With its new embassy in Jerusalem, Bibi will ignore Paraguay’s Nazi past

At the opening ceremony of Paraguay’s new embassy in Jerusalem, Netanyahu spoke about common values such as democracy, tolerance, and coexistence. He failed to mention the fact that Paraguay gave asylum to Nazi war criminals.

By Eitay Mack

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) his wife Sara (left) and Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes (center) seen at the official opening ceremony of the Paraguay embassy in Jerusalem on May 21, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) his wife Sara (left) and Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes (center) seen at the official opening ceremony of the Paraguay embassy in Jerusalem on May 21, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Taking a cue from the Trump administration, Paraguay was the third country to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last week. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and outgoing Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes spoke at the ceremony to inaugurate the new embassy, in which they both delivered speeches rife with embarrassing historical distortions.

During his speech, Cartes said that “our friendship is based on common principles such as democracy, tolerance and respect, a lack of discrimination, and peaceful coexistence.” One can only assume that in a worldwide poll asking people which countries symbolize democracy, tolerance and respect, a lack of discrimination, and peaceful coexistence, few would likely choose Israel or Paraguay.

After all, Israel has a record of 51 years of occupying the Palestinian territories, as well as discrimination against and oppressing its Palestinian citizens, while Paraguay has a record of successive military dictatorships. The country’s last dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner, ran the country as a police state for 35 years, and was responsible for the torture of tens of thousands of citizens, and disappeared hundreds of others. Women and girls who were arrested were sexually tortured and raped.

Netanyahu and his associates are not the only ones summoned for police interrogations over corruption allegations. Cartes is also suspected of corruption, fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and even drug trafficking. Like Netanyahu, who used his elections campaign to incite against Arab citizens, Cartes, who is supported by the right and the extreme right in Paraguay, incited against the LGBTQ community during his campaign, labeling them monkeys, and saying that if it turns out that his son is gay, he will shoot himself in the testicles.

A haven for Nazis 

Netanyahu told Cartes that “this is a great day for Israel, a great day for Paraguay, a great day for our friendship. You’ve done much for your country, much for our country, and now you’re doing something for both our countries. And this follows the example and I would say practice of Paraguay for many, many years. Paraguay helped Jews escape Nazi Germany. We will never forget this. You did this before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust. It was an act of benevolence and mercy that is forever etched in our hearts.”

Netanyahu purposefully omitted a number of incontrovertible facts. In 1927, the first Nazi party outside of Germany was established in Paraguay. During World War II, much of the country’s elite, including future dictator Stroessner supported the Axis Powers. With the end of the war, Paraguay became one of the few countries that served as an asylum for the Nazi top brass who fled justice following the war, including those who took an active role in its genocidal machine, including Dr. Josef Mengele, who carried out brutal human experiments on Jews and the Roma people in Auschwitz, and in 1959 was granted citizenship by the Paraguayan dictatorship; Eduard Roschmann, who was one of the commanders of the Riga Ghetto; and Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Nazi pilot personally revered by Hitler. After the war, Rudel became an arms dealer, helped harbor Nazis across Latin America, and became one of Stroessner’s close personal friends.

Netanyahu also said that “Paraguay supported the creation of the State of Israel, the recognition of the State of Israel in the United Nations. We will never forget that. Paraguay, before but especially under your leadership, took a very bold stance in international affairs and refused to cooperate with the lies directed against Israel. We always remember that. Thank you Horacio. Thank you, and thank you Paraguay.” In a meeting with Cartes, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said: “Paraguay is thousands of kilometers from Israel, but our hearts are close. For over 70 years, Paraguay has been a true friend of Israel, and we are marking 70 years since Israel’s establishment, and the diplomatic relations between us.”

English: Auschwitz, Poland, Three SS officers socialize on the grounds of the SS retreat outside of Auschwitz, 1944. From left to right they are: Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz), Dr. Josef Mengele and Rudolf Hoess (the former Auschwitz Commandant). (Karl-Friedrich Höcker/Yad Vashem)
Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz), Dr. Josef Mengele and Rudolf Hoess (the former Auschwitz Commandant) seen at Auschwitz, 1944. (Karl-Friedrich Höcker/Yad Vashem)

Both Netanyahu and Rivlin purposely omitted the truth about these relations. Only in 1968, after Paraguay was temporarily elected to become a member of the UN Security Council, did Israel open an embassy in its capital, Asunción. The main role of then Israeli ambassador, Benjamin Varon, was to convince Stroessner to refrain from or oppose voting against Israel and its occupation of Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian territories. To make this happen, Varon had to turn a blind eye and refrain from criticizing Paraguay for accepting Nazis.

In his autobiography, Varon describes how he waited in a room alongside Rudel while waiting for a meeting in Stroessner’s office; how the Israeli Foreign Ministry completely ignored the reports he was sending about information he had on Mengale; and how he would respond to those who offered intelligence on Nazis in Paraguay that this was the responsibility of the German government, not Israel’s, since the Nazis were German citizens and their victims were not citizens of Israel, which was established only after the Holocaust. Absurdly, while Varon — who himself fled the Nazis in Austria — took part in the Foreign Ministry’s whitewashing, his wife played the part of Anne Frank’s mother in a local theater performance.  

Using technical assistance (a whitewashed term for military training) and flattery, Varon was able to convince Stroessner to support Israel in the United Nations, despite knowing full well that Paraguay’s votes were worthless, and were overshadowed by the votes of the majority of countries against Israel.

Even after Varon finished his tenure in Paraguay, the relations between the two countries remained strong. According to a CIA document from 1984, which was reclassified in 2011 and revealed, the American Embassy in Paraguay wanted to minimize Congress’ efforts to place restrictions on U.S. aid to the country. In order to do so, the embassy used the example of Paraguay’s good relations with Israel. The document states that despite reports on Mengale hiding in the country, “the Israelis maintain good relations with Stroessner’s regime (for their own reasons), including technical assistance plans and military sales.” In January 1986, in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Stroessner mentioned the strong relationship with Israel when asked about the criticism leveled at his regime.

Alfredo Stroessner. (Store norske leksikon/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Alfredo Stroessner. (Store norske leksikon/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 1992, piles of secret documents on “Operation Condor,” the name of a coordinated plan by South America’s right-wing dictatorships to eradicate political opposition, were accidentally discovered in a suburb of Asunción. The documents, known as the “Archive of Terror,” document the assassinations, murders, kidnappings, torture, surveillance, and detention centers used by those regimes. They include details on over 50,000 people who were murdered, 30,000 people who were disappeareds, and 400,000 political prisoners in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Peru. Israel supplied each of these countries with weapons and training, which were used for internal suppression.  

Similar to its relations with Paraguay, Israel maintained close ties with the Pinochet regime in Chile, which granted asylum to Walter Rauf, who masterminded the mobile gas chamber, which the Nazis used to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust. Israel also kept close ties with the Bolivian dictatorship, which granted asylum to Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo commander who served in the French city Lyon. Bolivia gave Barbie citizenship, and he later provided services to the country’s interior ministry. Neo-Nazi “death squads,” used by Bolivia’s Interior Ministry in order to eliminate political dissidents, used Israeli weapons. In August 1973, Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban visited Bolivia, and was asked at a press conference whether he had spoken to its dictatorial leader, Hugo Banzer, about Barbie. Eban responded that it was an internal matter of the Bolivian legal system, and that it would be up to Bolivia to decide whether or not to extradite Barbie to France.

Israel’s relationship to Paraguay, and the respective crimes committed by both countries in the territories under their control over the past 70 years, are no reason for celebration. On the contrary, they are a reason to feel ashamed. Unfortunately, as long as Netanyahu remains in power, and since incoming Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez is the son of Stroessner’s personal secretary, and like Cartes also hails from the right-wing Colorado Party — which made up Stroessner’s political base during his reign — the chances for soul-searching and making a change are small.

Eitay Mack is an Israeli human rights lawyer working to stop Israeli military aid to regimes that commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.