic. Its history is full of powerful personalities and events, some of which were motivated by worthy ideals, others by national and personal glories – although everything seems to have collapsed in disaster, sometimes through its own faults, and sometimes the result of jealousy from greater powers.
If you have watched the movie The Mission, Paraguay and the neighbouring border regions of Argentina and Brazil were where it took place. In the 17th century, the Jesuit missionaries came here before the Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers did. They converted the local Guarani Indians, and set up autonomous socialistic-theocratic communities of Indians, who adopted European customs, built magnificent churches, schools and hospitals, and engaged in art, music, education, science, etc.
This 158 years of experimentation alarmed the great powers who wanted the territory as private estancias and the Indians as mere slaves. They attacked the settlements and expelled the Jesuits. Today, ruins of these grand structures and remains of their intricate carvings still stand in Encarnacion region, some of which have been declared World Heritage sites.
I traveled 400 km on a wacky country bus for 6 hours a few days ago, to the border city of Encarnacion, where I stayed overnight and caught another local bus to the settlement of Trinidad, and there it was, the remains of this grand experiment, damned by the imperial powers who did not want to see the rise of a successful Indian community. The only legacy today of that episode is perhaps the integration of the Spanish immigrants with the Guaranis, whose language is today the second national language of Paraguay.
The next rise of Paraguay came in the 19th century, after independence came to the American continent. Dictator Gaspar R. De Francia, “El Supremo”, imposed a policy of isolation and self-sufficiency. His successor, Carlos Antonio Lopez, began a process of modernisation which introduced one of the first railway lines and telegraph systems in South America. His son, Francisco Solano Lopez continued the work, and built a formidable army – one of the largest in South America. He saw himself as a South American Napoleon and got Paraguay into war with Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in what was known as the War of the Triple Alliance. He died in battle, together with more than 50% of the population – including 90% of the male Paraguayans. This must be one of the greatest disasters of any nation in history, and Paraguay never quite recovered from it.
Even today, however, Francia and the two Lopezs remain national heroes. Their portraits appear on banknotes and coins, and their bodies lie in the Pantheon of National Heroes in the City Centre, with a permanent guard of honour. The statue of Francisco Lopez on his leaping horse stands near the Presidential Palace, with the unfortunate irony of the entrance of a shantytown barely meters away. Paraguay continues to live in its past, for the present is perhaps unpalatable.
The greatest personality of Paraguay in recent times is General Alfredo Stroessner. He ruled with an iron arm for 34 years, until his overthrow by the father of his son-in-law, General Rodriguez (not before allowing him and his cronies – the so-called Itaipu Barons – among the Paraguayan elite to benefit from the massive Itaipu Dam project). Said to be one of the greatest drug lords in the world, Rodriguez brought Paraguay to democracy, ruled for a short while, and soon died under mysterious circumstances in the USA. Rumours say he did not die at all, but that the Americans, embarrassed by his involvement with the CIA and corrupt Drug Enforcement Agency officials, have arranged for him to retire after a face surgery and to live happily with a different identity. America is the Big Brother now; rumours say 30,000 US troops sit in a jungle base near Ciudad del Este near the border with Brazil, but the base’s existence is denied by everybody.
Since then, the country has seen quite a few presidents, coups and counter-coups both bloody and bloodless (the exact number of which depend on who you support and how you define changes in government), plus the assassination of a vice president (conspiratorial theorists say he died of cancer but it was made to look like an assassination to boost the fortunes of his declining party).
I stood in front of the parliament. A few rusty memorials to the deaths in some of these upheavals stood in front of it – martyrs of democracy, as they are known. Whatever it was, Paraguay continues to emit a decaying feel about things, in that humid tropical sun. When things rot, they really smell in such climate. Not surprisingly, Paraguay was also the setting for Graham Greene’s famous work, The Honourary Consul.
I entered Paraguay from Brazil, at Ciudad del Este (formerly known as Ciudad Presidente Stroessner). This city is a gigantic shopping center for Brazilians who came over for cheap electronic goods, drugs and women. An endless traffic jam greets the visitor, no different from those on major border towns of richer/poorer countries.
I walked across the Friendship Bridge (beware of such names – they tend to imply the exact opposite, like the one between China and Vietnam, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan), got my passport stamped, and spent the next two hours entertained by a Chinese shopkeeper and his wife – with never-ending flow of water, tea and watermelon. Twenty percent of the population in Ciudad del Este and most of its wealth are owned by Chinese and Taiwanese who moved into this easygoing (i.e., of law enforcement) land to run some business and maybe move on to the US. There is even a Chinese TV station there and of course, a Chinese mafia who imposes a monopoly on certain goods! Then I got onto a moto-taxi, i.e., as a pillion rider on a motorcycle, without a helmet which brought me to the Bus Terminal.
Five hours later and I reached Asuncion, the journey made longer by countless (every 30 minutes) police checkpoints for drugs, unpaid duties and perhaps random bribes. I have seen 30 boxes of cigarettes taken from my bus, and a crowd unloading thousands of boxes of untaxed underwear at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. The city is a dead town on Sundays (and only slightly better on weekday nights). I met a foreign businessmen – a friend of an old friend in London – who is planning to build an enormous property complex here. I was initially skeptical of the viability. No worries, says he, for Paraguay is full of unusually rich people with private jets and anxious to put money into something decent. Well, does that ring a bell somewhere to bank compliance officers?
The next day I covered the city in four hours – all the museums appeared to be closed, and for the rest of the week too! Oh, this is Paraguay. I realized that the bus to Santiago de Chile was full until Friday, and that I was now stuck in this humid land till then.
I spent the next few days going to Encarnacion, surfing on the net, rotting in cafï¿½s, buying tacky old postcards (such as one showing a local festival with ladies in national costumes balancing five bottles on their heads) and trying local dishes, for instance, the sopa paraguayo which is actually a cake rather than a soup. So many days in Asuncion and I was even capable of guiding a few tourists dropping by on what little to be seen. Oh yes, I did have an interesting episode with an interesting Paraguayan in what might inspire a semi-fictional (I need proper caveats) story entitled “Romance under the Stars of Asuncion”. Don’t hold your breath for it though; I might decide to keep the story for the tabloids instead!
As a side note, Paraguay, like Brazil, had attracted emigrants from a number of countries that are fairly well-off today. Everywhere in the country I have come across Paraguayans of Japanese, Korean and German descent. Their children, without rosy checks in this tropical land, are barefoot and in faded T-shirts; they play with locals in the playground. Shops bear signboards that one would expect to see in Osaka, Pusan or Munich.
Many in the past had thought this country to be a land of opportunity. Instead their children might be quietly blaming their parents for choosing the wrong country to move to. I had yakisoba in a Japanese cafï¿½ in Encarnacion, its elderly owner disappointed that I couldn’t speak Japanese, nevertheless switched on the TV with a Japanese channel. That’s life. Economic forecasts can go wrong.
Here I am, rotting away in 38ï¿½C sun in Asuncion. I am taking the early bus to Santiago de Chile tomorrow: 30 hours over 3000 km. The bus will pass through Argentina (pray that looters don’t block the highways on the second day of the devaluation) and then enter Chile across the High Andes at a mountain pass near Aconcagua, the highest peak of the Americas at 6,959m. I will spend the next few weeks in Chile, including a short stay at the legendary Easter Island (just bought the ticket online at a princely sum). I shall write again from Chile. Wow! I will be back to the Pacific Rim, isn’t this exciting?