Ghosts of the Stronato: Asunción's Taiwanese Expats a Dying Breed

Why you need to know

In 1986 the Taiwan leader was granted his own effigy in Paraguay's capital. But what of Taiwan's expats in Paraguay today?

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There aren't many options if you're bookless in Asunción, but the dusty old store halfway up Silvio Pettirossi is a real treat. Among Spanish translations of Jules Roy and propaganda materials featuring images of the late dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, I find a small blue pamphlet.

Published by the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) – now known as the World League for Freedom and Democracy – it is titled “Industria de Los Comunistas Chinos en 1979.” Even if my Spanish language skills weren't so limited, I wouldn't be all that interested in the contents: annual increases in bicycle and fertilizer production, to take just one page. But the booklet is a reminder of just how tight the relationship between Taiwan and Paraguay was during El Stronato, as Stroessner's 35-year reign was known.

The WACL emerged from the Asian People's Anti-Communist League, which was cofounded by the rightist governments of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) in Taiwan and Syngman Rhee in South Korea in 1954. It soon became a club for dictators, former Nazis, terrorists and assorted ne'er-do-wells. Stroessner was in his element.

Likened by Graham Greene to an “amiable, well-fed host of a Bavarian bierstube,” Stroessner was a big fan of Chiang. Several months after Chiang's death in 1975, Stroessner attended the National Day celebrations in Taiwan. He made sure to visit his old pal's sarcophagus at Daxi (大溪) in Taoyuan County (桃園縣).

Like the Generalissimo, Stroessner adhered to the autocrat's playbook in creating a cult of personality. If any statues were to be built, they were likely to be of “the lighthouse,” as he was fond of describing himself. Either that or heroes of the republic, such as the nineteenth century President Francisco Solano Lopez – a man whose proclivity for violence made Stroessner look like a lovable rogue. Nevertheless, in 1986, Chiang was granted his own effigy in Paraguay's capital. While, statues of Chiang have been torn down across Taiwan, a bronze likeness of the Generalissimo greets Asunceños with a doff of his hat on an avenue bearing his name. The last statue of Stroessner looks a lot less jolly. It can be found across town in front of the presidential palace, squashed between two concrete blocks.

CREDIT: James Baron

Stroessner saw the Kuomintang administration of Taiwan as something of model for his struggling nation, though in reality he lacked the will or patience for such an enterprise. Paraguayan military personnel were dispatched to Taipei's Fu Hsing Kang College for training – a practice that continues to this day. In those days, the selling point was the emphasis on political warfare. The KMT was making an effort to rein in some of the less cultured methods of its Latin American allies by encouraging them to focus on propaganda and mass indoctrination. In 1983, the founder of the college, General Wang Sheng (王昇) was dispatched to Asunción to take up the post of ambassador.

Despite frequent meetings with Wang – the architect of the hearts-and-minds strategy in Taiwan – and his huge respect for the Generalissimo, Stroessner didn't seem all that interested in the softly-softly approach. Indeed, the excesses of his dreaded Department of Investigations, headed by the notorious torturer-in-chief Pastor Coronel, continued unabated. It was this refusal to give the iron fist a touch of velvet that led to Stroessner's downfall. A rift had developed in the ruling Colorado Party, with the “traditionalist” wing becoming increasingly disenchanted with the capricious and brutal nature of Stroessner's rule.

The end of his 35-year-reign came swiftly, as his right-hand man Andrés Rodríguez surrounded the Presidential Guard building where he was hold up and forced him to stand down. In spite of the speed of proceedings, the coup was not without casualties, as forces loyal to Stroessner clashed with the rebels in gunfights that lasted several hours.

At Asunción's Municipal Market No.4, I run into Taiwanese ex-pats who remember these events well. “We lived close to the ministry of defense and the embassy,” says Mr. Lee, who owns a toy store in the market. “We could hear the shooting. At first, we thought it was firecrackers, as they often let those off during football matches, but then someone called to say there had been a coup. I put the sofa up against the door and our three kids hid.”

As things quietened down the next day, Lee says he ventured outside to assess the situation. “People were walking around and everything seemed fine,” he says. “But we could see bullet holes in the buildings and we heard that police had been killed. Later we heard that Stroessner had left in a plane.”

In “Counterrevolution in China,” the seminal work on Wang Sheng's career, Thomas Marks quotes a Taiwanese official recalling that Ambassador Wang instructed him to warn Chinese residents not to leave their houses.

“No one called us,” says Lee. “But we'd only been there about a year, so maybe they didn't know us!”

At its peak in the late 1980s, the Taiwanese in Asunción formed a cohesive community of about 7,000 people. While official figures are hard to come by, it's clear that the taiqiao – or overseas Taiwanese – are now relatively few. Most have repatriated or moved on to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“You won't find so many of us here anymore,” says Mrs. Huang, who runs a store selling eyewear near Mr. Lee's toy store. “Most of them are in Ciudad del Este,” she says, referring to Paraguay's second city, an infamous black market hub where Taiwanese business activity is not always commendable.

“It's very competitive here now,” says her husband. “There are many more Koreans and Mainland Chinese doing business. Plus the economy isn't great at the moment.”

Mr. Lee agrees. “When I first came here, it was easy to build a business without any help,” he says. “In the old days, you could make money even if you came without anything to invest. Now it's a lot tougher.”

CREDIT: James Baron

Editor: Edward White

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