It was hard not to be impressed by the warmth and gratitude expressed for Paraguay and its president by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Monday's dedication ceremony of that country’s embassy, newly relocated to Jerusalem.
Addressing both the country and its leader, Horacio Cartes, Netanyahu promised that “we remember our friends,” while saying how “we have no better friends than you.”
Paraguay, noted Netanyahu, had supported the creation of Israel in the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine.
But Netanyahu also praised Paraguay, a country of some 7 million, for having opened its doors to Jews fleeing Europe “before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust an act of benevolence and mercy that is forever etched in our hearts.”
Indeed, in the years preceding the start of World War II, Paraguay admitted somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who were fleeing the Third Reich. The vast majority of them then used the papers they had received in Paraguay to move on to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, all three of which had tougher immigration laws. The ones who remained in Paraguay joined a small Jewish community whose members had begun arriving in the late 19th century. These included immigrants first from France, Switzerland and Italy, later from Ottoman-controlled Palestine (on the eve of World War I), and, in the 1920s, from Poland and Ukraine. The entire Jewish community, however, was never much larger than 1,000 members.
Paraguay could afford to have a liberal immigration policy, if only because it had lost so much of its population to a horrific war with its neighbors in the years 1864-1870. It was this catastrophe that President Cartes referred to as Paraguay’s “holocaust,” during an earlier visit to Jerusalem, in 2016. The War of the Triple Alliance saw Paraguay which had only achieved independence in 1811, take on the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The war was a grave miscalculation and resulted in extensive deaths among both military and civilians: It has been estimated that more than half of the country’s residents perished, either in combat or from disease and famine.
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Germans also benefited from Paraguay’s open door. Most famously, after World War II, Paraguay, as well as Brazil and Argentina, helped fleeing Nazi war criminals escape justice by offering them refuge. But fledgling Nazis and anti-Semites were welcome in Paraguay even before a National Socialist party came into existence. In 1887, German teacher Bernhard Forster and his wife, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche (sister of the German philosopher), established the Aryans-only agricultural settlement of Nueva Germania on the banks of the Aguaray-Guazu River, about 250 kilometers south of the country’s capital, Asuncion.
The Forsters began their racially pure community with a mere 14 families, but it was their intention to breed a superior white race that would eventually be able to dominate the South American continent. Within a half-dozen years, Berhard Forster had committed suicide and Elisabeth had returned to Germany, where she devoted her remaining years to reinterpreting the philosophy of her late brother as an anti-Semitic legacy.
It was descendants of these original settlers who established a branch of the Nazi party in Paraguay in 1931, the first such sister party outside of Germany. Even after the beginning of World War II, Paraguay was openly sympathetic to Germany (the national police director called his son Adolfo Hirohito).
Nueva Germania, which still exists by that name in the Paraguayan jungle (visiting journalists continue to show up periodically to interview blond-haired descendants of the original settlers), was only one of 37 German colonies established in Paraguay.
By the mid-1990s, an estimated 200,000 Paraguayans were of German descent. One of them had been the country’s longtime dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, who was born to Bavarian emigrants in Encarnacion in 1912. Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup in 1989, 35 years after taking power. Although he was not officially a member of his country’s Nazi organization, his sympathies for the cause were no secret, and it was he who welcomed escaping war criminals into the country in the early years of his rule. These included Josef Mengele, the notorious doctor from Auschwitz who used Jewish inmates as guinea pigs in his perverse pseudo-scientific experiments.
Although Mengele spent relatively little time in Paraguay, he did become a naturalized citizen of the country in 1959, and seems to have moved back and forth between countries, successfully evading attempts to capture him up until his death at age 67 while swimming off the coast at the Brazilian resort of Bertioga, in 1979.
Although many in Israel are grateful to Cartes for moving the Paraguayan embassy to Jerusalem from the suburb of Mevasseret Zion, the transfer has been widely criticized back home. That’s because Cartes’ successor, Mario Abdo Benitez, is scheduled to take over the presidency in August of this year, having been elected in April. Abdo Benitez has said that Cartes did not consult him on the embassy move.
During Monday's dedication, Netanyahu gushed that, under Cartes, Paraguay had taken “a very bold stance in international affairs and refused to cooperate with the lies directed against Israel.” He didn’t elaborate, but presumably was referring to Asuncion's refusal to support resolutions in the UN General Assembly that have criticized Israel for taking unilateral actions in Jerusalem, in one case, and in the occupied territories, in another. Paraguay hadn’t voted against those resolutions, like the United States and Micronesia, among others, but it had abstained.
While the Palestinian leadership was outraged by Cartes' embassy move, and urged Arab nations to cut ties with Asuncion, Paraguay has generally followed the largely pro-Palestinian bent of many South American nations, and recognized the state of Palestine in 2011.
It should also be noted that the country Netanyahu billed as Israel's new best friend, tolerates a strong presence of extremist Islamic organizations, particularly Hezbollah and other groups tied to Iran, especially in its part of the remote and poorly supervised Tri-Border Area, which is shared with Brazil and Argentina.
A 2016 Foreign Policy magazine noted that "the most prominent members of Hezbollah’s Latin American network reside in Paraguay, where the group’s links appear to reach the highest levels of government."