The recorded history of Paraguay began indirectly in 1516 with the failed expedition of Juan Díaz de Solís to the Río de la Plata Estuary, which divides Argentina and Uruguay. After Solís’s death at the hands of Indians, the expedition renamed the estuary Río de Solís and sailed back to Spain. On the home voyage, one of the vessels was wrecked off Santa Catarina Island near the Brazilian coast. Among the survivors was Aleixo García, a Portuguese adventurer who had acquired a working knowledge of Guaraní. García was intrigued by reports of "the White King" who, it was said, lived far to the west and governed cities of incomparable wealth and splendor. For nearly eight years, García patiently mustered men and supplies for a trip to the interior and finally left Santa Catarina with several European companions to raid the dominions of "El Rey Blanco."
Marching westward, García’s group discovered Iguazú Falls, crossed the Río Paraná, and arrived at the site of Asunción thirteen years before it was founded. There the group gathered a small army of 2,000 Guaraní warriors to assist the invasion and set out boldly across the Chaco, a harsh semidesert. In the Chaco, they faced drought, floods, and cannibal Indian tribes. García became the first European to cross the Chaco and penetrated the outer defenses of the Inca Empire to the foothills of the Andes Mountains in present-day Bolivia, eight years in advance of Francisco Pizarro. The García entourage engaged in plundering and amassed a considerable horde of silver. Only fierce attacks by the reigning Inca, Huayna Cápac, convinced García to withdraw. Indian allies later murdered García and the other Europeans, but news of the raid on the Incas reached the Spanish explorers on the coast and attracted Sebastian Cabot to the Río Paraguay two years later.
The son of the Genoese explorer John Cabot (who had led the first European expedition to North America), Sebastian Cabot was sailing to the Orient in 1526 when he heard of García’s exploits. Cabot thought the Río de Solís might provide easier passage to the Pacific and the Orient than the stormy Straits of Magellan where he was bound, and, eager to win the riches of Peru, he became the first European to explore that estuary. Leaving a small force on the northern shore of the broad estuary, Cabot proceeded up the Río Paraná uneventfully for about 160 kilometers and founded a settlement he named Sancti Spiritu. He continued upstream for another 800 kilometers, past the junction with the Río Paraguay. When navigation became difficult, Cabot turned back, but only after obtaining some silver objects that the Indians said came from a land far to the west. Cabot retraced his route on the Río Paraná and entered the Río Paraguay. Sailing upriver, Cabot and his men traded freely with the Guaraní tribes until a strong force of Agaces Indians attacked them. About forty kilometers below the site of Asunción, Cabot encountered a tribe of Guaraní in possession of silver objects, perhaps some of the spoils of García’s treasure. Hoping he had found the route to the riches of Peru, Cabot renamed the river Río de la Plata, although today the name applies only to the estuary as far inland as the city of Buenos Aires.
Cabot returned to Spain in 1530 and informed Emperor Charles V (1519-56) about his discoveries. Charles gave permission to Don Pedro de Mendoza to mount an expedition to the Plata basin. The emperor also named Mendoza governor of Río de la Plata and granted him the right to name his successor. But Mendoza, a sickly, disturbed man, proved to be utterly unsuitable as a leader, and his cruelty nearly undermined the expedition. Choosing what was possibly the continent’s worst site for the first Spanish settlement in South America, in February 1536 Mendoza built a fort at a poor anchorage on the southern side of the Plata estuary on an inhospitable, windswept, dead-level plain where not a tree or shrub grew. Dusty in the dry season, a quagmire in the rains, the place was inhabited by the fierce Querandí tribe that resented having the Spaniards as neighbors. The new outpost was named Buenos Aires (Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre), although it was hardly a place one would visit for the "good air."
Mendoza soon provoked the Querandís into declaring war on the Europeans. Thousands of them and their Timbú and Charrúa allies besieged the miserable company of half-starved soldiers and adventurers. The Spaniards were soon reduced to eating rats and the flesh of their deceased comrades. Meanwhile, Juan de Ayolas, who was Mendoza’s second-in-command and who had been sent upstream to reconnoiter, returned with a welcome load of corn and news that Cabot’s fort at Sancti Spiritu had been abandoned. Mendoza promptly dispatched Ayolas to explore a possible route to Peru. Accompanied by Domingo Martínez de Irala, Ayolas again sailed upstream until he reached a small bay on the Río Paraguay, which he named Candelaria, the present-day Fuerte Olimpo. Appointing Irala his lieutenant, Ayolas ventured into the Chaco and was never seen again.
After Mendoza returned unexpectedly to Spain, two other members of the expedition — Juan de Salazar de Espinosa and Gonzalo de Mendoza — explored the Río Paraguay and met up with Irala. Leaving him after a short time, Salazar and Gonzalo de Mendoza descended the river, stopping at a fine anchorage. They commenced building a fort on August 15, 1537, the date of the Feast of the Assumption, and called it Asunción (Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción). Within 20 years, the settlement had a population of about 1,500. Transcontinental shipments of silver passed through Asunción on their way from Peru to Europe. Asunción subsequently became the nucleus of a Spanish province that encompassed a large portion of southern South America–so large, in fact, that it was dubbed "La Provincia Gigante de Indias." Asunción also was the base from which this part of South America was colonized. Spaniards moved northwestward across the Chaco to found Santa Cruz in Bolivia; eastward to occupy the rest of present-day Paraguay; and southward along the river to refound Buenos Aires, which its defenders had abandoned in 1541 to move to Asunción.
Uncertainties over the departure of Pedro de Mendoza led Charles V to promulgate a cédula (decree) that was unique in colonial Latin America. The cédula granted colonists the right to elect the governor of Río de la Plata Province either if Mendoza had failed to designate a successor or if a successor had died. Two years later, the colonists elected Irala as governor. His domain included all of present-day Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, most of Chile, and large parts of Brazil and Bolivia. In 1542 the province became part of the newly established Viceroyalty of Peru, with its seat in Lima. Beginning in 1559, the Audiencia of Charcas (present-day Sucre, Bolivia) controlled the province’s legal affairs.
Irala’s rule set the pattern for Paraguay’s internal affairs until independence. In addition to the Spaniards, Asunción included people — mostly men — from present-day France, Italy, Germany, England, and Portugal. This community of about 350 chose wives and concubines from among the Guaraní women. Irala had several Guaraní concubines, and he encouraged his men to marry Indian women and give up thoughts of returning to Spain. Paraguay soon became a colony of mestizos, and, prompted by Irala’s example, the Europeans raised their offspring as Spaniards. Nevertheless, continued arrivals of Europeans allowed for the development of a criollo elite.
The Guaraní, the Cario, Tapé, Itatine, Guarajo, Tupí, and related subgroups, were generous people who inhabited an immense area stretching from the Guyana Highlands in Brazil to the Río Uruguay. Because the Guaraní were surrounded by other hostile tribes, however, they were frequently at war. They believed that permanent wives were inappropriate for warriors, so their marital relations were loose. Some tribes practiced polygamy with the aim of increasing the number of offspring. Chiefs often had twenty or thirty concubines whom they shared freely with visitors, yet they treated their wives well. They often punished adulterers with death. Like the area’s other tribes, the Guaraní were cannibals. But they usually ate only their most valiant foes captured in battle in the hope that they would gain the bravery and power of their victims.
In contrast with the hospitable Guaraní, the Chaco tribes, such as the Payaguá (whence the name Paraguay), Guaycurú, M’bayá, Abipón, Mocobí, and Chiriguano, were implacable enemies of the whites. Travelers in the Chaco reported that the Indians there were capable of running with incredible bursts of speed, lassoing and mounting wild horses in full gallop, and catching deer bare-handed. Accordingly, the Guaraní accepted the arrival of the Spaniards and looked to them for protection against fiercer neighboring tribes. The Guaraní also hoped the Spaniards would lead them once more against the Incas.
The peace that had prevailed under Irala broke down in 1542 when Charles V appointed Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca — one of the most renowned conquistadors of his age — as governor of the province. Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Asunción after having lived for ten years among the Indians of Florida. Almost immediately, however, the Rio de la Plata Province — now consisting of 800 Europeans — split into 2 warring factions. Cabeza de Vaca’s enemies accused him of cronyism and opposed his efforts to protect the interests of the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca tried to placate his enemies by launching an expedition into the Chaco in search of a route to Peru. This move disrupted the Chaco tribes so much that they unleashed a twoyear war against the colony, thus threatening its existence. In the colony’s first of many revolts against the crown, the settlers seized Cabaza de Vaca, sent him back to Spain in irons, and returned the governorship to Irala.
Irala ruled without further interruption until his death in 1556. In many ways, his governorship was one of the most humane in the Spanish New World at that time, and it marked the transition among the settlers from conquerors to landowners. Irala kept up good relations with the Guaraní, pacified hostile Indians, made further explorations of the Chaco, and began trade relations with Peru. This Basque soldier of fortune saw the beginnings of a textile industry and the introduction of cattle, which flourished in the country’s fertile hills and meadows. The arrival of Father Pedro Fernández de la Torre on April 2, 1556, as the first bishop of Asunción marked the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Paraguay. Irala presided over the construction of a cathedral, two churches, three convents, and two schools.
Irala eventually antagonized the Indians, however. In the last years of his life, he yielded to pressure from settlers and established the encomienda. Under this system, settlers received estates of land along with the right to the labor and produce of the Indians living on those estates. Although encomenderos were expected to care for the spiritual and material needs of the Indians, the system quickly degenerated into virtual slavery. In Paraguay 20,000 Indians were divided among 320 encomenderos. This action helped spark a full-scale Indian revolt in 1560 and 1561. Political instability began troubling the colony and revolts became commonplace. Also, given his limited resources and manpower, Irala could do little to check the raids of Portuguese marauders along his eastern borders. Still, Irala left Paraguay prosperous and relatively at peace. Although he had found no El Dorado to equal those of Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, he was loved by his people, who lamented his passing.
During the next 200 years, the Roman Catholic Church — especially the ascetic, single-minded members of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) — had much more influence on the colony’s social and economic life than the feckless governors who succeeded Irala. Three Jesuits — an Irishman, a Catalan, and a Portuguese — arrived in 1588 from Brazil. They promptly moved from Asunción to proselytize among the Indians along the upper Río Paraná. Because they already believed in an impersonal, supreme being, the Guaraní proved to be good pupils of the Jesuits.
In 1610 Philip III (1598-1621) proclaimed that only the "sword of the word" should be used to subdue the Paraguayan Indians, thus making them happy subjects. The church granted extensive powers to Jesuit Father Diego de Torres to implement a new plan, with royal blessings, that foresaw an end to the encomienda system. This plan angered the settlers, whose lifestyle depended on a continuing supply of Indian labor and concubines. The settlers’ resistance helped convince the Jesuits to move their base of operations farther afield to the province of Guayrá in the distant northeast. After unsuccessful attempts to "civilize" the recalcitrant Guaycurú, the Jesuits eventually put all their efforts into working with the Guaraní. Organizing the Guaraní in reducciones (reductions or townships), the hard-working fathers began a system that would last more than a century. In one of history’s greatest experiments in communal living, the Jesuits had soon organized about 100,000 Guaraní in about 20 reducciones, and they dreamed of a Jesuit empire that would stretch from the Paraguay-Paraná confluence to the coast and back to the Paraná headwaters.
The new Jesuit reducciones were unfortunately within striking distance of the mamelucos, the slave-raiding, mixed-race descendants of Portuguese and Dutch adventurers. The mamelucos were based in Sâo Paulo, Brazil, which had become a haven for freebooters and pirates by the early 1600s because it was beyond the control of the Portuguese colonial governor. The mamelucos survived mostly by capturing Indians and selling them as slaves to Brazilian planters. Having depleted the Indian population near Sâo Paulo, they ventured farther afield until they discovered the richly populated
reducciones. The Spanish authorities chose not to defend the settlements.
Spain and Portugal were united from 1580 to 1640. Although their colonial subjects were at war, the governor of Rio de la Plata Province had little incentive to send scarce troops and supplies against an enemy who was nominally of the same nationality. In addition, the Jesuits were not popular in Asunción, where the settlers had the governor’s ear. The Jesuits and their thousands of neophytes thus had little means to protect themselves from the depredations of the "Paulistas," as the mamelucos also were called (because they came from Sâo Paulo). In one such raid in 1629, about 3,000 Paulistas destroyed the reducciones in their path by burning churches, killing old people and infants (who were worthless as slaves), and carrying off to the coast entire human populations, as well as cattle. Their first raids on the reducciones netted them at least 15,000 captives.
Faced with the awesome challenge of a virtual holocaust that was frightening away their neophytes and encouraging them to revert to paganism, the Jesuits took drastic measures. Under the leadership of Father Antonio Ruíz de Montoya, as many as 30,000 Indians (2,500 families) retreated by canoe and traveled hundreds of kilometers south to another large concentration of Jesuit reducciones near the lower Paraná. About 12,000 people survived. But the retreat failed to deter the Paulistas, who continued to raid and carry off slaves until even the reducciones far to the south faced extinction. The Paulista threat ended only after 1639, when the viceroy in Peru agreed to allow Indians to bear arms. Welltrained and highly motivated Indian units, serving under Jesuit officers, bloodied the raiders and drove them off.
Victory over the Paulistas set the stage for the golden age of the Jesuits in Paraguay. The Guaraní were unaccustomed to the discipline and the sedentary life prevalent in the reducciones, but adapted to it readily because it offered them higher living standards, protection from settlers, and physical security. By 1700 the Jesuits could again count 100,000 neophytes in about 30 reducciones. The reducciones exported goods, including cotton and linen cloth, hides, tobacco, lumber, and above all, yerba maté, a plant used to produce a bitter tea that is popular in Paraguay and Argentina. The Jesuits also raised food crops and taught arts and crafts. In addition, they were able to render considerable service to the crown by supplying Indian armies for use against attacks by the Portuguese, English, and French. At the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the reducciones were enormously wealthy and comprised more than 21,000 families. Their vast herds included approximately 725,000 head of cattle, 47,000 oxen, 99,000 horses, 230,000 sheep, 14,000 mules, and 8,000 donkeys. Because of their success, the 14,000 Jesuits who had volunteered over the years to serve in Paraguay gained many enemies. They were a continual goad to the settlers, who viewed them with envy and resentment and spread rumors of hidden gold mines and the threat to the crown from an independent Jesuit republic. To the crown, the reducciones seemed like an increasingly ripe plum, ready for picking.
The reducciones fell prey to changing times. During the 1720s and 1730s, Paraguayan settlers rebelled against Jesuit privileges and the government that protected them. Although this revolt failed, it was one of the earliest and most serious risings against Spanish authority in the New World and caused the crown to question its continued support for the Jesuits. The Jesuit-inspired War of the Seven Reductions (1750-61), which was fought to prevent the transfer to Portugal of seven missions south of the Río Uruguay, increased sentiment in Madrid for suppressing this "empire within an empire." In a move to gain the reducciones‘ wealth to help finance a planned reform of Spanish administration in the New World, the Spanish king, Charles III (1759-88), expelled the Jesuits in 1767. Within a few decades of the expulsion, most of what the Jesuits had accomplished was lost. The missions lost their valuables, became mismanaged, and were abandoned by the Guaraní. The Jesuits vanished almost without a trace. Today, a few weed-choked ruins are all that remain of this 160-year period in Paraguayan history.
The Viceroyalty of Peru and the Audiencia of Charcas had nominal authority over Paraguay, while Madrid largely neglected the colony. Madrid preferred to avoid the intricacies and the expense of governing and defending a remote colony that had shown early promise but ultimately proved to have dubious value. Thus, governors of Paraguay had no royal troops at their disposal and were instead dependent on a militia composed of colonists. Paraguayans took advantage of this situation and claimed that the 1537 cédula gave them the right to choose and depose their governors. The colony, and in particular the Asunción municipal council (cabildo), earned the reputation of being in continual revolt against the crown.
Tensions between royal authorities and settlers came to a head in 1720 over the status of the Jesuits, whose efforts to organize the Indians had denied the settlers easy access to Indian labor. A full-scale rebellion, known as the Comuñero Revolt, broke out when the viceroy in Lima reinstated a pro-Jesuit governor whom the settlers had deposed. The revolt was in many ways a rehearsal for the radical events that began with independence in 1811. The most prosperous families of Asunción (whose yerba maté and tobacco plantations competed directly with the Jesuits) initially led this revolt. But as the movement attracted support from poor farmers in the interior, the rich abandoned it and soon asked the royal authorities to restore order. In response, subsistence farmers began to seize the estates of the upper class and drive them out of the countryside. A radical army nearly captured Asunción and was repulsed, ironically, only with the help of Indian troops from the Jesuit reducciones.
The revolt was symptomatic of decline. Since the refounding of Buenos Aires in 1580, the steady deterioration in the importance of Asunción contributed to growing political instability within the province. In 1617 the Río de la Plata Province was divided into two smaller provinces: Paraguay, with Asunción as its capital, and Río de la Plata, with headquarters in Buenos Aires. With this action, Asunción lost control of the Río de la Plata Estuary and became dependent on Buenos Aires for maritime shipping. In 1776 the crown created the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata; Paraguay, which had been subordinate to Lima, now became an outpost of Buenos Aires. Located at the periphery of the empire, Paraguay served as a buffer state. The Portuguese blocked Paraguayan territorial expansion in the north, Indians blocked it — until their expulsion — in the south, and the Jesuits blocked it in the east. Paraguayans were forced into the colonial militia to serve extended tours of duty away from their homes, contributing to a severe labor shortage.
Because Paraguay was located far from colonial centers, it had little control over important decisions that affected its economy. Spain appropriated much of Paraguay’s wealth through burdensome taxes and regulations. Yerba maté, for instance, was priced practically out of the regional market. At the same time, Spain was using most of its wealth from the New World to import manufactured goods from the more industrialized countries of Europe, notably Britain. Spanish merchants borrowed from British merchants to finance their purchases; merchants in Buenos Aires borrowed from Spain; those in Asunción borrowed from the porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires were called); and Paraguayan peones (landless peasants in debt to landlords) bought goods on credit. The result was dire poverty in Paraguay and an increasingly impoverished empire.
The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the subsequent war in Europe inevitably weakened Spain’s ability to maintain contact with and defend and control its colonies. When British troops attempted to seize Buenos Aires in 1806, the attack was repulsed by the city’s residents, not by Spain. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, the capture of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII (ruled 1808, 1814-33), and Napoleon’s attempt to put his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne, severed the major remaining links between metropolis and satellite. Joseph had no constituency in Spanish America. Without a king, the entire colonial system lost its legitimacy, and the colonists revolted. Buoyed by their recent victory over British troops, the Buenos Airescabildo deposed the Spanish viceroy on May 25, 1810, vowing to rule in the name of Ferdinand VII.
The porteño action had unforseen consequences for the histories of Argentina and Paraguay. News of the events in Buenos Aires at first stunned the citizens of Asunción, who had largely supported the royalist position. But no matter how grave the offenses of the ancien régime may have been, they were far less rankling to the proud Paraguayans than the indignity of being told to take orders from the porteños. After all, Paraguay had been a thriving, established colony when Buenos Aires was only a squalid settlement on the edge of the empty pampas.
The porteños bungled their effort to extend control over Paraguay by choosing José Espínola y Peña as their spokesman in Asunción. Espínola was "perhaps the most hated Paraguayan of his era," in the words of historian John
Hoyt Williams. Espínola’s reception in Asunción was less than cordial, partly because he was closely linked to rapacious policies of the ex-governor, Lázaro de Rivera, who had arbitrarily shot hundreds of his citizens until he was forced from office in 1805. Barely escaping a term of exile in Paraguay’s far north, Espínola fled back to Buenos Aires and lied about the extent of porteño support in Paraguay, causing the Buenos Aires cabildo to make an equally disastrous move. In a bid to settle the issue by force, the cabildo sent 1,100 troops under General Manuel Belgrano to subdue Asunción. Paraguayan
troops soundly thrashed the porteños at Paraguarí and Tacuarí. Officers from both armies, however, fraternized openly during the campaign. From these contacts the Paraguayans came to realize that Spanish dominance in South America was coming to an end, and that they, and not the Spaniards, held the real power.
If the Espínola and Belgrano affairs served to whet nationalist passions in Paraguay, the Paraguayan royalists’ ill-conceived actions that followed inflamed them. Believing that the Paraguayan officers who had whipped the porteños posed a direct threat to his rule, Governor Bernardo de Velasco dispersed and disarmed the forces under his command and sent most of the soldiers home without paying them for their eight months of service. Velasco previously had lost face when he fled the battlefield at Paraguarí, thinking Belgrano would win. Discontent spread, and the last straw was the request by the Asunción
cabildo for Portuguese military support against Belgrano’s forces, who were encamped just over the border in present-day Argentina. Far from bolstering the cabildo‘s position, this move instantly ignited an uprising and the overthrow of Spanish authority in Paraguay on May 14 and 15, 1811. Independence was declared on May 17.
José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia was one of the greatest figures in Paraguayan history. Ruling from 1814 until his death in 1840, Francia succeeded almost single-handedly in building a strong, prosperous, secure, and independent nation at a time when Paraguay’s continued existence as a distinct country seemed unlikely. He left Paraguay at peace, with government coffers full and many infant industries flourishing. Frugal, honest, competent, and diligent, Francia was tremendously popular with the lower classes. But despite his popularity, Francia trampled on human rights, imposing an authoritarian police state based on espionage and coercion. Under Francia, Paraguay underwent a social upheaval that destroyed the old elites.
Paraguay at independence was a relatively undeveloped area. Most residents of Asunción and virtually all rural settlers were illiterate. Urban elites did have access to private schools and tutoring. University education was, however, restricted to the few who could afford studies at the University of Córdoba, in presentday Argentina. Practically no one had any experience in government, finance, or administration. The settlers treated the Indians as little better than slaves, and the paternalistic clergy treated them like children. The country was surrounded by hostile neighbors, including the warlike Chaco tribes. Strong measures were needed to save the country from disintegration.
Francia, born in 1766, spent his student days studying theology at the College of Monserrat at the University of Córdoba. Although he was dogged by suggestions that his father — a Brazilian tobacco expert — was a mulatto, Francia was awarded a coveted chair of theology at the Seminary of San Carlos in Asunción in 1790. His radical views made his position as a teacher there untenable, and he soon gave up theology to study law. A devotee of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, a keen reader of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the French Encyclopedists, Francia had the largest library in Asunción. His interest in astronomy, combined with his knowledge of French and other subjects considered arcane in Asunción, caused some superstitious Paraguayans to regard him as a wizard capable of predicting the future. As a lawyer, he became a social activist and defended the less fortunate against the affluent. He demonstrated an early interest in politics and attained with difficulty the position of alcalde del primer voto, or head of the Asunción cabildo, by 1809, the highest position he could aspire to as a
After the cuartelazo (coup d’état) of May 14-15, which brought independence, Francia became a member of the ruling junta. Although real power rested with the military, Francia’s many talents attracted support from the nation’s farmers. Probably the only man in Paraguay with diplomatic, financial, and administrative skills, Francia built his power base on his organizational abilities and his forceful personality. By outwitting porteño diplomats in the negotiations that produced the Treaty of October 11, 1811 (in which Argentina implicitly recognized Paraguayan independence in return for vague promises of a military alliance), Francia proved that he possessed skills crucial to the future of the country.
Francia consolidated his power by convincing the insecure Paraguayan elite that he was indispensable. But at the end of 1811, dissatisfied with the political role that military officers were beginning to play, he resigned from the junta. From his retirement in his modest chacra (cottage or hut) at Ibaray, near Asunción, he told countless ordinary citizens who came to visit him that their revolution had been betrayed, that the change in government had only traded a Spanish-born elite for a criollo one, and that the present government was incompetent and mismanaged. In fact, the country was rapidly heading for a crisis. Not only were the Portuguese threatening to overrun the northern frontiers, but Argentina had also practically closed the Río de la Plata to Paraguayan commerce by levying taxes and seizing ships. To make matters worse, the porteño government agitated for Paraguayan military assistance against the Spanish in Uruguay and, disregarding the Treaty of October 11, for unification of Paraguay with Argentina. The porteño government also informed the junta it wanted to reopen talks.
When the junta learned that a porteño diplomat was on his way to Asunción, it panicked because it realized it was not competent to negotiate without Francia. In November 1812, the junta members invited Francia to take charge of foreign policy, an offer Francia accepted. In return, the junta agreed to place one-half of the army and half the available munitions under Francia’s command. In the absence of anyone equal to him on the junta, Francia now controlled the government. When the Argentine envoy, Nicolás de Herrera, arrived in May 1813, he learned to his dismay that all decisions had to await the meeting of a Paraguayan congress in late September. Meanwhile, Paraguay again declared itself independent of Argentina and expelled two junta members known to be sympathetic to union with Argentina. Under virtual house arrest, Herrera had little scope to build support for unification, even though he resorted to bribery.
The congress, which met on September 30, 1813, was certainly the first of its kind in Latin America. There were more than 1,100 delegates chosen by universal male suffrage, and many of these delegates represented the poor, rural Paraguayan majority. Ironically, the decisions of this democratically elected body would set the stage for a long dictatorship. Herrera was neither allowed to attend the sessions, nor to present his declaration; instead the congress gave overwhelming support to Francia’s anti-imperialist foreign policy. The delegates rejected a proposal for Paraguayan attendance at a constitutional congress at Buenos Aires and established a Paraguayan republic — the first in Spanish America — with Francia as first consul. Francia was supposed to trade places every four months with the second consul, Fulgencio Yegros, but Francia’s consulship marked the beginning of his direct rule because Yegros was little more than a figurehead. Yegros, a man without political ambitions, represented the nationalist criollo military elite, but Francia was the more powerful because he derived his strength from the nationalist masses.
Francia, described by a historian as "the frail man in the black frock coat," admired and emulated the most radical elements of the French Revolution. Although he has been compared to the Jacobin leader Maximilien de Robespierre (1758-94), Francia’s policies and ideals perhaps most closely resembled those of François-Noël Babeuf, a French utopian who wanted to abolish private property and communalize land as a prelude to founding a "republic of equals." Francia detested the political culture of the old regime and considered himself a "revolutionary."
In essence, the government of Caraí Guazú ("Great Señor," as Francia was called by the poor) was a dictatorship that destroyed the power of the elite and advanced the interests of common Paraguayans. A system of internal espionage
destroyed free speech. People were arrested without charge and disappeared without trial. Torture in the so-called Chamber of Truth was applied to those suspected of plotting to overthrow Francia. Francia sent political prisoners — numbering approximately 400 in any given year — to a detention camp where they were shackled in dungeons and denied medical care and even the use of sanitary facilities. In an indirect act of revenge against people who had discriminated against him because of his supposed "impure blood," Francia forbade Europeans from marrying other Europeans, thus forcing the elite to choose spouses from among the local population. Francia tightly sealed Paraguay’s borders to the outside world and executed anyone who attempted to leave the country. Foreigners who managed to enter Paraguay had to remain there for the rest of their lives. Paraguayan commerce declined practically to nil. The decline ruined exporters of yerba maté and tobacco. These measures fell most harshly on the members of the former ruling class of Spanish or Spanish-descended church officials, military officers, merchants, and hacendados (large landowners).
In 1820, four years after a Paraguayan congress had named Francia dictator for life with the title El Supremo Dictador (supreme dictator), Francia’s security system uncovered and quickly crushed a plot by the elite to assassinate El Supremo. Francia arrested almost 200 prominent Paraguayans and eventually executed most of them. In 1821 Francia struck again, summoning all of Paraguay’s 300 or so peninsulares (people born in Spain) to Asunción’s main square, where he accused them of treason, had them arrested, and led them off to jail for 18 months. Francia released them only after they agreed to pay an enormous collective indemnity of 150,000 pesos (about 75 percent of the annual state budget), an amount so large that it broke their predominance in the Paraguayan economy.
One of Francia’s special targets was the Roman Catholic Church. The church had provided an essential ideological underpinning to Spanish rule by spreading the doctrine of the "divine right of kings" and inculcating the Indian masses with a resigned fatalism about their social status and economic prospects. Francia banned religious orders, closed the country’s only seminary, "secularized" monks and priests by forcing them to swear loyalty to the state, abolished the fuero eclesiástico (the privilege of clerical immunity from civil courts), confiscated church property, and subordinated church
finances to state control.
The common people of Paraguay benefited from the repression of the traditional elites and the expansion of the state. The state took land from the elite and the church and leased it to the poor. About 875 families received homesteads from the lands of the former seminary. The various fines and confiscations levied on the criollos helped reduce taxes for everyone else. As a result, Francia’s attacks on the elite and his state socialist policies provoked little popular resistance. The fines, expropriations, and confiscations of foreign-held property meant that the state quickly became the nation’s largest landowner, eventually operating fortyfive animal-breeding farms. Run by army personnel, the farms were so successful that the surplus animals were given away to the peasants.
In contrast to other states in the region, Paraguay was efficiently and honestly administered, stable, and secure (the army having grown to 1,800 regulars). Crime continued to exist during the Franciata (the period of Francia’s rule), but criminals were treated leniently. Murderers, for example, were put to work on public projects. Asylum for political refugees from other countries became a Paraguayan hallmark. An extremely frugal and honest man, Francia left the state treasury with at least twice as much money in it as when he took office, including 36,500 pesos of his unspent salary, or at least several years’ salary. The state soon developed native industries in shipbuilding and textiles, a centrally planned and administered agricultural sector, which was more diversified and productive than the prior export monoculture, and other manufacturing capabilities. These developments supported Francia’s policy of virtual economic autarchy.
But Francia’s greatest accomplishment — the preservation of Paraguayan independence — resulted directly from a noninterventionist foreign policy. Deciding that Argentina was a potential threat to Paraguay, he shifted his foreign policy toward Brazil by quickly recognizing Brazilian independence in 1821. This move, however, resulted in no special favors for the Brazilians from Francia, who was also on good, if limited, terms with Juan Manuel Rosas, the Argentine dictator. Francia prevented civil war and secured his role as dictator when he cut off his internal enemies from their friends in Buenos Aires. Despite his "isolationist" policies, Francia conducted a profitable but closely supervised import-export trade with both countries to obtain key foreign goods, particularly armaments. A more activist foreign policy than Francia’s probably would have made Paraguay a battleground amid the swirl of revolution and war that swept Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil in the decades following independence.
All of these political and economic developments put Paraguay on the path of independent nationhood, yet the country’s undoubted progress during the years of the Franciata took place because of complete popular abdication to Francia’s will. El Supremo personally controlled every aspect of Paraguayan public life. No decision at the state level, no matter how small, could be made without his approval. All of Paraguay’s accomplishments during this period, including its existence as a nation, were attributable almost entirely to Francia. The common people saw these accomplishments as Francia’s gifts, but along with these gifts came political passivity and naïveté among most Paraguayans.
Confusion overtook the state in the aftermath of Francia’s death on September 20, 1840, because El Supremo, now El Difunto (the Dead One), had left no successor. After a few days, a junta emerged, freed some political prisoners, and soon proved itself ineffectual at governing. In January 1841, the junta was overthrown. Another coup followed sixteen days later, and chaos continued until in March 1841 congress chose Carlos Antonio López as first consul. In 1844 another congress named López president of the republic, a post he held until his death in 1862. Paraguay had its second dictator.
López, a lawyer, was one of the most educated men in the country. Until his elevation to consul, López, born in 1787, had lived in relative obscurity. Although López’s government was similar to Francia’s system, his appearance, style, and policies were quite different. In contrast to Francia, who was lean, López was obese — a "great tidal wave of human flesh," according to one who knew him. López was a despot who wanted to found a dynasty and run Paraguay like a personal fiefdom. Francia had pictured himself as the first citizen of a revolutionary state, whereas López used the all-powerful state bequeathed by the proverbially honest Francia to enrich himself and his family.
López soon became the largest landowner and cattle rancher in the country, amassing a fortune, which he augmented with the state’s monopoly profits from the yerba maté trade. Despite his greed, Paraguay prospered under El
Excelentísimo (the Most Excellent One), as López was known. Under López, Paraguay’s population increased from about 220,000 in 1840 to about 400,000 in 1860. Several highways and a telegraph system were built. A British firm began building a railroad, one of South America’s first, in 1858. During his term of office, López improved national defense, abolished the remnants of the
reducciones, stimulated economic development, and tried to strengthen relations with foreign countries. He also took measures to reduce the threat to settled Paraguayans from the marauding Indian tribes that still roamed the Chaco. Paraguay also made large strides in education. When López took office, Asunción had only one primary school. During López’s reign, more than 400 schools were built for 25,000 primary students, and the state reinstituted secondary education. López’s educational development plans progressed with difficulty, however, because Francia had purged the country of the educated elite, which included teachers.
Less rigorous than Francia, López loosened restrictions on foreign intercourse, boosted exports, invited foreign physicians, engineers, and investors to settle in Paraguay, and paid for students to study abroad. He also sent his son Francisco Solano to Europe to buy guns. Like Francia, López had the overriding aim of defending and preserving Paraguay. He launched reforms with this goal in mind. Trade eased arms acquisitions and increased the state’s income. Foreign experts helped build an iron factory and a large armory. The new railroad was to be used to transport troops. López used diplomacy to protect the state’s interests abroad. Yet despite his apparent liberality, Antonio López was a dictator who held Paraguayans on a tight leash. He allowed Paraguayans no more freedom to oppose the government than they had had under Francia. Congress became his puppet, and
the people abdicated their political rights, a situation enshrined in the 1844 constitution, which placed all power in López’s hands.
Under López, Paraguay began to tackle the question of slavery, which had existed since early colonial days. Settlers had brought a few slaves to work as domestic servants, but were generally lenient about their bondage. Conditions worsened after 1700, however, with the importation of about 50,000 African slaves to be used as agricultural workers. Under Francia, the state acquired about 1,000 slaves when it confiscated property from the elite. López did not free these slaves; instead, he enacted the 1842 Law of the Free Womb, which ended the slave trade and guaranteed that the children of slaves would be free at age twenty-five. But the new law served only to increase the slave population and depress slave prices as slave birthrates soared.
Foreign relations began to increase in importance under López, who retained Paraguay’s traditional mistrust of the surrounding states, yet lacked Francia’s diplomatic adroitness. Initially López feared an attack by the Buenos Aires dictator Rosas. With Brazilian encouragement, López had dropped Francia’s policy of neutrality and began meddling in Argentine politics. Using the slogan "Independence or Death," López declared war against Rosas in 1845 to support an unsuccessful rebellion in the Argentine province of Corrientes. Although complications with Britain and France prevented him from moving against Paraguay, Rosas quickly established a porteño embargo on Paraguayan goods. After Rosas fell in 1852, López signed a treaty with Buenos Aires that recognized Paraguay’s independence, although the porteños never ratified it. In the same year, López signed treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation with France and the United States. Nonetheless, growing tensions with several countries, including the United States, characterized the second half of López’s rule. In 1858 the United States sent a flotilla to Paraguayan waters in a successful action to claim compensation for an American sailor who had been killed three years earlier.
Although he wore his distrust for foreigners like a badge of loyalty to the nation, López was not as cautious as he appeared. López recklessly dropped Francia’s key policies of neutrality without making the hard choices and compromises about where his allegiances lay. He allowed unsettled controversies and boundary disputes with Brazil and Argentina to smolder. The two regional giants had tolerated Paraguayan independence, partly because Paraguay served to check the expansionist tendencies of the other. Both were satisfied if the other could not dominate Paraguayan affairs. At the same time, however, a Paraguay that was antagonistic to both Brazil and Argentina would give these countries a reason for uniting.
Born in 1826, Francisco Solano López became the second and final ruler of the López dynasty. He had a pampered childhood. His father raised him to inherit his mantle and made him a brigadier general at the age of eighteen. He was an insatiable womanizer, and stories abound of the cruel excesses he resorted to then a woman had the courage to turn him down. His 1853 trip to Europe to buy arms was undoubtedly the most important experience of his life; his stay in Paris proved to be a turning point for him. There, Solano López admired the trappings and pretensions of the French empire of Napoleon III. He fell in love with an Irish woman named Elisa Alicia Lynch, whom he made his mistress. "La Lynch," as she became known in Paraguay, was a strong-willed, charming, witty, intelligent woman who became a person of enormous influence in Paraguay because of her relationship with Solano López. Lynch’s Parisian manners soon made her a trendsetter in the Paraguayan capital, and she made enemies as quickly as she made friends. Lynch bore Solano López five sons, although the two never married. She became the largest landowner in Paraguay after Solano López transferred most of the country and portions of Brazil to her name during the war, yet she retained practically nothing when the war ended. She buried Solano López with her own hands after the last battle in 1870 and died penniless some years later in Europe.
Solano López consolidated his power after his father’s death in 1862 by silencing several hundred critics and would-be reformers through imprisonment. Another Paraguayan congress then unanimously elected him president. Yet Solano López would have done well to heed his father’s last words to avoid aggressive acts in foreign affairs, especially with Brazil. Francisco’s foreign policy vastly underestimated Paraguay’s neighbors and overrated Paraguay’s potential as a military power.
Observers sharply disagreed about Solano López. George Thompson, an English engineer who worked for the younger López (he distinguished himself as a Paraguayan officer during the War of the Triple Alliance, and later wrote a book about his experience) had harsh words for his ex-employer and commander, calling him "a monster without parallel." Solano López’s conduct laid him open to such charges. In the first place, Solano López’s miscalculations and ambitions plunged Paraguay into a war with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The war resulted in the deaths of half of Paraguay’s population and almost erased the country from the map. During the war, Solano López ordered the executions of his own brothers and had his mother and sisters tortured when he suspected them of opposition. Thousands of others, including Paraguay’s bravest soldiers and generals, also went to their deaths before firing squads or were hacked to pieces on Solano López’s orders. Others saw Solano López as a paranoid megalomaniac, a man who wanted to be the "Napoleon of South America," willing to reduce his country to ruin and his countrymen to beggars in his vain quest for glory.
However, sympathetic Paraguayan nationalists and foreign revisionist historians have portrayed Solano López as a patriot who resisted to his last breath Argentine and Brazilian designs on Paraguay. They portrayed him as a tragic figure caught in a web of Argentine and Brazilian duplicity who mobilized the nation to repulse its enemies, holding them off heroically for five bloody, horror-filled years until Paraguay was finally overrun and prostrate. Since the 1930s, Paraguayans have regarded Solano López as the nation’s foremost hero.
Solano López’s basic failing was that he did not recognize the changes that had occurred in the region since Francia’s time. Under his father’s rule, the protracted, bloody, and distracting birth pangs of Argentina and Uruguay; the bellicose policies of Brazil; and Francia’s noninterventionist policies had worked to preserve Paraguayan independence. Matters had decidedly settled down since then in both Argentina and Brazil, as both countries had become surer of their identities and more united. Argentina, for example, began reacting to foreign challenges more as a nation and less like an assortment of squabbling
regions, as Paraguayans had grown to expect. Solano López’s attempt to leverage Paraguay’s emergence as a regional power equal to Argentina and Brazil had disastrous consequences.
Solano López accurately assessed the September 1864 Brazilian intervention in Uruguay as a slight to the region’s lesser powers. He was also correct in his assumption that neither Brazil nor Argentina paid much attention to Paraguay’s
interests when they formulated their policies. But he concluded incorrectly that preserving Uruguayan "independence" was crucial to Paraguay’s future as a nation. Consistent with his plans to start a Paraguayan "third force" between Argentina and Brazil, Solano López committed the nation to Uruguay’s aid. When Argentina failed to react to Brazil’s invasion of Uruguay, Solano López seized a Brazilian warship in November 1864. He quickly followed this move with an invasion of Mato Grosso, Brazil, in March 1865, an action that proved to be one of Paraguay’s few successes during the war. Solano López then decided to strike at his enemy’s main force in Uruguay. But Solano López was unaware that Argentina had acquiesced to Brazil’s Uruguay policy and would not support Paraguay against Brazil. When Solano López requested permission for his army to cross Argentine territory to attack the Brazilian province of Río Grande do Sul, Argentina refused. Undeterred, Solano López sent his forces into Argentina, probably expecting local strongmen to rebel and remove Argentina from the picture. Instead, the action set the stage for the May 1865 signing by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (now reduced to puppet status) of the Treaty of the Triple Alliance. Under the treaty, these nations vowed to destroy Solano López’s government.
Paraguay was in no sense prepared for a major war, let alone a war of the scope that Solano López had unleashed. In terms of size, Solano López’s 30,000-man army was the most powerful in Latin America. But the army’s strength was illusory because it lacked trained leadership, a reliable soure of weapons and matériel, and adequate reserves. Since the days of El Supremo, the officer corps had been neglected for political reasons. The army suffered from a critical shortage of key personnel, and many of its fighting units were undermanned. Paraguay lacked the industrial base to replace weapons lost in battle, and the Argentine-Brazilian alliance prevented Solano López from receiving arms from abroad. Paraguay’s population was only about 450,000 in 1865 — a figure lower than the number of people in the Brazilian National Guard — and amounted to less than one-twentieth of the combined allied population of 11 million. Even after conscripting for the front every able-bodied man — including children as young as ten — and forcing women to perform all nonmilitary labor, Solano López still could not field an army as large as those
of his rivals.
Apart from some Paraguayan victories on the northern front, the war was a disaster for Solano López. The core units of the Paraguayan army reached Corrientes in April 1865. By July more than half of Paraguay’s 30,000-man invasion force had been killed or captured along with the army’s best small arms and artillery. The war quickly became a desperate struggle for Paraguay’s survival. Paraguay’s soldiers exhibited suicidal bravery, especially considering that Solano López shot or tortured so many of them for the most trivial offenses. Cavalry units operated on foot for lack of horses. Naval infantry battalions armed only with machetes attacked Brazilian ironclads. The suicide attacks resulted in fields of corpses. Cholera was rampant. By 1867 Paraguay had lost 60,000 men to casualties, disease, or capture, and another 60,000 soldiers were called to duty. Solano López conscripted slaves, and infantry units formed entirely of children appeared. Women were forced to perform support work behind the lines. Matériel shortages were so severe that Paraguayan troops went into battle seminude, and even colonels went barefoot, according to one observer. The defensive nature of the war, combined with Paraguayan tenacity and ingenuity and the difficulty that Brazilians and Argentinians had cooperating with each other, rendered the conflict a war of attrition. In the end, Paraguay lacked the resources to continue waging war against South America’s giants.
As the war neared its inevitable denouement, Solano López’s grip on reality — never very strong — loosened further. Imagining himself surrounded by a vast conspiracy, he ordered thousands of executions in the military. In addition, he executed 2 brothers and 2 brothers-in-law, scores of top government and military officials, and about 500 foreigners, including many diplomats. He frequently had his victims killed by lance thrusts to save ammunition. The bodies were dumped into mass graves. His cruel treatment of prisoners was proverbial. Solano López condemned troops to death if they failed to carry out his orders to the minutest detail. "Conquer or die" became the order of the day. Solano López’s hostility even extended to United States Ambassador Charles A. Washburn. Only the timely arrival of the United States gunboat Wasp saved the diplomat from arrest.
Allied troops entered Asunción in January 1869, but Solano López held out in the northern jungles for another fourteen months until he finally died in battle. The year 1870 marked the lowest point in Paraguayan history. Hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans had died. Destitute and practically destroyed, Paraguay had to endure a lengthy occupation by foreign troops and cede large patches of territory to Brazil and Argentina.
Despite several historians’ accounts of what happened between 1865 and 1870, Solano López was not wholly responsible for the war. Its causes were complex and included Argentine anger over Antonio López’s meddling in Corrientes. The elder López also had infuriated the Brazilians by not helping to overthrow Rosas in 1852 and by forcing Brazilian garrisons out of territory claimed by Paraguay in 1850 and 1855. Antonio López also resented having been forced to grant Brazil free navigation rights on the Río Paraguay in 1858. Argentina meanwhile disputed ownership of the Misiones district between the Río Paraná and Río Uruguay, and Brazil had its own ideas about the Brazil-Paraguay boundary. To these problems was added the Uruguayan vortex. Carlos Antonio López had survived mainly with caution and a good bit of luck; Solano López had neither. Ruined by war, pestilence, famine, and foreign indemnities (which were never paid), Paraguay was on the verge of disintegration in 1870. But its fertile soil and the country’s overall backwardness probably helped it survive. After the war, Paraguay’s mostly rural populace continued to subsist as it had done for centuries, eking out a meager existence in the hinterland under unimaginably difficult conditions. The allied occupation of Asunción in 1869 put the victors in direct control of Paraguayan affairs. While Bolivia pressed its nebulous claim to the Chaco, Argentina and Brazil swallowed huge chunks of Paraguayan territory (around 154,000 square kilometers).
Brazil had borne the brunt of the fighting, with perhaps 150,000 dead and 65,000 wounded. It had spent US$200 million, and its troops formed the senior army of occupation in the country, so it was logical that Rio de Janeiro temporarily overshadowed Buenos Aires in Asunción. Sharp disagreements between the two powers prolonged the occupation until 1876. Ownership of the Paraguayan economy quickly passed to foreign speculators and adventurers who rushed to take advantage of the rampant chaos and corruption.
The internal political vacuum was at first dominated by survivors of the Paraguayan Legion. This group of exiles, based in Buenos Aires, had regarded Solano López as a mad tyrant and fought for the allies during the war. The group set up a provisional government in 1869 mainly under Brazilian auspices and signed the 1870 peace accords, which guaranteed Paraguay’s independence and free river navigation. A constitution was also promulgated in the same year, but it proved ineffective because of the foreign origin of its liberal, democratic tenets. After the last foreign troops had gone in 1876 and an arbitral award to
Paraguay of the area between the Río Verde and Río Pilcomayo by an international commission headed by Rutherford B. Hayes, United States president, the era of party politics in Paraguay was free to begin in earnest. Nonetheless, the evacuation of foreign forces did not mean the end of foreign influence. Both Brazil and Argentina remained deeply involved in Paraguay because of their connections with Paraguay’s rival political forces. These forces eventually came to be known as the Colorados and the Liberals.
The political rivalry between Liberals and Colorados was presaged as early as 1869 when the terms Azules (Blues) and Colorados (Reds) first appeared. The National Republican Association-Colorado Party (Asociación Nacional Republicana-Partido Colorado) dominated Paraguayan political life from the late 1880s until Liberals overthrew it in 1904. The Liberal ascent marked the decline of Brazil, which had supported the Colorados as the principal political force in Paraguay, and the rise of Argentine influence.
In the decade following the war, the principal political conflicts within Paraguay reflected the Liberal-Colorado split, with Legionnaires battling Lopiztas (ex-followers of Solano López) for power, while Brazil and Argentina maneuvered in the background. The Legionnaires saw the Lopiztas as reactionaries. The Lopiztas accused the Legionnaires of being traitors and foreign puppets. The situation defied neat categories, since many people constantly changed sides. Opportunism characterized this era, not ideological purity. The Legionnaires were a motley collection of refugees and exiles who dated from Francia’s day. Their opposition to tyranny was sincere, and they gravitated toward democratic ideologies. Coming home to backward, poor, xenophobic Paraguay from cosmopolitan, prosperous Buenos Aires was a big shock for the Legionnaires. Believing that more freedom would cure Paraguay’s ills, they abolished slavery and founded a constitutional government as soon as they came to power. They based the new government on the standard liberal prescriptions of free enterprise, free elections, and free trade.
The Legionnaires, however, had no more experience in democracy than other Paraguayans. The 1870 constitution quickly became irrelevant. Politics degenerated into factionalism, and cronyism and intrigue prevailed. Presidents still acted like dictators, elections did not stay free, and the Legionnaires were out of power in less than a decade. Free elections were a startling, and not altogether welcome, innovation for ordinary Paraguayans, who had always allied themselves with a patrón (benefactor) for security and protection. At the same time, Argentina and Brazil were not content to leave Paraguay with a truly free political system. Pro-Argentine militia chief Benigno Ferreira emerged as de facto dictator until his overthrow with Brazilian help in 1874. Ferreira later returned to lead the 1904 Liberal uprising, which ousted the Colorados. Ferreira served as president
between 1906 and 1908.
Cándido Bareiro, López’s ex-commercial agent in Europe, returned to Paraguay in 1869 and formed a major Lopizta faction. He also recruited General Bernadino Caballero, a war hero with close ties to López. After President Juan Bautista
Gil was assassinated in 1877, Caballero used his power as army commander to guarantee Bareiro’s election as president in 1878. When Bareiro died in 1880, Caballero seized power in a coup. Caballero dominated Paraguayan politics for most of the next two decades, either as president or through his power in the militia. His accession to power is notable because he brought political stability, founded a ruling party — the Colorados — to regulate the choice of presidents and the distribution of spoils, and began a process of economic reconstruction.
Despite their professed admiration for Francia, the Colorados dismantled Francia’s unique system of state socialism. Desperate for cash because of heavy debts incurred in London in the early postwar period, the Colorados lacked a source of funds except through the sale of the state’s vast holdings, which comprised more than 95 percent of Paraguay’s total land. Caballero’s government sold much of this land to foreigners in huge lots. While Colorado politicians raked in the profits and themselves became large landowners, peasant squatters who had farmed the land for generations were forced to vacate and, in many cases, to emigrate. By 1900 seventy-nine people owned half of the country’s land.
Although the Liberals had advocated the same land-sale policy, the unpopularity of the sales and evidence of pervasive government corruption produced a tremendous outcry from the opposition. Liberals became bitter foes of selling land, especially after Caballero blatantly rigged the 1886 election to ensure a victory for General Patricio Escobar. Ex-Legionnaires, idealistic reformers, and former Lopiztas joined in July 1887 to form the Centro Democrático (Democratic Center), a precursor of the Liberal party, to demand free elections, an end to land sales, civilian control over the military, and clean government. Caballero responded, along with his principal adviser, José Segundo Decoud, and Escobar, by forming the Colorado Party one month later, thus formalizing the political cleavage.
Both groups were deeply factionalized, however, and very little ideology separated them. Colorado and Liberal partisans changed sides whenever it proved advantageous. While the Colorados reinforced their monopoly on power and spoils, Liberals called for reform. Frustration provoked an aborted Liberal revolt in 1891 that produced changes in 1893, when war minister General Juan B. Egusquiza overthrew Caballero’s chosen president, Juan G. González. Egusquiza startled Colorado stalwarts by sharing power with the Liberals, a move that split both parties. Ex-Legionnaire Ferreira, along with the cívico (civic) wing of the Liberals, joined the government of Egusquiza — who left office in 1898 — to allow a civilian, Emilio Aceval, to become president. Liberal radicales (radicals) who opposed compromising with their Colorado enemies boycotted the new arrangement. Caballero, also boycotting the alliance, plotted to overthrow civilian rule and succeeded when Colonel Juan Antonio Ezcurra seized power in 1902. This victory was Caballero’s last, however. In 1904, General Ferreira, with the support of cívicos, radicales, and egusquistas, invaded from Argentina. After four months of fighting, Ezcurra signed the Pact of Pilcomayo aboard an Argentine gunboat on December 12, 1904, and handed power to the Liberals.
The revolution of August 1904 began as a popular movement, but Liberal rule quickly degenerated into factional feuding, military coups, and civil war. Political instability was extreme in the Liberal era, which saw twenty-one governments in thirty-six years. During the period 1904 to 1922, Paraguay had fifteen presidents. By 1908 the radicales had overthrown General Ferreira and the cívicos. The Liberals had disbanded Caballero’s army when they came to power and organized a completely new one. Nevertheless, by 1910 army commander Colonel Albino Jara felt strong enough to stage a coup against President Manuel Gondra. Jara’s coup backfired as it touched off an anarchic two-year period in which every major political group seized power at least once. The radicales again invaded from Argentina, and when the charismatic Eduardo Schaerer became president, Gondra returned as minister of war to reorganize the army once more. Schaerer became the first president since Egusquiza to finish his four-year term.
The new political calm was shattered, however, when the radicales split into Schaerer and Gondra factions. Gondra won the presidential election in 1920, but the schaereristas successfully undermined him and forced him
to resign. Full-scale fighting between the factions broke out in May 1922 and lasted for fourteen months. The gondristas beat the schaereristas decisively and held on to power until 1936. Laissez-faire Liberal policies had permitted a handful of hacendados to exercise almost feudal control over the countryside, while peasants had no land and foreign interests manipulated Paraguay’s economic fortunes. The Liberals, like the Colorados, were a deeply factionalized political oligarchy. Social
conditions — always marginal in Paraguay — deteriorated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The country clearly needed reforms in working conditions, public services, and education. The stage was set for an anti-Liberal nationalist reaction that would change the direction of Paraguayan history.
Paraguay’s dispute with Bolivia over the Chaco, a struggle that had been brewing for decades, finally derailed the Liberals. Wars and poor diplomacy had prevented the settling of boundaries between the two countries during the century following independence. Although Paraguay had held the Chaco for as long as anyone could remember, the country did little to develop the area. Aside from scattered Mennonite colonies and nomadic Indian tribes, few people lived there. Bolivia’s claim to the Chaco became more urgent after it lost its seacoast to Chile during the 1879-84 War of the Pacific. Left without any outlet to the sea, Bolivia wanted to absorb the Chaco and expand its territory up to the Río Paraguay in order to gain a river port. In addition, the Chaco’s economic potential intrigued the Bolivians. Oil had been discovered there by Standard Oil Company in the 1920s, and people wondered whether an immense pool of oil was lying beneath the entire area. Ironically, South America’s two greatest victims of war and annexation in the previous century were ready to face each other in another bout of bloody combat, this time over a piece of apparently desolate wilderness.
While Paraguayans were busy fighting among themselves during the 1920s, Bolivians established a series of forts in the Paraguayan Chaco. In addition, they bought armaments from Germany and hired German military officers to train and lead their forces. Frustration in Paraguay with Liberal inaction boiled over in 1928 when the Bolivian army established a fort on the Río Paraguay called Fortín Vanguardia. In December of that year, Paraguayan major (later colonel) Rafael Franco took matters into his own hands, led a surprise attack on the fort, and succeeded in destroying it. The routed Bolivians responded quickly by seizing two Paraguayan forts. Both sides mobilized but the Liberal government felt unprepared for war so it agreed to the humiliating condition of rebuilding Fortín Vanguardia for the Bolivians. The Liberal government also provoked criticism when it forced Franco, by then a national hero, to retire from the army.
As diplomats from Argentina, the United States, and the League of Nations conducted fruitless "reconciliation" talks, Colonel José Félix Estigarribia, Paraguay’s deputy army commander, ordered his troops into action against Bolivian positions early in 1931. Meanwhile, nationalist agitation led by the National Independent League (Liga Nacional Independiente) increased. Formed in 1928 by a group of intellectuals, the League sought a new era in national life that would witness a great political and social rebirth. Its adherents advocated a "new democracy" that might sweep the country free of petty partisan interests and foreign encroachments. An amalgam of diverse ideologies and interests, the League reflected a genuine popular wish for social change. When government troops in October 1931 fired on a mob of League students demonstrating in front of the Government Palace, the Liberal administration of President José Guggiari lost what little legitimacy it retained. The students and soldiers of the rising "New Paraguay" movement (which wanted to sweep away corrupt party politics and introduce nationalist and socialist reforms) would thereafter always see the Liberals as morally bankrupt.
When war finally broke out officially in July 1932, the Bolivians were confident of a rapid victory. Their country was richer and more populous than Paraguay, and their armed forces were larger, had a superior officer corps, and were well-trained and well-equipped. These advantages quickly proved irrelevant in the face of the Paraguayans’ zeal to defend their homeland. The highly motivated Paraguayans knew the geography of the Chaco better than the Bolivians and easily infiltrated Bolivian lines, surrounded outposts, and captured supplies. In contrast, Indians from the Bolivian high plateau area, known as the Altiplano, were forced into the Bolivian army, had no real interest in the war, and failed to adapt to the hot Chaco climate. In addition, long supply lines, poor roads, and weak logistics hindered the Bolivian campaign. The Paraguayans proved more united than the Bolivians — at least initially — as President Eusebio Ayala and Colonel (later Marshal) Estigarribia worked well together.
After the December 1933 Paraguayan victory at Campo Via, Bolivia seemed on the verge of surrendering. At that moment, however, President Ayala agreed to a truce. His decision was greeted with derision in Asunción. Instead of ending the
war with a swift victory that might have boosted their political prospects, the Liberals signed a truce that seemed to allow the Bolivians to regroup. The war continued until July 1935. Although the Liberals had successfully led Paraguay’s occupation of nearly all the disputed territory and had won the war when the last truce went into effect, they were finished politically.
In many ways, the Chaco War acted as a catalyst to unite the political opposition with workers and peasants, who furnished the raw materials for a social revolution. After the 1935 truce, thousands of soldiers were sent home, leaving the regular army to patrol the front lines. The soldiers who had shared the dangers and trials of the battlefield deeply resented the ineptitude and incompetence they believed the Liberals had shown in failing to prepare the country for war. These soldiers had witnessed the miserable state of the Paraguayan army and were forced in many cases to face the enemy armed only with machetes. After what they had been through, partisan political differences seemed irrelevant. The government offended the army rank-and-file by refusing to fund pensions for disabled war veterans in 1936 while awarding 1,500 gold pesos a year to Estigarribia. Colonel Franco, back on active duty since 1932, became the focus of the nationalist rebels inside and outside the army. The final spark to rebellion came when Franco was exiled for criticizing Ayala. On February 17, 1936, units of the army descended on the Presidential Palace and forced Ayala to resign, ending thirty-two years of Liberal rule.
Outside Paraguay, the February revolt seemed to be a paradox because it overthrew the politicians who had won the war. The soldiers, veterans, students, and others who revolted felt, however, that victory had come despite the Liberal government. Promising a national and social revolution, the Febrerista Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Febrerista–PRF) — more commonly known as the Febreristas — brought Colonel Franco back from exile in Argentina to be president. The Franco government showed it was serious about social justice by expropriating more than 200,000 hectares of land and distributing it to
10,000 peasant families. In addition, the new government guaranteed workers the right to strike and established an eight-hour work day. Perhaps the government’s most lasting contribution affected national consciousness. In a gesture calculated to rewrite history and erase seven decades of national shame, Franco declared Solano López a national hero sin ejemplar (without precedent)
because he had stood up to foreign threats and sent a team to Cerro Corá to find his unmarked grave. The government interred his remains along with those of his father in a chapel designated the National Pantheon of Heroes, and later erected a monument to him on Asunción’s highest hill.
Despite the popular enthusiasm that greeted the February revolution, the new government lacked a clear program. A sign of the times, Franco practiced his Mussolini-style, spellbinding oratory from a balcony. But when he published his distinctly fascist-sounding Decree Law No. 152 promising a "totalitarian transformation" similar to those in Europe, protests erupted. The youthful, idealistic elements that had come together to produce the Febrerista movement were actually a hodgepodge of conflicting political tendencies and social opposites, and Franco was soon in deep political trouble. Franco’s cabinet reflected almost every conceivable shade of dissident political opinion, and included socialists, fascist sympathizers, nationalists, Colorados, and Liberal cívicos. A new party of regime supporters, the Revolutionary National Union (Unión Nacional Revolucionaria), was founded in November 1936. Although the new party called for representative democracy, rights for peasants and workers, and socialization of key industries, it failed to broaden Franco’s political base. In the end, Franco forfeited his popular support because he failed to keep his promises to the poor. He dared not expropriate the properties of foreign landowners, who were mostly Argentines. In addition, the Liberals, who still had influential support in the army, agitated constantly for Franco’s overthrow. When Franco ordered Paraguayan troops to abandon the advanced positions in the Chaco that they had held since the 1935 truce, the army revolted in August 1937 and returned the Liberals to power.
The army, however, did not hold a unified opinion about the Febreristas. Several attempted coups served to remind President Félix Pavia (the former dean of law at the National University) that although the February Revolution was out of power, it was far from dead. People who suspected that the Liberals had learned nothing from their term out of office soon had proof: a peace treaty signed with Bolivia on July 21, 1938, fixed the final boundaries behind the Paraguayan battle lines. In 1939 the Liberals, recognizing that they would have to choose someone with national stature to be president if they wanted to hold onto power, picked General Estigarribia, the hero of the Chaco War who had since served as special envoy to the United States. Estigarribia quickly realized that he would have to adopt many Febrerista ideas to avoid anarchy. Circumventing the die-hard Liberals in the National Assembly who opposed him, Estigarribia assumed "temporary" dictatorial powers in February 1940, but promised the dictatorship would end as soon as a workable constitution was written.
Estigarribia vigorously pursued his goals. He began a land reform program that promised a small plot to every Paraguayan family. He reopened the university, balanced the budget, financed the public debt, increased the capital of the Central Bank, implemented monetary and municipal reforms, and drew up plans to build highways and public works. An August 1940 plebiscite endorsed Estigarribia’s constitution, which remained in force until 1967. The constitution of 1940 promised a "strong, but not despotic" president and a new state empowered to deal directly with social and economic problems. But by greatly expanding the power of the executive branch, the constitution served to legitimize open dictatorship.
The era of the New Liberals, as Estigarribia’s supporters were called, came to a sudden end in September 1940, when the president died in an airplane crash. Hoping to control the government through a more malleable military man, the "Old Liberal" cabinet named War Minister Higinio Morínigo president. Morínigo had gained fame in Paraguay by heading the 1936 expedition to Cerro Corá to retrieve López’s remains. The apparently genial Morínigo soon proved himself a shrewd politician with a mind of his own, and the Liberals resigned within a few weeks when they realized that they would not be able to impose their will on him. Having inherited Estigarribia’s dictatorial powers, Morínigo quickly banned both Febreristas and Liberals and clamped down drastically on free speech and individual liberties. A nonparty dictator without a large body of supporters, Morínigo survived politically–despite the numerous plots against him–because of his astute handling of an influential group of young military officers who held key positions of power.
The outbreak of World War II eased Morínigo’s task of ruling Paraguay and keeping the army happy because it stimulated demand for Paraguayan export products — such as meat, hides, and cotton — and boosted the country’s export earnings. More important, United States policy toward Latin America at this time made Paraguay eligible for major economic assistance. A surge of German influence in the region and Argentina’s pro-Axis leanings alarmed the United States, which sought to wean Paraguay away from German and Argentine solicitation. At the same time, the United States sought to enhance its presence in the region and pursued close cooperation with Brazil, Argentina’s traditional rival. To this end, the United States provided to Paraguay sizable amounts of funds and supplies under the Lend-Lease Agreement, provided loans for public works, and gave technical assistance in agriculture and health care. The United States Department of State approved of closer ties between Brazil and Paraguay and especially supported Brazil’s offer to finance a road project designed to reduce Paraguay’s dependence on Argentina.
Much to the displeasure of the United States and Britain, Morínigo refused to act against German economic and diplomatic interests until the end of the war. German agents had successfully converted many Paraguayans to the Axis cause. South America’s first Nazi Party branch had been founded in Paraguay in 1931. German immigrant schools, churches, hospitals, farmers’ cooperatives, youth groups, and charitable societies became active Axis backers. All of those organizations prominently displayed swastikas and portraits of Adolf Hitler.
It is no exaggeration to say that Morínigo headed a pro-Axis regime. Large numbers of Paraguayan military officers and government officials were openly sympathetic to the Axis. Among these officials was the national police chief, who named his son Adolfo Hirohito after the leading Axis personalities. By 1941 the official newspaper, El País, had adopted an overtly proGerman stance. At the same time, the government strictly controlled pro-Allied labor unions. Police cadets wore swastikas and Italian insignia on their uniforms. The December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States gave the United States the leverage it needed, however, to force Morínigo to commit himself publicly to the Allied cause. Morínigo officially severed diplomatic relations with the Axis countries in 1942, although he did not declare war against Germany until February 1945. Nonetheless, Morínigo continued to maintain close relations with the heavily German-influenced Argentine military throughout the war and provided a haven for Axis spies and agents.
United States protests over German and Argentine activities in Paraguay fell on deaf ears. While the United States defined its interests in terms of resisting the fascist threat, Paraguayan officials believed their interests lay in economic expediency and were reluctant to antagonize Germany until the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt. Many Paraguayans believed Germany was no more of a threat to Paraguay’s sovereignty than the United States.
The Allied victory convinced Morínigo to liberalize his regime. Paraguay experienced a brief democratic opening as Morínigo relaxed restrictions on free speech, allowed political exiles to return, and formed a coalition government. Morínigo’s intentions about stepping down were murky, however, and his de facto alliance with Colorado Party hardliners and their thuggish Guión Rojo (red script) paramilitary group antagonized the opposition. The result was a failed coup d’état in December 1946 and full-scale civil war in March 1947.
Led by Colonel Rafael Franco, the revolutionaries were an unlikely coalition of Febreristas, Liberals, and communists, united only in their desire to overthrow Morínigo. The Colorados helped Morínigo crush the insurgency, but the man who saved Morínigo’s government during crucial battles was the commander of the General Brúgez Artillery Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda. When a revolt at the Asunción Navy Yard put a strategic working-class neighborhood in rebel hands, Stroessner’s regiment quickly reduced the area to rubble. When rebel gunboats threatened to dash upriver from Argentina to bombard
the capital into submission, Stroessner’s forces battled furiously and knocked them out of commission.
By the end of the rebellion in August, a single party — one that had been out of power since 1904 — had almost total control in Paraguay. The fighting had simplified politics by eliminating all parties except the Colorados and by reducing the size of the army. Because nearly four-fifths of the officer corps had joined the rebels, fewer individuals were now in a position to compete for power. As had often happened in the past, however, the Colorados split into rival factions. The hardline guionistas, headed by the fiery left-leaning nationalist writer and publisher Natalício González, opposed democratic practices. The moderate democráticos, led by Federico Chaves, favored free elections and a power-sharing arrangement with the other parties. With Morínigo’s backing, González used the Guión Rojo to cow the moderates and gain his party’s presidential nomination. In the Paraguayan tradition, he ran unopposed in the long-promised 1948 elections. Suspecting that Morínigo would not relinquish power to González, a group of Colorado military officers, including Stroessner, removed Morínigo from office. González joined Morínigo in exile early in 1949, and Chaves became president in 1950 as the military finally allowed power to pass to the democráticos.
Paraguayan politics had come full-circle in a certain sense. The Chaco War had sparked the February revolution, which, in turn, sounded the death knell of the Liberal state and ushered in a revival of Paraguayan nationalism along with a reverence for the dictatorial past. The result was the constitution of 1940, which returned to the executive the power that the Liberals had stripped away. When a brief flirtation with democracy became a civil war after World War II, the Colorados, the party of the Lopiztas, were again running Paraguay. In the interim, the influence of the armed forces had increased dramatically. Since the end of the Chaco War, no Paraguayan government has held power without the consent of the army. Morínigo maintained order by severely restricting individual liberties but created a political vacuum. When he tried to fill it with the Colorado Party, he split the party in two, and neither faction could establish itself in power without help from the military. The institution of one-party rule, the establishment of order at the expense of political liberty, and the acceptance of the army’s role of final political arbiter created the conditions that encouraged the emergence of the Stroessner regime.
Despite his reputation as a democrat, Chaves imposed a state of siege three weeks after he took office, aiming his emergency powers at the supporters of González and ex-President Felipe Molas López. Mounting economic problems immediately confronted the new government. Two decades of extreme political and social unrest — including depression, war, and civil conflicts — had shattered Paraguay’s economy. National and per capita income had fallen sharply, the Central Bank’s practice of handing out soft loans to regime cronies was spurring inflation and a black market, and Argentina’s economic woes were making themselves felt in Paraguay. Still, Chaves stayed in office without mishap; the country simply needed a rest.
By 1953, however, the seventy-three-year-old president’s political support began to erode markedly. His decision to run for reelection disappointed younger men who nursed political ambitions, and rumors that Chaves would strengthen the police at the army’s expense disappointed the military. Early in 1954, recently fired Central Bank Director Epifanio Méndez Fleitas joined forces with Stroessner — at that time a general and commander in chief of the armed forces — to oust Chaves. Méndez Fleitas was unpopular with Colorado Party stalwarts and the army, who feared that he was trying to build a following as did his hero, Juan Domingo Perón, Argentina’s president from 1946 to 1955. In May 1954, Stroessner ordered his troops into action against the government after Chaves had tried to dismiss one of his subordinates. Fierce resistance by police left almost fifty dead.
As the military "strongman" who made the coup, Stroessner was able to provide many of his supporters with positions in the provisional government. About two months later, a divided Colorado Party nominated Stroessner for president. For many party members, he represented an "interim" choice, as Morínigo had been for the Liberals in 1940. When Stroessner took office on August 15, 1954, few people imagined that this circumspect, unassuming forty-one year-old commander in chief would be a master politician capable of outmaneuvering and outlasting them all. Nor was it apparent that his period of rule, known as the Stronato, would be longer than that of any other ruler in Paraguayan history.
The son of an immigrant German brewer and a Paraguayan woman, Stroessner was born in Encarnación in 1912. He joined the army when he was sixteen and entered the triservice military academy, the Francisco López Military College. Like
Franco and Estigarribia, Stroessner was a hero of the Chaco War. He had gained a reputation for his bravery and his abilities to learn quickly and to command and inspire loyalty in troops. He was also known to be thorough and to have an unusual capacity for hard work. His extremely accurate political sense failed him only once, when he found himself in 1948 on the wrong side of a failed coup attempt and had to be driven to the Brazilian embassy in the trunk of a car, earning him the nickname "Colonel Trunk." Career considerations and an antipathy for communists possibly caused Stroessner to decide against joining the rebels
in 1947. Morínigo found his talents indispensable during the civil war and promoted him rapidly. Because he was one of the few officers who had remained loyal to Morínigo, Stroessner became a formidable player once he entered the higher echelons of the armed forces.
Repression was a key factor in Stroessner’s longevity. Stroessner took a hard line from the beginning in his declaration of a state of siege, which he renewed carefully at intervals prescribed by the constitution. Except for a brief period in 1959, Stroessner renewed the state of siege every three months for the interior of the country until 1970 and for Asunción until 1987. He was lucky from the outset; the retirement of González and the death of Molas López had removed two of his most formidable opponents. Another helpful coincidence was the September 1955 Argentine coup that deposed Perón, thus depriving Méndez Fleitas of his main potential source of support. After the coup, Perón fled to Asunción, where his meddling in Paraguayan politics complicated Méndez Fleitas’s position further and intensified the political struggle going on behind the scenes. Forced to play his hand after the Argentine junta compelled Perón to depart Asunción for Panama in November, Méndez Fleitas prepared to stage a coup in late December. However, Stroessner purged the military of Méndez Fleitas’s supporters and made him go into exile in 1956.
To observers, Stroessner did not seem to be in a particularly strong position. He was hardly in control of the Colorado Party, which was full of competing factions and ambitious politicians, and the army was not a dependable supporter. The economy was in bad shape and deteriorating further. Stroessner’s adoption of economic austerity measures proved unpopular with military officers, who had grown used to getting soft loans from the Central Bank; with businessmen, who disliked the severe tightening of credit; and with workers, who went out on strike when they no longer received pay raises. In addition, the new Argentine government, displeased with Stroessner’s cordial relations with Perón, canceled a trade agreement.
A 1958 national plebiscite elected Stroessner to a second term, but dissatisfaction with the regime blossomed into a guerrilla insurgency soon afterward. Sponsored by exiled Liberals and Febreristas, small bands of armed men began to slip across the border from Argentina. Venezuela sent large amounts of aid to these groups starting in 1958. The following year, the new Cuban government under Fidel Castro Ruz also provided assistance.
Stroessner’s response was to employ the state’s virtually unlimited power by giving a free hand to the military and to Minister of Interior Edgar Ynsfrán, who began to harass, terrorize, and occasionally murder family members of the regime’s foes. A cycle of terror and counter-terror began to make life in Paraguay precarious.
The guerrillas received little support from Paraguay’s conservative peasantry. The Colorado Party’s peasant py nandí irregulars ("barefoot ones" in Guaraní), who had a welldeserved reputation for ferocity, often tortured and executed their prisoners. Growing numbers of people were interned in jungle concentration camps. Army troops and police smashed striking labor unions by taking over their organizations and arresting their leaders.
In April 1959, however, Stroessner grudgingly decided to heed the growing call for reform within the army and the Colorado Party. He lifted the state of siege, allowed opposition exiles to return, ended press censorship, freed political prisoners, and promised to rewrite the 1940 constitution. After two months of this democratic "spring," the country was on the verge of chaos. In late May, nearly 100 people were injured when a student riot erupted in downtown Asunción over a bus fare increase. The disturbance inspired the legislature to call for Ynsfrán’s resignation. Stroessner responded swiftly by reimposing the state of siege and dissolving the legislature.
An upsurge in guerrilla violence followed, but Stroessner once again parried the blow. Several factors strengthened Stroessner’s hand. First, United States military aid was helping enhance the army’s skills in counterinsurgency warfare. Second, the many purges of the Colorado Party had removed all opposition factions. In addition, Stroessner’s economic policies had boosted exports and investment and reduced inflation, and the right-wing military coups in Brazil in 1964 and Argentina in 1966 also improved the international climate for nondemocratic rule in Paraguay.
Another major factor in Stroessner’s favor was a change in attitude among his domestic opposition. Demoralized by years of fruitless struggle and exile, the major opposition groups began to sue for peace. A Liberal Party faction, the Renovation Movement, returned to Paraguay to become the "official" opposition, leaving the remainder of the Liberal Party, which renamed itself the Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical–PLR), in exile. In return for Renovationist participation in the elections of 1963, Stroessner allotted the new party twenty of Congress’s sixty seats. Four years later, PLR members also returned to Paraguay and began participating in the electoral process. By this time, the Febreristas, a sad remnant of the once powerful but never terribly coherent revolutionary coalition, posed no threat to Stroessner and were legalized in 1964. The new Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano–PDC) also renounced violence as a means of gaining power. The exhaustion of most opposition forces enabled Stroessner to crush the Paraguayan Communist Party (Partido Communista Paraguayo–PCP) by mercilessly persecuting its members and their spouses and to isolate the exiled Colorado epifanistas (followers of Epifanio Méndez Fleitas) and democráticos, who had reorganized themselves as the Popular Colorado Movement (Movimiento Popular Colorado–Mopoco).
Under "liberalization," Ynsfrán, the master of the machinery of terror, began to outlive his usefulness to Stroessner. Ynsfrán opposed political decompression and was unhappy about Stroessner’s increasingly clear intention to stay president for life. A May 1966 police corruption scandal gave Stroessner a convenient way to dismiss Ynsfrán in November. In August 1967, a new Constitution created a two-house legislature and formally allowed Stroessner to serve for two more five-year presidential terms.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the main foreign influences on Paraguay were Brazil and the United States. Both countries aided Paraguay’s economic development in ways that enhanced its political stability. A 1956 agreement with Brazil to improve the transport link between the two countries by building roads and a bridge over the Río Paraná broke Paraguay’s traditional dependence on Argentine goodwill for the smooth flow of Paraguayan international trade. Brazil’s grant of duty-free port facilities on the Atlantic Coast was particularly valuable to Paraguay.
Brazil’s financing of the US$19 billion Itaipú Dam on the Río Paraná between Paraguay and Brazil had far-reaching consequences for Paraguay. Paraguay had no means of contributing financially to the construction, but its cooperation — including controversial concessions regarding ownership of the construction site and the rates for which Paraguay agreed to sell its share of the electricity — was essential. Itaipú gave Paraguay’s economy a great new source of wealth. The construction produced a tremendous economic boom, as thousands of Paraguayans who had never before held a regular job went to work on the enormous dam. From 1973 (when construction began) until 1982 (when it ended), gross domestic product grew more than 8 percent annually, double the rate for the previous decade and higher than growth rates in most other Latin American countries. Foreign exchange earnings from electricity sales to Brazil soared, and the newly employed Paraguayan workforce stimulated domestic demand,
bringing about a rapid expansion in the agricultural sector.
There were, however, several drawbacks to the construction at Itaipú. The prosperity associated with the major boom raised expectations for long-term growth. An economic downturn in the early 1980s caused discontent, which in turn led to demands for reform. Many Paraguayans, no longer content to eke out a living on a few hectares, had to leave the country to look for work. In the early 1980s, some observers estimated that up to 60 percent of Paraguayans were living outside the country. But even those people who were willing to farm a small patch of ground faced a new threat. Itaipú had prompted a tidal wave of Brazilian migration in the eastern border region of Paraguay. By the mid-1980s, observers estimated there were between 300,000 and 350,000 Brazilians in the eastern border region. With Portuguese the dominant language in the areas of heavy Brazilian migration and Brazilian currency circulating as legal tender, the area became closely integrated with Brazil. Further, most of Paraguay’s increased wealth wound up in the hands of wealthy supporters of the regime. Landowners faced no meaningful land reform, the regime’s control of labor organizers aided businessmen, foreign investors benefited from tax exemptions, and foreign creditors experienced a bonanza from heavy Paraguayan borrowing. Although the poorest Paraguayans were somewhat better off in 1982 than they were in the 1960s, they were worse off relative to other sectors of the population.
Closer relations with Brazil paralleled a decline in relations with Argentina. After Perón’s expulsion, Paraguay slipped from the orbit of Buenos Aires as Argentina declined politically and economically. Argentina, alarmed by Itaipú and close cooperation between Brazil and Paraguay, pressed Stroessner to agree to participate in hydroelectric projects at Yacyretá and Corpus. By pitting Argentina against Brazil, Stroessner improved Paraguay’s diplomatic and economic autonomy and its economic prospects.
Stroessner also benefited from the 1950s and 1960s Cold War ideology in the United States, which favored authoritarian, anticommunist regimes. Upon reaching Asunción during his 1958 tour of Latin America, Vice President Richard M. Nixon
praised Stroessner’s Paraguay for opposing communism more strongly than any other nation in the world. The main strategic concern of the United States at that time was to avoid at all costs the emergence in Paraguay of a left-wing regime, which would be ideally situated at the heart of the South American continent to provide a haven for radicals and a base for revolutionary activities around the hemisphere. From 1947 until 1977, the United States supplied about US$750,000 worth of military hardware each year and trained more than 2,000 Paraguayan military officers in counterintelligence and counterinsurgency. In 1977 the United States Congress sharply cut military assistance to Paraguay.
Paraguay regularly voted in favor of United States policies in the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS). Stroessner, probably the United States’ most dependable ally in Latin America, once remarked that the United States ambassador was like an extra member of his cabinet. Relations faltered somewhat during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, as United States officials began calling for democracy and land reform and threatened to withhold Alliance for Progress funds (an amount equal to about 40 percent of Paraguay’s budget) unless Paraguay made progress. Although pressure of this sort no doubt encouraged Stroessner to legalize some internal opposition parties, it failed to make the Paraguayan ruler become any less a personalist dictator. Regime opponents who agreed to play Stroessner’s electoral charade received rewards of privileges and official recognition. Other opponents, however, faced detention and exile. Influenced by Paraguay’s support for the United States intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the United States became friendlier to Stroessner in the mid-1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson. New United States-supported military governments in Brazil and Argentina also improved United States-Paraguay ties.
Relations between Paraguay and the United States changed substantially after the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976. The appointment of Robert White as United States ambassador in 1977 and the congressional cut-off of military hardware deliveries in the same year reflected increasing concern about the absence of democracy and the presence of human rights violations in Paraguay.
After a period of inactivity, the political opposition became increasingly visible in the late 1970s. In 1977 Domingo Laíno, a PLR congressman during the previous ten years, broke away to form the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico–PLRA). Laíno’s charges of government corruption, involvement in narcotics trafficking, human rights violations, and inadequate financial compensation from Brazil under the terms of the Treaty of Itaipú earned him Stroessner’s wrath. In 1979 Laíno helped lead the PLRA, the PDC, Mopoco, and the legally recognized Febreristas — the latter angered by the
constitutional amendment allowing Stroessner to seek yet another presidential term in 1978 — into the National Accord (Acuerdo Nacional). The National Accord served to coordinate the opposition’s political strategy. The victim of countless detentions, torture, and persecution, Laíno was forced into exile in 1982 following the publication of a critical book about ex-Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was assassinated in Asunción in 1980.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church persistently criticized Stroessner’s successive extensions of his stay in office and his treatment of political prisoners. The regime responded by closing Roman Catholic publications and newspapers, expelling non-Paraguayan priests, and harassing the church’s attempts to organize the rural poor. The regime also increasingly came under international fire in the 1970s for human rights abuses, including allegations of torture and murder. In 1978 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights convinced an annual meeting of foreign ministers at the OAS to pass a resolution calling on Paraguay to improve its human rights situation. In 1980 the Ninth OAS General Assembly, meeting in La Paz, Bolivia, condemned human rights violations in Paraguay, describing torture and disappearances as "an affront to the hemisphere’s conscience." International groups also charged that the military had killed 30 peasants and arrested 300 others after the peasants had protested against encroachments on their land by government officials. Paraguay entered the 1980s less isolated, rural, and backward than it had traditionally been. Political and social structures remained inflexible, but Paraguayans had changed their world views and their perceptions of themselves.
By skillfully balancing the military and the Colorado Party, Stroessner remained very much in control. Still, he was increasingly being challenged in ways that showed that his control was not complete. For example, in November 1974, police units captured seven guerrillas in a farmhouse outside of Asunción. When the prisoners were interrogated, it became clear that the information possessed by the guerrillas, who had planned to assassinate Stroessner, could have come only from a high Colorado official. With the party hierarchy suddenly under suspicion, Stroessner ordered the arrest and interrogation of over 1,000 senior officials and party members.He also dispatched agents to Argentina and Brazil to kidnap suspects among the exiled Colorados. A massive purge of the party followed. Although the system survived, it was shaken.
Perhaps the clearest example of cracks in Stroessner’s regime was the assassination of Somoza. From Stroessner’s standpoint, there were ominous similarities between Somoza and himself. Like Stroessner, Somoza had run a regime based on the military and a political party that had been noted for its stability and its apparent imperviousness to change. Somoza also had brought economic progress to the country and had skillfully kept his internal opposition divided for years. Ultimately, however, the carefully controlled changes he had introduced began subtly to undermine the traditional, authoritarian order. As traditional society broke down in Paraguay, observers saw increasing challenges ahead for the Stroessner regime.
Stroessner was overthrown by army leader General Andres Rodriguez in 1989. Rodriguez went on to win Paraguay’s first multicandidate election in decades. Paraguay’s new constitution went into effect in 1992. In 1993, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, a wealthy businessman and the candidate of the governing Colorado Party, won a five-year term in free elections.
Raúl Cubas Grau was elected president in May 1998. In 1999, Cubas was forced from office for his alleged involvement in the assassination of Vice President Luis María Argaña. The vice president had criticized Cubas for refusing to jail
his mentor, Gen. Lino Oviedo, who had been convicted of leading a failed 1996 coup against Wasmosy. Oviedo was finally arrested in 2004 and jailed.
Luis Ángel González Macchi, appointed caretaker president after Cubas stepped down, was accused of mishandling $16 million in state funds, and in 2006 he was sentenced to six years in prison. Former journalist Nicanor Duarte Frutos became president on August 15, 2003.