Friday, 16 March 2007

Where Paraguay's government goes to work

Paraguay’s Capitol is startlingly ugly, but unimposing, much like Paraguay’s congress. A foreigner walking through the streets of down town Asuncion might notice it for its outlandish architecture, but would probably think nothing more of it; there are no soldiers guarding it, the few desultory plantings are poorly maintained, and its location is out of the way.
(This is a stark contrast to the Presidential Palace, which looks like the home of a Bond villain. The romantic, tropical architecture combined with the fact the place is surrounded by surly, poorly uniformed guys with guns makes it very easy to imagine Scaramanga holding court inside. The truth, unfortunately, is not that far off).
The building faces the river; so, as walking along the river is completely out of the question (get to that in a minute), the dominant image of the Capitol is the side. Of course, to say ‘dominant’ would imply that this side image is somehow imposing or interesting, which would be a lie. There is a double glass door that faces a small park that is alternately over run with children in dirty clothes or protesters.
In one corner of the park is a statue of Mariscal Lopez looking over the river dumped on top of a uninspiring rectangular block. Two large cannons that were used in the War of the Triple Alliance are also part of this monument, but they face the opposite way from Mariscal, aimed directly at the Capitol.
Between the park and the river the land slopes away so dramatically that it is only from the edge of the park closest to the river that one can see the intervening land. And it’s quite a shock. Nestled between the symbol of Paraguay’s legislative branch and its historic main artery of commerce is a barrio of complete abject poverty. Temporary buildings of corrugated iron huddle together and lean on each other; free-range chickens peck in the dirt. As my friend and I walked along the side of the Legislative Palace that faced the river, we encountered what was supposed to be the front. The effect of the large steps and gold lettering was somewhat marred by the fact that two piglets were rutting in the dust at the foot of the entrance. It was here we got jacked. There was no one around, not one senator nor policeman.
I bought a new watch the other day. It’s a fake Tommy Hilfiger, and when I hold it upside down the face looks like the Paraguayan flag.

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