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Paraguay - History

Pre-Columbian civilization in the fertile, wooded region that is now Paraguay consisted of numerous semi-nomadic, Guarani-speaking tribes, who were recognized for their fierce warrior traditions. The Guaraní Indians were known for their ferocity in battle. They practiced a myth-based polytheistic religion, which later blended with Christianity.

Almost no archaeological research has been done in Paraguay, and the pre-Columbian history of the country is poorly documented. What is certain is that the eastern part of the country was occupied by Guaraní Indians for at least 1,000 years before the Spanish conquest. Evidence indicates that those indigenous inhabitants developed a fairly sophisticated level of political autonomy, with quasi-sedentary, multi-village chiefdoms.

The Spanish explorer Juan de Salazar came to Paraguay, and founded Asunción on 15 August 1537, The Feast Day of the Assumption. The city became the center of the Spanish colonial province, which encompassed most of South America. Paraguay was inhabited by several hundred thousand Guaraní Indians and a handful of Spanish settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The first Spaniards settled in the territory in the 16th century. They were predominantly young men, as few women followed them to the relatively unpromising region. Following the Spaniards’ assumption of power, a mixed, or mestizo, population developed that spoke the language of their indigenous mothers but adopted many of the cultural norms of their Spanish fathers.

The Jesuit Order was given permission to convert the Indians by the power of faith alone. The result was a unique experiment in communal living that saw the Guaraní group together under Jesuit leadership in virtual theocracies, called reducciones, which significantly raised their standard of living. The reducciones eventually formed their own militias, and raised and exported cotton, linen, hides, tobacco, lumber, and yerba mate (the popular, but bitter Paraguayan tea.) In 1767, The Spanish Crown expelled the Jesuits from Latin America, thereby terminating reducciones.

Paraguay declared its independence by overthrowing the local Spanish authorities in May 1811. The country’s early years were dominated by three strong leaders: Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia (1814-40), Carlos Antonia Lopez (1841-62), and his son Francisco Solano Lopez. The younger Lopez waged a disastrous war against Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil (the War of the Triple Alliance [1864-70], which resulted in the near annihilation of the Paraguayan male population [90 percent loss - Paraguay lost half its population]). Paraguay also lost more than 150,000 square kilometers of national territory and suffered the virtual destruction of its economy.

The war and subsequent occupation by Brazilian troops (1870-74) helped shape a highly nationalistic character which still persists today. The war produced conditions that blocked Paraguay’s industrialization and social progress for years. The period following the war was characterized by political instability (21 governments in 30 years), the formation of the powerful Colorado Party, periodic political violence, and Liberal Party rule for 30 years. In 1904 the Liberal party seized control, ruling with only a brief interruption until 1940.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Paraguay politics was characterized by the Chaco War, more civil war, dictatorships, and periods of extreme political instability. Paraguay’s history is peppered with dictatorships rather than national heroes. Even those who acted with heroism took advantage of their popularity and subsequently ruled the country as totalitarians.

The best known example is Mariscal (Marshall) Jose Felix Estigarribia. In 1931, as deputy commander of the Paraguayan army, he ordered his troops into action against the Bolivian army during the Chaco War, against the wishes of his government. Little is known of his military accomplishments other than his aggressiveness and determination, which led the Paraguayan military to victory over the Bolivians.

Estigarribia’s popularity was the instrument that positioned him as leader of the government in 1939. Paraguayans expected him to save the country from the “anarchy” created by the previous government (a typical response in Paraguay). Estigarribia assumed dictatorial powers in February 1940. He began a land reform program, 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. Nevertheless, by greatly expanding the power of the executive branch, the constitution served to legitimize open dictatorship. The Estigarribia Era ended in September 1940, when he died in an airplane crash.

The Chaco War (1932-35) was fought over the potentially oil-rich Chaco wilderness, which was part of Paraguay but claimed by Bolivia. The Paraguayan army succeeded in driving the Bolivian army out of the Chaco. However, the war disillusioned many Paraguayans, who felt that the Liberal Party had both governed ineptly and prosecuted the war poorly. The Liberal Party was turned out of office, to return briefly only once.

The next 20 years were characterized by the rise of the Colorado Party, the power of the military as the arbiter of national politics, and the struggle between Paraguayan reformists and fascists. The last major conflict was the 6-month civil war of 1947.

Alfredo Stroessner took power in May 1954. Elected to complete the unexpired term of his predecessor, he was re-elected president seven times, ruling almost continuously under the state-of-siege provision of the constitution with support from the military and the Colorado Party. During Stroessner's 35-year reign, political freedoms were severely limited, and opponents of the regime were systematically harassed and persecuted in the name of national security and anticommunism. Though a 1967 constitution gave dubious legitimacy to Stroessner's control, Paraguay became progressively isolated from the world community.

On February 3, 1989, Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup headed by Gen. Andres Rodriguez. Rodriguez, as the Colorado Party candidate, easily won the presidency in elections held that May, and the Colorado Party dominated the Congress. In 1991 municipal elections, however, opposition candidates won several major urban centers, including Asuncion. As president, Rodriguez instituted political, legal, and economic reforms and initiated a rapprochement with the international community.

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Page last modified: 30-08-2016 19:46:40 ZULU