Martin Almada was arrested and tortured under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. He argues that civil society in Paraguay still suffers from Stroessner's brutal legacy and that Luis Szaran's music program, "Sounds of the Earth," is an important way to teach people how to overcome fear and isolation by working together. Almada, a former schoolteacher, took FRONTLINE/World reporter Monica Lam to the Hall of Justice in Asuncion, Paraguay, to see his police file in what is known as the "Archives of Terror."
Martin Almada: This is my political police file; here are my previous "crimes." I was tortured and photographed after being tortured. It says here that I was detained on November 26th of 1974 for involvement with terrorist organizations.
I was never involved with the Communist Party, nor with a terrorist organization; this is a lie. "It's all lies." That is what I denounced; I screamed that at them. They would get angry with me. That is why they would send me from one [prison] to the next and finally to a concentration camp, Emboscada, for bad behavior.
I was [considered] the Paraguayan Che Guevara. [But] I am 68, and I have never touched a weapon in my life, never. I despise weapons; I fear weapons. The military uses weapons, the police use weapons; I don't.
Q: Monica Lam: Why did you sign this document [a confession]?
Because I have to say it's true ... If I do not sign, they kill me.
[Later, at another location, Lam interviewed Almada about his life.]
Q: Monica Lam: What do you do now?
A: Martin Almada: At the present moment, I am president of a foundation that is named after my martyr wife, Celestina Perez de Almada. In the foundation, we work for the defense of human rights. We are also environmentalists and work in defense of the environment.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about the past. What was life like in the time of Stroessner?
A: It was very difficult; it was a criminal dictatorship that controlled everything. There was only one way of thought, and, above everything, there was a lot of terror. Fear was our second skin. Only three people were permitted to walk on the street together; four was considered subversive. There was only one radio/television [station] that we listened to. It was prohibited to listen to foreign radio. Music was controlled, thought was controlled, elementary schools were controlled, high schools and universities, too. It was a totalitarian regime [known for] a lot of violence and corruption.
Q: And what happened to you? You have a very personal story.
A: In the '60s, I was the principle of an elementary school. In that school, Juan Bautista Alberdi in San Lorenzo, near by Asuncion, we came across a book by Paulo Freire, about liberation education. We read the book and brought its content into practice. We said that school is the gateway to democracy. The political police found out that we had read the book, and that was my first sin, my first crime, having read a book by Paulo Freire.
Later, I was named president of the schoolteachers. We charted the needs of the teachers and found that housing was the most urgent need. We built houses in a neighborhood for poor teachers. Parents, students and, later, the teachers came to make the bricks for the houses. At first we were 20, then 200, then 500. When the dictator saw this, he said we were promoting subversion.
My third sin was having gone to study in la Universidad de la Plata, Argentina, where I got a PhD in education and defended a dissertation. In my dissertation, I claimed that education in Paraguay only benefited the dominating upper class and served to prolong underdevelopment and dependency. When I returned, the Argentinean police had sent my dissertation to the Paraguayan police. I arrive home, and I am kidnapped on November 26, 1974. I am directly taken before a military tribunal formed by military representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. They claimed I was an "intellectual terrorist." I was tortured by a Chilean colonel ... This man wanted to know my connections to la Universidad de Chile, since I had studied the sociology of education there. There was also an Argentinean ... He asked about my connections to subversive Argentineans and why I had gotten my PhD in La Plata in 1974.
They tortured me for 30 days. For the first 10 days, my wife was detained at the school. For the first 10 days, they would call my wife to make her listen to me cry, to hear my screams as I pleaded for help. On the ninth day, they sent her my blood-soaked clothes, as was customary in those days. It was customary to first pull off the nails, then cut off an ear, then cut out the tongue; they just kept cutting.
One day, a police official says to me, "Professor, help me. I know you are innocent; I do not want to torture you anymore." I said to him, "How can I help you?" He answered, "Call for help; scream." I did not have strength to scream anymore; I whimpered. On the 10th day, the police call my wife and tell her [that] the subversive educator died. Come pick up his cadaver. She suffered a heart attack; she died of pain. That was December 5th, 1974.
Q: How did you feel the day General Stroessner fell from power in 1989?
A: At that moment, in 1989, I was working outside the country. I had already spent three years in prison. After 30 days of a hunger strike, Amnesty International intervened and, alongside the Interfaith Committee of Paraguay, they attained my freedom. I gained asylum from the Panama Embassy. I leave for Panama; I get hired by the United Nations as a consultant for UNESCO for Latin America in Paris. So, I was in Paris when I heard the news on the BBC that Stroessner had fallen from power. [Ed. note: Stroessner was ousted in a military coup after ruling Paraguay from 1954 to 1989.]
I was surprised. It was a happy moment, a very happy moment. I returned to Paraguay immediately to begin a trial against Stroessner. ... Since I had been considered an "intellectual terrorist," I wanted to know what an intellectual terrorist was, because I was never a communist, nor an anticommunist. In my entire life, I never even touched a weapon; I was always scared to do so. I am a pacifist, an environmentalist, and I was intrigued by the fact that I was tortured and my wife was killed on the basis that I was an intellectual terrorist.
When the constitution was changed, I asked the justice department that controls the police to get information on my police file. The police claimed that I was never held prisoner. No police file was registered ... I ask a judge to take hold of the police archives, and that was published in the newspaper. I get a phone call and a woman says, "Professor, your file is not at the police headquarters; it is elsewhere." I say to her,: "Come over." She came by with a map to the location of secret archives. I took it to the judge, and on December 22, 1992, alongside Judge José Agustin Fernandez, we went and found tons of documents that contained the history and repression of Paraguay from the years 1929 to 1989. First, the repression of the anarchists, then the repression of the socialists, then that of the communists, then the "subversives." I was amongst the subversives. They also contained, besides the documents mentioned, a fragment of the history of Operation Condor [See Almada's description of Operation Condor below], Nazi connections, arms traffic. [Ed. note: Under Stroessner, Paraguay was a haven for fugitive Nazi war criminals, arms traffickers and drug dealers.]
Q: Did you find your file?
A: I found my file. It said that I was a terrorist, that I was involved with Argentinean terrorists, with the Paraguayan terrorists, and that I was taken from one prison to another for bad behavior until I was taken to the Penal de Emboscada, a concentration camp. And what does "bad behavior" mean? The fact that I defended my rights. I was in those prisons for three years.
Q: Later, you went to Paris and lived there for 15 years?
A: Fifteen years.
Q: What work are you doing now?
A: We work to protect the archive but also to create a museum for human rights, a museums of memories. We also work for the environment. We are environmentalists; we work to create a source of work in solar energy for women in rural areas.
Q: How did you feel when Stroessner died?
A: On the one hand, I was sad because I failed to extradite Stroessner. [Ed. note: Stroessner had gone into exile in Brazil, where he died in 2006 at the age of 93.] I wanted Stroessner to look Paraguayan justice in the face, the face he mocked during 35 years of rule. On the other hand, I was happy because a cycle of totalitarianism in Paraguayan history is closed. I was happy because we were witnessing a time where we were constructing democracy, without violence. I returned to Paraguay to construct a democracy via environmentalism, via the defense of human rights.
Q: Why are there still so many problems here in Paraguay? After Stroessner, do the people now know how to live in a democracy?
A: We handle our democracy very badly because this is a democratic facade, and Stroessner is to blame for that ... Here, no one really knows what a democracy really is. ... Here, a democracy consists in the simple fact that people vote every five years. There is no real participation; people here only know about their obligations; they do not know that they have rights as well. As such, there is an abandoned population, a scared population, a population with a great deal of fear.
A: Because Stroessner left, but the system stayed. ... Here, there is no will for political change.
Q: Can it be said that it is the political heritage of Stroessner?
A: This is an inheritance. What did Stroessner leave as heritage? He left as his heritage corruption. I believe this is the most corrupt country in Latin America; it's the most corrupt. ... Here, there is an old society that does not want to die, and a new one that can't be born. Here, there is a crisis, a great crisis.
Q: What does Paraguay need?
A: What the country needs is justice. Only 5 percent of the population owns the lands of Paraguay. It's very badly distributed.
Q: What do Paraguayans think of themselves and their country today?
A: Here, we feel very bad about ourselves. Here, 50 percent of the population is functionally illiterate. It's a system that's convenient for the government. Here, there is no such thing as critical thinking. Someone once said that the most powerful tool in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Here, the mind of the oppressed is a mind that is completely controlled.
This is a consequence of Stroessner's heritage. An inheritance from Stroessner and the American Embassy. That is, Stroessner portrayed Paraguay to the American Embassy as a place where there were a lot of terrorists, and the American Embassy supported him by providing donations to combat communism. Historically, this is to be understood in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Stroessner was the spoiled child of the United States because he was the champion of anticommunism. Nixon came here to show support for Stroessner.
Q: What is the education system like today?
A: During the dictatorship, people knew how to write and read but not think. In today's democracy, we don't read, write, or think. In some ways, we are worse off. The education system is bad. In Paraguay, we are told that we live in a country rich in water resources, yet there is not a single university that offers hydrology as a major or specialization.
Q: You know we are making a documentary about "Sounds of the Earth." Are you familiar with them?
A: I think that what Luis Szaran does, Sounds of the Earth, is very important. With music, self-esteem increases. Through music, I see how people unite because it was prohibited to unite before. I see that the project Sounds of the Earth is going out across the entire country, and that is a sign of hope. I have a great sympathy for Sounds of the Earth because I think that it's off to a good start, constructing a new society, because, as I said before, there is an old society that does not want to die and a new one that cannot be born. This society is going to be born again with [groups such as] Sounds of the Earth.
Paraguay is a very musical country. From the arrival of the Jesuits in 1600, a very beautiful experience took place with Saint Augustine's theory of the City of God. The theory was infused, and this country became a musical place. When I was in jail, I wrote poems. My son, who is a musician and plays the harp, wrote music for my songs.
Q: That's great. Is there anything else you want to say?
A: I want to make a point that I was a victim of Operation Condor. What is Operation Condor? In 1975, military personnel from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay got together in Santiago, Chile, to organize a network of repression, in order to hunt down those who opposed their regimes, those who wanted things to change. Operation Condor was supported by the American government through Henry Kissinger. ... Who were the people killed by Operation Condor? The students, professors, union workers, musicians, intellectuals, priests, nuns, the intellectuals of Latin America. That is [one reason] why today, in Paraguay and some other Latin American countries, we have corrupt and mediocre parliaments.
As a final point, I want to send a message to the teachers of Latin America and North America. I have a great appreciation for the American people, toward their educators, and to them I want to say: We must wake up those who are sleeping and organize those who are awake, in order to strengthen democracy and avoid terrorism.