Paraguay's awful history

THE fall of the _father of all Paraguayans_ was even more abrupt than his rise. In 2008 Fernando Lugo, a Cathol...

THE fall of the _father of all Paraguayans_ was even more abrupt than his rise. In 2008 Fernando Lugo, a Catholic bishop and liberation theologian who called himself a champion of the poor, won his country_s presidential election and broke the Colorado Party_s chokehold on power. Shortly after his inauguration, however, four women said that he had fathered their children while under a vow of celibacy; Mr Lugo recognised two of them. The Liberal party, whose support had propelled him to the presidency, repudiated him. In June 2012 Congress summarily removed him from office, after he was accused of mishandling a clash between police and landless peasants.

In the eyes of the leftist leaders of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay_s partners in the Mercosur trade block, the lightning-fast impeachment was a coup. They suspended the country from Mercosur and encouraged the Organisation of American States (OAS) to do the same. On June 26th Hugo Saguier, Paraguay_s ambassador to the OAS, took the floor and lashed out. _If you want to form a new Triple Alliance,_ he said, _go ahead._

Many in the room were puzzled. But Brazil_s representative angrily replied that the comment was _unnecessary and gratuitous_. Mr Saguier had invoked one of the deepest scars in Latin America_s history: the War of the Triple Alliance, a conflict between Paraguay and a coalition of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay that began in 1865 (just as the American civil war was drawing to a close), and ended in 1870. _I wanted [the speech] to hurt,_ Mr Saguier says.

The war, known in Paraguay as the _War of _70_ or the _Great War_, was among the worst military defeats ever inflicted on a modern nation state. According to Thomas Whigham of the University of Georgia, as much as 60% of the population and 90% of Paraguayan men died from combat or, more often, from disease and starvation. Other researchers put the figure considerably lower_but still atrociously high. Federico Franco, Mr Lugo_s successor, recently called the war a _holocaust_. Yet it is little known outside the region. Even in Paraguay its moral ambiguities have caused generations of leaders to shroud it in myth.

But the diplomatic backlash against the impeachment has revived debate about this national trauma. After 142 years Paraguay is grappling with the mixture of hubris and heroism that plunged it into self-immolation, a tragedy that still defines the country.

Modern Paraguay_flat, landlocked and steamy_is a geopolitical pipsqueak. Its foreign influence is limited to two giant dams on its borders, soyabean exports that feed Chinese livestock and the free-for-all bazaar of Ciudad del Este, a border town where vendors of cut-rate electronics and clothes operate in public, and arms dealers and Hizbullah fund-raisers do so in private.

In the mid-1800s, however, Paraguay was a middling regional power. It began a breakneck industrialisation during the presidency of Carlos Antonio L__pez, who imported European experts to build a shipyard, a foundry and one of South America_s first railways. He also beefed up the army to deter Paraguay_s twitchy neighbours: Argentina considered the country a rebel province until 1852, while Pedro II, the Brazilian emperor, claimed lands that Spain and Portugal had disputed.

In 1862 L__pez died, and was succeeded by his son Francisco Solano. The younger L__pez demanded absolute deference_he banned people from turning their backs to him, or sitting while he stood_and was eager to make a name for himself as a statesman. In 1864 he saw his chance. To protect its commercial interests, Brazil threatened to intervene in a civil war in Uruguay, a small buffer state between it and Argentina. L__pez feared this would upset the regional balance of power, and announced that Paraguay could not tolerate the presence of Brazilian troops on Uruguayan soil.

Pedro shrugged him off and invaded Uruguay. Soon afterwards L__pez declared war on Brazil and attacked its interior province of Mato Grosso. He later dispatched a force to Uruguay as well. When Argentina refused to let him march troops through its territory, L__pez sent them anyway. Once the Brazilian-backed side won the war in Uruguay, the three governments signed a secret pact. They agreed to annex half of Paraguay_s territory, collect reparations and forbid it from keeping an army_and to fight until L__pez was ousted.

The odds were stacked against Paraguay. The allies_ combined population was 25 times bigger. Paraguay relied on Napoleonic-era kit_muskets, 17th-century cannon and wooden boats_and, being landlocked, could not import modern armaments. Many of its horses were crippled by a spinal ailment. The allies ultimately mustered long-range rifles, artillery and ironclad warships.

Victory or death. It was death

The Paraguayan invaders were soon beaten back from Uruguay and Brazil, and L__pez proposed peace. But Pedro_s honour would not let him quit until his rival was toppled (the Brazilian troops did most of the fighting). Honour similarly prevented L__pez from abdicating, though perhaps no alternative, self-respecting Paraguayan leader could have surrendered on the secret pact_s terms. What began as a capricious escapade became a total war, and a struggle for national survival.

For three years the outgunned, undermanned Paraguayans battled their enemies to a stalemate in the country_s southern marshes. Water mines and obstacles at the fort of Humait__ blocked the Brazilians_ advance by river. But in 1868 heavy rains raised the water level, and their boats quickly reached Asunci__n, the capital. Paraguay_s army surrendered the next year.

L__pez, however, would not give up. He moved his capital from one town to another, taking the entire state archives in tow. He imagined a vast conspiracy against him, and jailed and tortured thousands of his most loyal backers, including his own mother and sister. His brother was among the 700-800 people he had executed_often by lance to save ammunition.

Because L__pez had drafted every man in Paraguay, there was no labour to work the fields, and starvation set in. Many who subsisted on bitter wild oranges succumbed to cholera, malaria and dysentery. As able-bodied men died, L__pez recruited a new army of wounded and child soldiers. He armed them with sticks painted to look like guns, disguising the youngsters with fake beards. The army_s original red uniforms had dwindled to rags; rain seeped through ponchos made of shredded carpets. Eventually they fought naked. (Today, Paraguay celebrates Children_s Day on the anniversary of a battle in which 2,000 children perished.)

L__pez continued to retreat. In 1870 the Brazilian army cornered him at last at Cerro Cor__, in the remote north-east. His ring bore a slogan, _victory or death_, which he honoured by refusing to surrender. _I die with my homeland,_ he proclaimed before being shot_though his partisans insist he said _for my homeland_. Elisa Lynch, his Irish consort, buried him next to their son.

My day will come

According to a rough-and-ready post-war census, just 29,000 males over the age of 15 were left in Paraguay. One observer called the survivors _living skeletons__shockingly mutilated with bullet and sabre wounds_. Jaguars roamed freely and feasted on human flesh. Women wandered the streets naked.

The war wiped out Paraguay_s elite. After an eight-year occupation the country was run by Argentine carpetbaggers and exiles who had backed the allies. They branded L__pez a butcher and a tyrant, and excised him from history. He had foreseen what would become of his reputation. _I will be buried beneath the weight of mountains of ignominy,_ he said on the day before his death. _But my day will come, and I will rise from the abyss of slander to__take my rightful place in history._

Time would prove him right. By the 1920s tensions were rising with Bolivia over the Chaco region, wrongly thought to be rich in oil. Eager to whip up nationalist sentiment, the government recast L__pez as a symbol of the country_s bellicose spirit.

From 1932-35 the two countries went to war. This time Paraguay won. The indigenous Bolivian soldiers did not want to fight for their white commanders, and could not understand Paraguayan radio signals in the Guaran__ language. Their wool uniforms left them dehydrated in the arid Chaco.

With Paraguay_s pride restored, L__pez_s remains were moved to a domed shrine in central Asunci__n. Today, el mariscal (_the marshal_) is the country_s improbable icon. A portrait of him atop a stallion hangs in the president_s office in the L__pez Palace, which he built. His sword sits in a display case.

Yet despite this clumsy hagiography, Paraguay has done little to tell the real story of the war. Asunci__n has no history museum; the main battlefields have been neglected. Humait__ is now a fishing village, accessible only by a dirt road that is often blocked by cattle. The river moves a few feet east every year, taking the border with Argentina with it. It now threatens to flood the ruins of a church destroyed by the invaders. _What they didn_t take in the war, they_re getting from the river,_ says Vicenta Mirando, a local schoolteacher.

The war_s worst atrocity occurred in Piribebuy, 80km (50 miles) east of Asunci__n by road. There Brazilian troops cut the throats of everyone they could find, and locked the doors to a crowded hospital before setting it alight. A gruesome concrete relief, illustrating the horror, has been built on the site; the town has funded a one-room museum, which includes a single tuft of braided hair removed from the mass grave below its 18th-century church. In the church itself, however, there is no sign of the history buried below the red-tiled floor. Speakers blare Christian rock between services.

It isn_t even past

Paraguay_s suspension from Mercosur set off a surge of nationalism. Asunci__n is plastered with posters trumpeting the country_s sovereignty. _We won_t accept foreign tutelage,_ says President Franco. _This is a poor but dignified country. It_s poor as a consequence of an unjust war._ He demands that Brazil return Paraguay_s _Christian Cannon,_ cast from melted church bells.

The episode has also increased sympathy for L__pez in some quarters. _I_ve had my re-evaluation of el mariscal,_ says Esteban Burt, a lawyer. _The Triple Alliance went out of its way to say [the impeachment] was a disgrace, that Paraguayans should be punished. We haven_t heard that sort of language since 1870._ Mr Burt thinks that Brazil_s wartime archives, the last of which were declassified this year, will reveal that the allies had conspired to destroy Paraguay years before the war began.

But Mr Lugo_s career highlights other aspects of the war_s legacy. His election was widely celebrated because it ended 61 years of unbroken rule by the Colorado Party, 35 of them under Alfredo Stroessner. It was under Stroessner that the cult of L__pez reached its apex. _The emphasis on glory, self-sacrifice, authoritarian models and internal enemies felt very congenial to the stronistas,_ says Mr Whigham, the historian. Stroessner_s state _legitimised itself by drawing a straight line between Big Al and the Marshall._

Wartime depopulation also influenced Stroessner_s policies. Post-war governments distributed brochures offering immigrants a free trip to Paraguay and land. A series of Utopian colonies sprung up, including a _New Australia_ and an Aryan-supremacist _Nueva Germania_, co-founded by Friedrich Nietzsche_s sister, where a German flag still flies. In 1931 descendants of that group set up the first Nazi party outside Germany. (At the start of the second world war, Paraguay_s government openly sympathised with Hitler. The national police director named his son Adolfo Hirohito; police cadets wore swastikas on their uniforms.)

Another German who came to Paraguay after the war was Stroessner_s father, a Bavarian. Stroessner himself had no direct ties to the Paraguayan Nazis, but he shared many of their instincts: in 1974 he was accused by the UN of committing genocide against the native Ach__ people. He also harboured numerous Nazi war criminals, including Josef Mengele.

This autocratic tradition may have influenced Mr Lugo_s dismissive attitude to other politicians_a crucial factor in his downfall. The Liberals abandoned him in part because they felt their support had not been adequately rewarded in policies and jobs. Instead Mr Lugo had packed his cabinet with leftist allies. _You get in with one group and govern with another,_ he reportedly said.

But alienating the Liberals cost him his presidency, because the Paraguayan left was far too weak to protect him. That too has roots in the war. _Our economy never overcame the deficiencies the war imposed on us,_ says Jorge Rubiani, an architect and author, _so there was never an industrial structure to generate class consciousness._ Brazilian troops destroyed the foundry at Ybycu__, Paraguay_s main industrial asset, so it could never be reused.

The pretext for the impeachment also stems from the conflict. Before 1865 most Paraguayan land was state-owned. To pay reparations, post-war governments sold off huge plots to Argentine landowners. The broad subdivisions of Paraguay in 1880s maps refer to individual possessions, not provinces. Those concentrated holdings still bedevil the country: they include the ranch where police fired on peasant squatters in June.

Even Mr Lugo_s first misstep, his paternity scandal, can arguably be traced to the war. Sexual relations in Paraguay have always been open: in 1545 a Spanish priest called the country _Muhammad_s paradise_ after witnessing his compatriots sleeping with numerous native women, behaviour he associated with Muslims. In the mid-1800s most Paraguayan households were led by se__oras, often depicted chomping cigars, carrying food on their heads and sporting white cotton dresses. They paired off with a rotating cast of itinerant men.

But even that tradition did not prepare society for the post-war free-for-all. _Men without modesty_, wrote one newspaper, _may be found even in the corridors of the Church and the cemetery, atrociously scandalising even during the day to satiate their brutal passions._ No one knows whether the intercourse in _plazas, streets and meeting places_ was rape, prostitution or a result of the privileges men enjoyed because of the distorted sex ratio. Mr Lugo might not have realised quite how far sexual mores had changed. _Lugo was the cultural extension of the idea that we have to populate the country,_ says Benjam__n Fern__ndez Bogado of 5 D__as, a newspaper. _Having children in huge quantities wasn_t a problem. Even priests could have children._

Sexual violence during the war itself poisoned attitudes to race. In its own way, Paraguay is a melting pot: the countryside is full of blond-haired, blue-eyed peasants who speak fluent Guaran__ and halting Spanish. Yet L__pez_s propagandists tried to drum up prejudice against the Brazilian army, which was mostly black, since Pedro promised to free slaves who fought. They called the emperor the _chief of the monkey tribe_. The resentment lingers. _The kamb__ raped our women,_ says Miguel _ngel of the Piribebuy museum, using the Guaran__ word for blacks. Legend has it that the resulting black babies were killed.

The would-have-been country

Perhaps the final tragedy of the war is that it is so little known abroad. Mr Fern__ndez Bogado thinks this is no coincidence. _The world isn_t a comfortable place for us,_ he says of his country_s insularity. _It_s a scene of danger, conspiracy and death._ For Paraguayans, he explains, success is a prelude to danger: when the national football team scores, _It makes us nervous and we panic._

Guaran___still spoken by 80% of the population_renders time differently from Western tongues. The future is uncertain: the word for _tomorrow_ means _if the sun rises_. The past is divided between what happened, and what was supposed to but did not. If you quit a seminary, you are a _would-have-been priest_; a broken engagement yields a _would-have-been spouse_. This grammar is _like a backpack you can never take off,_ says Alejandra Pe__a, a former national museum director.

Paraguayans still die in falls and accidents while digging for treasure supposedly buried by their forefathers during the war. Perhaps they can only truly understand the conflict in their mother tongue. They know full well the woes of the country they live in, but never forget the one that might have been.

By The Economist


We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…