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A brief history of Paraguay

The land between the Parana and Paraguay rivers was home to indigenous tribes for thousands of years before Spanish conquest and colonisation.  Amongst the earliest explorers to the region was Aleixo Garcia, a Portuguese adventurer who had been part of the failed expedition with Juan de Solis seeking a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific up the Rio de la Plata (1516). He was one of the few survivors after their ships were wrecked off Santa Catarina Island, Brazil on the journey home. Garcia travelled west, befriended the Guarani tribes and eventually reached into the Chaco and the furthest margins of the Inca empire, having heard tales of their fabulous wealth (1524).  Sebastian Cabot, an adventurer, navigator, cartographer and explorer who had been educated in Bristol, explored the region 1526-1529.

Asuncion was founded on 15 August 1537 by Juan de Salazar y Espinosa, making it one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Spanish colonists initially settled peacefully amongst the nomadic Guarani and took advantage of their custom of giving away women as a sign of tribal alliance, resulting in a large mixed-race population and an amalgam of Spanish and Guarani cultures and traditions. Within 20 years, Asuncion had a population of about 1,500 and became the centre of  power for the large Spanish province of southern South America, La Provincia Gigante de Indias. Hostile tribes were pacified, the Chaco explored and trade opened up with Peru. Silver was transferred via Asuncion, down river to the new settlement at Buenos Aires and from there back to Spain.

Settlers also established the encomienda system through which land was divided up into large estates  along with inidgenous people for whom the new landowners  were responsible. Landowners were expected to protect the natives from marauders and instruct them in the Spanish language and in Catholicism. In return natives would provide labour and landowners would benefit from any produce on their new territories. In Paraguay some 20,000 Indians were divided into 320 such estates. It was slavery by another name.

Elsewhere in the New World, Dominican Friars led by Pedro de Cordoba had questioned the encomienda system, recruiting to their cause the Catholic priest, Bartolome de la Casas, who gave up his own estate (on Hispaniola) and had gone on to write extensively on the destruction of the Indies and of the abuses carried out by colonists on indigenous peoples.  Meanwhile in Europe, the unlikely figure of Ignatius Loyola, a Basque soldier with a liking for gambling, dueling and women, had gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land before entering the priesthood. Taking a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience Loyola, together with a handful of others, set up the Society of Jesus in 1540 and put themselves at the disposition of the pope, promising him unconditional obedience. The new order – the Jesuits – secured a great following and by 1546 the Portuguese had invited them to work in Brazil, converting the natives.

A Catalan, a Portuguese and an Irishman were the first Jesuit monks to arrive in Paraguay in 1588. Although the Guarani were essentially nomadic, the Jesuits discovered they believed in an omnipotent supreme being and, with the backing of Felipe III, began setting up their own Christian settlements.

The Irishman, Father Thomas Field (1547-1626) was from Limerick, the son of a doctor. He entered the Jesuit order in Rome in 1574 and landed in Brazil on 31 December 1577, where he spent ten years as a scholar at Piratininga (present-day São Paulo). In 1587 he travelled to Paraguay with Manuel Ortega from Portugal and the Catalan, Juan Saloni (possibly Salono). Field attended the synod meeting of 1603 where decisions were made to set up the missions, or Reductions as they were called. He died in Asunción in 1626.

By 1700 the Jesuits had around 100,000 Guarani in thirty such reducciones or missions. The missions produced and traded food, cotton, tobacco, yerba maté (used to make the bitter tea which is popular in Argentina and Paraguay), meat and leather hides. They also produced arts and crafts and became centres of education and learning. In addition, they created their own militias to defend themselves from slave raiders from Sao Paulo, thus also serving the interests of the Spanish crown in preventing Portuguese territorial expansion.

The Jesuit missions were an enormous experiment in communal living – a jungle utopia – which continued for some 150 years.

But it was not to last. Landowners and slave traders were against them and put pressure on the Spanish crown. The Jesuits missions came to be seen as a threat, as a powerful and rich state within a state. By the time of the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767  there were 113,716 Guarani in a total of 57 missions. Franciscan monks took over the running of some missions, others were destroyed and slave traders captured many of the inhabitants. Within fifty years they were all in ruins.


In 1776, Spain created the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata with Buenos Aires as its capital, ending Asuncion’s dominance of the region.  The revolutions in America and in France were the catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain, the ousting of King Ferdinand VII and the installation of his brother Jose on the throne weakened Spain’s grip on their colonies. Paraguay  declared independence on 14 May 1811.

There are three key figures in the century following independence. Dr Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who led the country from 1814 until his death in 1840 set an example which was followed by others. El Supremo, as he came to be known, built a quietly prosperous albeit isolated nation. But he was also utterly ruthless, executing opponents, prohibiting political activity, stripping the church of power and land, and confiscating the wealth of the Spanish minority elite.

Carlos Antonio Lopez emerged as the leader after the death of Dr Francia. His detractors regard him as greedy, self-serving and a despot, using the tools of the state to his personal advantage during which he became the largest landowner and cattle rancher. But while El Excelentisimo, as he came to be known, opened Paraguay to foreigners and boosting exports, he was keen to maintain a strong army to secure the borders from expansion by Brazil or Argentina. He set about modernizing the country along military lines, developing roads, introducing a telegraph system and the first nation in Latin America to build railways.  More than 400 schools were also built during his rule.  As a well-educated lawyer, Lopez manipulated congress to his own needs on a statutory basis which, under the terms of the 1844 Constitution, placed all power in his hands. He won subsequent terms of office and remained in power until his death in 1862. Today, Paraguayans regard his term of office as the ‘Age of Propserity’. His son would destroy it all.

Francisco Solano Lopez is today regarded either as a national hero, patriot and defender of the nation or a reckless, lunatic megalomaniac who led Paraguay into a disastrous and bloody war which devastated the country and killed over 70% per cent of the male population and half the women. Born in 1827, he was made a brigadier general by his indulgent father when he was just eighteen. He travelled to Europe in the 1850s as Ambassador-at-large on a spending spree to buy steamboats, rolling stock for the railways, a considerable amount of weaponry and to scout for engineers, doctors and military advisors.  Together with an entourage of about three dozen men, he spent some time in London meeting engineers, railwaymen and shipbuilders but was mainly based in Paris where he met Napoleon III and his young wife Empress Eugenie, arranged for uniforms to be made for the Paraguayan army based on copies of those worn a generation earlier by Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers and even ordered a replica of Napoleon’s crown.

In Paris in 1854, Solano Lopez also picked up an Irish mistress, Eliza Lynch. Although she was not yet twenty she had already led an interesting life. Her family had come to Paris (where her sister was living) when she was ten to escape the potato famine. When she was fifteen she had eloped with an officer in the French Foreign Legion and got married in Maidstone, Kent. She had travelled to Algiers with him where he was in charge of the military hospital but the marriage had not worked out. Back in Paris, she had set herself up as a courtesan and had until recently been the lover of a Prussian officer until he had been recalled by the Czar. Lopez now took her to Madrid, to Rome and to the Crimean before returning to Paraguay to become Minister of War and Vice-President to his father.

Eliza Lynch arrived in Buenos Aires in October 1855. She was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a son before travelling up river to Asuncion. Although she and Solano Lopez never married, they went on to have a total of seven children over the years. Determined for her children to be regarded as legitimate, it is said she badgered, cajoaled and bullied her partner’s father to recognise them. Eventually Carlos Antonio Lopez relented and the story goes that a day was set aside for a great celebration. They fired a hundred cannon for the event, which immediately knocked down eleven houses in Asuncion and also killed a number of soldiers when one of cannons backfired. Madame Lynch, as she became known, would eventually become the world’s largest female landowner.

This was the age of gunboat diplomacy and strong arm tactics by the British Empire to defend her citizens. This had been exemplified by the 1850 Don Pacifico affair when Britain came to the defence of a Gibraltarian jew of Portuguese descent living in Greece as Portuguese Consul whose home had been attacked by an anti-semitic mob.  Although Don Pacifico had never actually set foot in the United Kingdom, as a Gibraltarian he was regarded as a British subject. When his claim for compensation from the Greek authorities was rejected he appealed to Britain. Lord Palmeston despatched warships to besiege Athens and after 8 weeks of blockade, the Greek government finally paid up.

In November 1859, Sir Edward Thornton, Britain’s representative in Argentina, ordered the Royal Navy to attack a Paraguayan steamer, the Tacuari, in an attempt to secure the release of a British citizen from jail. It was unfortunate, perhaps, that Franciso Solano Lopez was himself on the boat and it severely damaged relations between the countries. It is not known what happened to the prisoner but Thornton was forced to apologise.

Francisco Solano Lopez succeeded his father as president in 1862. El Mariscal, as he would come to be known, already infatuated with Napoleon, was determined that Paraguay should have a greater voice in the affairs of the South American republics. After all, Asuncion was an older city and had been the regional power base during Spanish colonial times before the rise of Buenos Aires.

Tensions had been mounting over influence and political control in Uruguay, that other small South American state which was overshadowed by Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay had only been created in 1828 out of the Banda Oriental as a buffer state between Argentina and Brazil and had suffered civil war between 1839 and 1851. The conflict had pitted the Colorados, representing the business elite of Montevideo against the National Party of Uruguay (the Blancos), representing the agricultural interests of the countryside. Argentina and Brazil had both been drawn into the war, as were Britain, France and a legion of Italian volunteers, including Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Montevideo had been held under siege for nine years. In the aftermath, Uruguay had signed treaties with Brazil providing for perpetual alliance between the two nations and confirming the right for Brazil to interfere in Uruguayan internal affairs. By the end of the 1850s over 20,000 Brazilians, mostly gauchos from the southern region of Rio Grande do Sul, together with their slaves, had settled in Uruguay. Brazilians constituted more than 10 per cent of Uruguay’s population.

In 1860, the Blancos were elected to power in Uruguay and began an attempt to restrict Brazilian settlement and slaveholding and to control and tax cross-border trade. Brazilian governments came under pressure from the Rio Grande do Sul region to join Argentina in supporting a Colorado rebel movement. It was in these circumstances that the Blanco government in Uruguay looked to Paraguay as its only possible ally.

On 4 August 1864 the Brazilian administration in Rio de Janeiro issued an ultimatum to the Blanco government in Montevideo threatening retaliation for alleged abuses suffered by their citizens in Uruguay. On 30 August, Solano Lopez issued a warning against Brazilian intervention in Uruguay.  It was to no avail, Brazilian troops invaded Uruguay on 16 October. On 13 December Solano Lopez declared war on Brazil and quickly invaded the Mato Grosso. His request for permission to cross Argentine territory to invade Rio Grande do Sul and to come to the defence of Uruguay was refused.  On 18 March 1865, a month after the Blancos had lost power in Montevideo to the Colorados rebels, Solano Lopez declared war on Argentina and moved in on the Argentine province of Corrientes.

With the Colorados now in power in Uruguay they quickly allied the country with both Argentina and Brazil.  Sir Edward Thornton’s antipathy to Lopez was well-known and as a great supporter of Argentine President Mitre he was instrumental the creation of the Triple Alliance. The three countries went on the offensive in early 1866. Solano Lopez had seriously miscalculated. The very existence of Paraguay was under threat.

As we have witnessed in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to start a war but not so easy to stop. We have also been reminded, in case we had forgotten, that fighting on two fronts is hard enough. The 21st Century conflicts in Iraq, Libya and currently in Syria, have all centred very much on the issue of the man in power, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi and Bashir al-Assad.  So it was in Paraguay a century and a half ago with Solano Lopez .

There were various attempts to broker a peaceful settlement. In 1868 a British diplomat in Buenos Aires reported to London that Lopez was willing to negotiate. In January 1867 the United States (having ended their own civil war) offered to mediate a deal. The stumbling block on each occasion was Lopez himself, who refused to stand down or go into exile.

Much of the war was fought around Humaita and at Tuyuti where Lopez lost some 20,000 of his best officers and men. Shortages were severe and some troops went into battle barefoot and only partially clothed. An epidemic of cholera spread throughout the country.  Slaves were conscripted. In the latter stages of the war infantry units composed entirely of children were formed. Death, famine and disease all took their toll.

López himself was isolated and paranoid. He ordered thousands of executions amongst government and military officials. He executed two of his brothers and two brothers-in-law as well as around 500 foreigners, including many diplomats. He even ordered the execution of his own mother and sisters, but was killed in combat at Cerro Cora on the very day the order was due to be carried out, 1 March 1870. Madame Lynch was captured and was sent into exile.

Sadly, many of the good people of Paraguay believe Britain was to blame and point the finger firmly at Sir Edward Thornton for his role in the creation of the triple alliance. This is mainly revisionist history from the 1960s which flourished under the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (q.v.). The argument goes that Britain saw an opportunity to open Paraguay up for profitable investment and as an attractive market for British exports and wanted to secure a new source of cotton, as supplies were disrupted by the civil war in the United States. In fact, as we have already seen, Britain’s relations with Paraguay had already been damaged by Thornton’s attack on the steamer in 1859.  Indeed, Lopez himself had only antagonised his powerful neighbours since coming to power with his attempts to meddle in Uruguayan affairs and he had done little to encourage investment or open up to trade with Europe, let alone Britain. Besides this, Britain had already secured supplies of cotton from the West Indies, Egypt and from Brazil.

Paraguay was occupied until 1876 and lost territory to both Argentina and Brazil. It is believed that the population of Paraguay in the 1853 pre-war census was 1,337,439. By 1871 there were just 28,746 men, 106,254 women and 86,079 children, albeit in a smaller state.  It was the bloodiest conflict in Latin American history.

Dictatorship, territorial rivalry, political incompetence and economic mismanagement are familiar themes which characterise the history of the South American republics since independence. Boundaries which had never been properly established at the time of independence have been a running sore ever since, with repercussions that occasionally cloud the political arena even today. Peru has had disputes with Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil over parts of Amazonia. Bolivia argued with Argentina over Tarija. Peru and Bolivia both lost out to Chile over the nitrate and mineral rich territories of the Atacama Desest in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). Indeed, Bolivia lost her route to the sea and has been land-locked ever since.

While Paraguay began a painful and slow reconstruction two main political parties emerged, the Colorados and the Liberals.  The Colorados dominated the political scene until 1904, the Liberals for the next 30 years. In the meantime, as tensions simmered with Bolivia over settlements in the Chaco and access to the Atlantic via the Paraguay River, a number of idealistic groups arrived in the country including Germans in the 1890s seeking to set up their own model communities (Nueva Germania) to demonstrate the virtues of German culture and society in the New World. Radical socialist Australians also arrived before the beginning of the 20th Century attempting to create Nueva Australia. The first Mennonites arrived in the Chaco in the 1920s.

Mennonites are named after the followers of Menno Simons (1496-1561), a former Catholic priest from Freisland in the Netherlands (at the time part of the Holy Roman Empire) who became an ardent Anabaptist in 1536. He wrote prolifically, was declared a heretic by the authorities and went on the run with a price of two thousand guilders on his head. Some of those who harboured him were executed. Mennonites are committed to nonviolence and, like many religious sects, have long faced persecution.  Driven out of their original countries (the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland) by the end of the 19th century, they had taken refuge in the Canada, Russia and the Ukraine. In Canada, it was the introduction of new legislation which stopped them from teaching in German in the schools they had set up that prompted the move to Paraguay, where they founded Menno Colony. In Russia and the Ukraine, it was the Russian Revolution. Paraguay granted them religious and economic independence, allowed them to have their own schools (where children are taught in German) and provided exemption from military service and the Menonnites from these countries established the settlement at Fernheim.

When Fernheim Colony celebrated its silver anniversary in 1955, one of its leaders said, “We knew we would be poor; we did not know we would be poor so long.” This was also true of the other Mennonite colonies in Paraguay and, facing an uncertain future, some inhabitants left for Canada and Germany. Today, however, there are around 60,000 Mennonites in Paraguay which exceeds the number of followers in either Holland or Switzerland. Mennonite culture emphasizes hard work, a simple life, and strict adherence to religious beliefs The Mennonites produce around 80% of Paraguay’s milk, butter and cheese. In many respects they maintain their German origins but, unlike the Amish, Mennonites embrace the use of technology when it improves productivity, and they dress in plain, functional clothing. Their use of land is not without controversy and their methods have come under criticism: Mennonites have been accused of employing indigenous (Enxet and Ayoreo) workers and paying them less than the minimum wage or obliging them to accept notes of credit which can only be exchanged for goods in Mennonite stores in a form of debt servitude.

But back in the 1920s the discovery of oil near the Chaco added new impetus to Bolivia’s interest in this sparsely-populated region. Skirmishes between the two countries in the late 1920s spilled over into war in June 1932. It was a costly and ultimately pointless conflict between the two poorest nations in South America.  The war lasted 3 years and claimed around 55,000 Bolivian and 40,000 Paraguayans lives, many of them as a result of disease, hunger, thirst and suicide rather than combat.  Under the terms of the 1938 settlement signed in Buenos Aires, Paraguay was assigned two-thirds of the disputed territory so while the war can be regarded as a military victory it was also a political and diplomatic defeat. Furthermore, the Chaco never produced the oil or mineral wealth expected. The Chaco War effectively left two of South America’s poorest nations even more impoverished.

The immediate post-war years and the whole of the 1940s are characterised by instability, civil war and military intervention in political affairs which culminated in the coup d’etat of May 1954 which brought the head of the armed forces, General Alfredo Stroessner, to power.

Stroessner, the son of a German brewer and a Paraguayan mother, was born in Encarnacion in 1912. He had joined the army as a 16 year old and had seen action in the Battle of Boqueron during the Chaco War. He rose quickly in the army becoming a  Brigadier General when he was just 36. Stroessner won the presidential election immediately following the coup as he was the sole candidate. He went on to win a further seven consecutive elections, sometimes, as even his supporters joked, with more than 100% of the vote. Indeed, the support he received from dead voters was characteristic of electoral fraud.

Stroessner gave refuge to Argentina’s Juan Peron, to Anastasio Somoza Debayle of Nicaragua (who was later assassinated in Paraguay) and for possibly as many as six thousand Nazis.  Amongst them was Dr Josef Mengele, the vile “Angel of Death” who had experimented on twins at Auschwich and Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a flying ace in the Luftwaffe who had flown more missions than anyone else and had destroyed a cruiser, a battleship and five hundred and nineteen Russian tanks. Rudel had been shot down twice and lost his right leg below the calf but continued to play at tennis and waterski. After the war he flew planes for the Argentine government before being given asylum in Asuncion where it is known he worked for ODESSA, the secret organisation which smuggled former officers of the SS out of Europe to South America. It is said that when questioned on the whereabouts of Mengele, Stroessner replied that there were indeed Paraguayan Mengeles in the country but no German Mengeles.

According to Fernando Masi, an economist who worked at the World Bank in Washington DC and who later went on to run the Paraguayan Institute for Latin American Integration, Stroessner ran “a patrimonial system” in which he “distributed the wealth of the state to a small group of people, creating a new military-civilian elite which had big farms….bank accounts in Switzerland [and] five or six houses apiece.” Stroessner also abolished export taxes to benefit himself and his allies. Typical of this elite, Masi says, was the Colorado Party chairman, Juan E. Pereida. He had 40 storage containers on the border from which goods were smuggled into Brazil. He also had “four or five planes, 100 suits and his wife had 40 pairs of shoes”.

Whilst Stroessner’s eldest son Hugo Alfredo (‘Freddy’) was an alcoholic and a drug addict, his younger son, Gustavo, appears to have been heavily involved in processing and trafficking cocaine. In the meantime the head of the secret police, Pastor Coronel, headed up a network of spies and informants and collaborated with other repressive military regimes in South America to share intelligence, exchange data and carry out  arrests, torture and executions. It was code-named Operation Condor.  Paraguay was kept in an almost permanent ‘state of siege’.  Torture, kidnappings and police brutality became the hallmarks of the Stroessner regime, which lasted thirty-five years.

Stroessner was finally ousted in the early hours of 3 February 1989 in a bloody coup led by one of his most-trusted generals, Andres Rodriguez, whose daughter had married Freddy.  General Rodríguez had been part of Stroessner’s inner circle and had become one of Paraguay’s richest men, owning the nation’s largest brewery, an import-export business and a chain of foreign exchange offices (cambios). There were also persistent rumours that he was involved in trafficking large quantities of cocaine to the United States and Europe.  His home was modelled on the Palace of Versailles. It appears that his motive for the coup was entirely self-preservation. At the end of January 1989 Stroessner had closed all exchange houses and ordered Rodriguez to retire.  It is believed that around a hundred soldiers loyal to the dictator were killed in the coup before Stroessner finally surrendered.  He died in  exile in Brazil in August 2006 aged 93.

Few observers of Latin American affairs held their breath as General Rodríguez made promises of democracy and respect for human rights and allowed his name to be put forward as the Colorado Party’s candidate in the May elections. In fact, Rodriguez released political prisoners, restored press freedoms and welcomed back people who had gone into exile. With the participation of opponents who had either boycotted or been banned from previous elections it was regarded as the cleanest dirty election in the country’s history. In 1990 Rodriguez took Paraguay into the Latin American common market trading group with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay which became Mercosur in 1991.  He stood down as president following the May 1993 elections which were won by the Colorado Party’s candidate Juan Carlos Wasmosy, a civil engineer and the first civilian president in 39 years.  Rodriguez became a Senator for Life, with immunity from prosecution which neatly enabled him to avoid any potential charges for involvement in drug trafficking or for crimes from the Stroessner era. He died in 1997 aged 73.

Since Wasmosy there have been six presidents, two attempted military coups, the assassination of a vice-president and the resignation of two under threat of impeachment. One, Fernando Lugo, who ousted the Colorado Party for the first time in 61 years in the 2008 election and who admitted fathering at least two children when he had been a catholic bishop, was removed by Congress in an internal revolt which led to Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur in 2012. At least three have faced criminal charges.

The April 2013 elections were won by Horacio Cartes, restoring the Colorado Party to power. Cartes is a successful businessman who owns more than 20 companies including the Banco Amambay, the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer and a fizzy-drinks company.  He is also the president of the Libertad football club. It is reported that he only joined the Colorado Party in 2009 and so appears to be untainted by the Stroessner years.

Revealed Travel will continue to watch developments with interest.

Monks, Mennonites and Moonies

Paraguay has long attracted idealistic groups and allowed them to maintain their own languages, traditions and customs.  In addition to the jungle utopias built by Jesuit monks, there have been settlements constructed by socialist Australians, Aryan supremacists and German, Russian and Ukrainian Mennonites.

Mennonites have only prospered in recent years and tend to keep themselves very much to themselves whilst managing to secure exemptions from onerous taxes and military duties.

In 2000 the Unification Church (more familiarly known as the Moonies) acquired land in north-eastern Paraguay. Rev. Sun Myung Moon was a fervent South Korean anti-communist who founded the church in 1954 who died in 2012. The Unification Church has been accused of human rights violations and questionable financial dealings in several countries. It has been banned in several Latin American countries.  The cult owns 600,000 hectares in Paraguay and has additional holdings in Brazil. Quite what their intentions are in Paraguay remains a mystery.

Hydroelectricity in Paraguay

Who’d have thought that Paraguay is the world’s greatest exporter of hydro-electricity?  The country produces a surplus of clean energy from three hydro-electric plants at Itaipu, Yacyreta and Acaray, making it the world’s largest exporter of hydro-electricity.

The Itaipu Dam, on the border with Brazil, is the power source that drives Paraguay and provides southern Brazil with clean energy. The dam is 7.9 kilometres wide and 196 metres high (5 miles, 643 ft) and the reservoir created by the dam covers 1350 km2 (521 sq miles). Each country owns ten turbines but at any one time 18 are used and two are kept in reserve.

A staggering 700,000 litres of water flows through each turbine per second and Paraguay only uses two turbines to generate over 70% of the power needs of the country.  Under a long-standing agreement surplus electricity is sold to Brazil at a heavily discounted rate. The Itaipu dam produces approximately 17% of Brazil’s energy and provides clean electricity to the capital, Brasilia and to the megacity of Sao Paulo.