My hotel is only a stone’s throw from Asuncion’s railway station. But no trains run from the ornate pillared building. Instead, an ancient wood burning engine stands forlorn, like a beached whale, the rail tracks leading from the station now covered in tarmac. The only public transport here is provided by ramshackle buses that buck and sway along the bumpy streets.
Not much seems to have changed since I was last here, over 10 years ago. A few more, ugly high-rise blocks now tower over the town. There are more shopping centres but many graceful old buildings, mostly used for government departments or ministries, have survived. Indigenous women still squat on the pavements selling woven handicrafts. But the shifty black market money changers have largely disappeared from the street because you can just walk into a bank or exchange shop and buy your guaranis. It takes a bit of time getting used to all the noughts added on since I was last here, with a cup of coffee costing 6,000 guarani, a full meal over a 100,000. It is pretty alarming until you translate it into another currency, then the coffee becomes a reasonable 90p, and the meal about £15.
At the Palacio de Justicia, the Paraguayan law courts building, black-clad lawyers and judges bustle about. Balthazar Garzón is here to talk about Operation Condor and the need to end impunity. But Paraguay’s prosecutors do not seem terribly interested in digging up the past – it is too uncomfortable for the Colorado party, which supported the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and is now back in power with Horacio Cartes, the new president.
Garzón is shown round the Museum of Justice which houses the Terror Archive, a collection of thousands of police documents from the 35 year-long-dictatorship, discovered in 1993, now digitalised and preserved. The documents reveal the extent of the control exercised by the Stroessner dictatorship – telephones bugged, people followed, detentions, interrogations, all on a massive scale. On one wall is a blown-up photo of a 12 year old girl, arrested for subversion, raped and tortured in spite of her age. Now in her 60s, she recently gave evidence to Paraguay’s Truth and Justice Commssion.
Some things havn’t changed, like the main prison, Tacumbu. The newspaper ABC Color is running a series about conditions there – 4.000 men crammed into a prison built for 1,200. The numbers have almost quadrupled but the food budget has stayed the same, so prisoners have to be fed on a £1 a day each. Those with families get extra food but the so-called miserables – the poorest prisoners, without money or visitors – sleep in the open air, without mattresses, let alone beds, on bits of cardboard. Most are there for petty crimes or drug dealing.
During the dictatorship of Stroessner, political prisoners were also held in Tacumbu. I remember visiting there 30 years ago. I joined a queue of hundreds of women kept waiting in the hot sun for hours. As we got near the prison gates, a woman said to me “Pantalones no puede!” No trousers allowed! Women had to wear skirts or dresses or they would be stopped from visiting. But there was a solution – they pointed me in the direction of the tumbledown houses that lined one edge of the square. There I discovered trays of second hand skirts for hire. I chose the least horrible – a rather unpleasant saggy yellow number – paid. and became fit to enter the prison.
Today there are no political prisoners, but Paraguayans are outraged by the daily news of corruption scandals involving government companies, senators, deputies, and authorities. Under pressure, the Senate has voted to strip immunity from one of their number accused of corruption, so he can be taken to court. This followed street protests and a campaign by shopkeepers and restaurant owners, who put up notices in their windows saying: “No corrupt people admitted. Senators who vote to keep immunity are not welcome here.”