I don’t often focus on current-events with this blog, as it is designed to be a (rarely updated) record of our experiences abroad rather than a soapbox for political rants. With the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia raging through my mind, I’ve been reminded of Paraguay’s recent struggles for reconciliation after a dictatorship and thought that it offers a few interesting parallels.
Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year rule of Paraguay earned him the dubious distinction of being the longest-ruling dictator in the South America. He was devoutly anti-communist and used harsh methods of intimidation, torture and murder to maintain his iron-grip of the country.
His legacy in Paraguay continues to be controversial today. Many of Stroessner’s former supporters maintain political and economic control as members of a business-elite; they revere him and openly pine with nostalgia for the good ole days of his totalitarian dictatorship. Most of the intellectual class in contrast, as the primary victims of Stroessner’s suppression campaigns, hate everything he stands for with a vehemence that is astounding to witness in person. Paraguayans are known for being a relaxed nation; the national motto is tranquilo pa, which loosely translates to, “no worries.” But emotions can run hot when Paraguayans discuss Stroessner!
That’s where the connection to Charlottesville came to mind. Stroessner (like most dictators it seems) had a statue fetish. The country was covered with bronze effigies of himself standing authoritatively, confident in his total control. When he was ousted in 1989, congress passed a law mandating the removal of all statues from plazas, hills and roadsides around the country. They also demanded the renaming of schools, roads, buildings and anything else bearing his name. Even the second largest city in the country, Puerto Stroessner, was rechristened Ciudad del Este. This task was monumental (pun intended). It took two years but in 1991, a final one-ton statue was removed from a hill-top in Lambare. What the Paraguayans did with the scrap in 1991 could, in my opinion, serve as an interesting compromise for the Southern United States’ plethora of Confederate statues.
To remember the legacy of Stroessner, the innovative Paraguayans dismembered the statue and smashed it between two blocks of concrete. They then set it up again in its mangled form in a downtown Asuncion plaza, where it still sits today. I feel like this balances the arguments on both sides of the debate, the “preserve our history” crowd and the “tear it down” protester camp. When I first noticed the memorial during my second trip to the downtown core after I’d moved to Paraguay, I had a surprisingly visceral reaction. To me, Stroessner’s face peering out of the concrete, his hands reaching as if he is caged, seems like a huge political statement; although Paraguay may never fully escape from his shadow, that doesn’t preclude a newfound commitment to justice and democracy. I think this is my favorite Paraguayan monument as a result. Thanks for reading my musings.