US Vice President Mike Pence may not have meant it, but his recent admonition to Paraguay to respect “historic relationships” between that country, the United States and Israel clumsily provoked sinister memories of the past.
The move followed the decision last week by Mario Abdo Benitez, the newly elected president of the South American state, to reverse an earlier order to relocate Paraguay’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Benitez’ predecessor, Horacio Cortes, had followed the Trump administration’s decision earlier this year in May to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump’s declaration on the embassy issue sparked international condemnation because it lends support to the Israeli state’s controversial claim to Jerusalem as its sole capital. International consensus views the final status of Jerusalem to be a matter of historic negotiations to be worked out between Palestinians and Israelis.
Significantly, only a handful of UN member states have followed suit in Washington’s embassy decision, Guatemala and Paraguay being two of them.
Now that Paraguay’s President Benitez has reversed the earlier embassy decision by his predecessor, both Israel and the US have shown their acute consternation, no doubt because it undermines the political momentum Trump and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu intended to generate among other nations to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Israel has threatened to close its embassy in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion. And Mike Pence was reportedly hot on the phone to Benitez last week urging him to “remember past commitments and the historic relations the country has with both Israel and the United States”.
Given the backsliding from the US over a wide range of its own past commitments, Washington’s exhortation to Paraguay rings decidedly hollow. Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord, the Paris Climate Agreement, NAFTA, TPP, and trashing its promise not to expand NATO forces towards Russia’s borders, are just some of the “commitments” that the US has shown a self-serving disdain for.
But it was the oblique, sonorous mention of “historic relations” made by Pence to the Paraguayan leader that is intriguing, if not a sign of gross insensitivity in this White House. The vice president didn’t spell out what he meant. But given the history between the three states, much of it sinister, it was an unfortunate allusion by Pence. It is hardly an impetus for finding agreement on the Jerusalem embassy issue.
Firstly, there is Paraguay’s dark and not-too-distant past of military dictatorship under Alfredo Stroenesser. Under his decades-long rule with an iron-fist, Paraguay gained the moniker of being a “poor man’s Nazi regime”. The comparison was not merely rhetorical.
Stroenesser was notorious for running death squads and torture centers against political opponents. Thousands were disappeared or murdered under his regime (1954-1989). Moreover, the oppression was conducted as part of the US-led Operation Condor program in which the CIA recruited South American dictatorships to eliminate emerging socialist movements. During the 1970s, Stroenesser was a key player in the fascist Operation Condor along with Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and the other US-backed military juntas of Argentina and Brazil.
So for Mike Pence to pontificate to Paraguay as having historic obligations to the United States is stomach-wrenching. How Pence expects favors from that nation now for its dubious Middle East policies is frankly bizarre in its ignorance of past American-sponsored barbarity in Paraguay. Mike Twopence a better name.
As for Israel, the “historic relationship” that Pence adverts to is also woefully problematic.
Paraguay was one of the main South American destinations for Nazi war criminals fleeing justice following the Second World War. The infamous ratlines run out of Europe, from Spain and Italy, were used to spirit top Nazi commanders into hiding on the other side of the Atlantic.
As many as 10,000 Nazi officers were reckoned to have evaded war crimes prosecutions by availing of this route. Some of them were aided in their escape by the newly formed American CIA and its Gehlen Organization run by Hitler’s former spymaster Major General Reinhard Gehlen who was recruited by the Americans to wage clandestine war against the Soviet Union.
Among the most wanted Nazis who fled to South America were Adolf Eichmann, Walter Rauff and Josef Mengele. Eichmann was captured by Israeli intelligence officers in Argentina in 1960, and subsequently executed two years later in Israel after conviction for war crimes.
Rauff, who as an SS colonel organized mobile gas chambers to kill East European Jews, reportedly died from natural causes in 1984 while living in Chile under the protection of the US-backed Pinochet regime.
Mengele, the SS Doctor known as the “Angel of Death” due to his macabre and sadistic experiments on Auschwitz inmates, including pregnant women and children, lived for many years in Paraguay under the protected patronage of dictator Stroenesser. Mengele eventually died from a brain hemorrhage in 1979 after moving to Brazil.
Here is where the current Paraguayan president’s own family history becomes uncomfortable. Mario Abdo Benitez’ father was a private secretary to the old Nazi-loving dictator during much of his despotic reign.
There is no suggestion that the incumbent 46-year-old Paraguayan leader has any personal affiliation to the crimes of the past committed in his country, nor shares his father’s association with Stroessner and the latter’s affinity for Nazism.
“I am proud that the victims who suffered mistreatment and torture at that time are working with me today," Abdo Benitez told AFP. “This is another era. If I had been rejected, they would not be with me.”
But one factor that may be influencing President Abdo Benitez is that he has Arab heritage owing to his father’s ancestry as Lebanese.
Any such concern by Benitez for Palestinian national rights is of course legitimate and principled. One does not have to be Arab to share the grievances of Palestinians in being denied a claim to national sovereignty and in particular their historic claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
When the former Paraguayan president, Horacio Cortes, made the decision to relocate his country’s embassy to Jerusalem it was in May. The previous month, Benitez won the national election. He was thus president-elect when the embassy decision was hastily made by the outgoing administration. At the time, Benitez strongly voiced his opposition to that questionable last-minute ruling. Following his inauguration to office in August, the new president has hence moved to reverse the embassy relocation.
It therefore seems that President Benitez is simply reversing an earlier decision which was not constitutionally sound.
The pressure by Washington and Israel on Paraguay over the embassy matter is thus unwarranted. President Benitez said his decision to move the embassy back to Tel Aviv was to show that “Paraguay is a country of laws and principles”.
Lobbying by VP Mike Pence is blatant interference by the US in the internal politics of this South American state.
But so clumsy is Pence in this interference that his bluster about “historic relationships” dredges up a lot of sinister specters from the past with regard to the United States and its involvement with fascist regimes and Nazi war criminals.