When 350 Spaniards from Pedro de Mendoza’s expedition fled Buenos Aires and founded Asunción in 1537, Guaraní cultivators dominated what is now southeastern Paraguay. Eager to strengthen themselves against the Chaco’s hostile hunter-gatherers, the Guaraní absorbed the conquistadors by providing them with food and an abundance of Guaraní women. This mixing resulted in a mestizo (mixed Indian and Spanish descent) culture of Guaraní food, customs and language and Spanish politics.
Asunción was the most significant Spanish settlement east of the Andes for nearly 50 years before Buenos Aires was fully established. During the colonial period Paraguay covered much of northern Argentina and western Brazil.
In the early 17th century, Jesuit missionaries created reducciones (settlements) where Guaraní were introduced to European high culture, new crafts, new crops and new methods of cultivation. Until their expulsion in 1767 (because of local jealousies and Madrid’s concern that their power had become too great), the Jesuits were remarkably successful. They deterred Portuguese intervention in the region and are credited with protecting the Guaraní from bands of ruthless slavers from the Portuguese colony of São Paulo. The Jesuits were less successful among the Guaycurú, the indigenous groups of the Chaco.
Within a few years of Paraguay’s uncontested independence from Spain in 1811, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia emerged as the strongest member of a governing junta. Until his death in 1840, the xenophobic and sinister ‘El Supremo’ sealed the country’s borders to promote national self-sufficiency, expropriated the properties of landholders, merchants and even the church, thus establishing the state as the dominant political and economic power.
Like most of his successors, Francia ruled by fear. His secret-police force jailed and tortured his opponents, many of which met their end in Francia’s most notorious dungeon, the ‘Chamber of Truth.’ After escaping an assassination attempt in 1820, El Supremo had his food and drink checked for poison, allowed no one to get closer than six paces and slept in a different bed every night.
By the early 1860s Francia’s successor, Carlos Antonio López, ended Paraguay’s isolation by building railroads, a telegraph system, a shipyard and a formidable army. His megalomaniac son, Francisco Solano López, succeeded him and declared war simultaneously on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in 1865. This disastrous War of the Triple Alliance proved to be one of the bloodiest and most savage in Latin American history. Allied forces outnumbered Paraguayans 10 to one, and by the end of the campaign boys as young as 12 years old were fighting on the front lines. In five years Paraguay had lost half of its prewar population and 26% of its national territory.
In the early 1900s tensions arose with Bolivia over the ill-defined Chaco border and in 1932 full-scale hostilities erupted. The exact reasons for the Chaco War are uncertain, but Bolivia’s new desire for a sea port (via the Río Paraguay) and rumors of petroleum deposits in the area were likely factors. The tenacity and guerrilla tactics of Paraguayan troops overcame Bolivia’s numerically stronger forces and the Paraguayans made it as far as the lower slopes of the Andes. A 1935 cease-fire left no clear victor but more than 80, 000 dead. A treaty awarded Paraguay three-quarters of the disputed territory.
After the Chaco War, Paraguay endured a decade of disorder before a brief civil war brought the Colorado party to power in 1949. A 1954 coup installed General Alfredo Stroessner, whose brutal 35-year, military-dominated rule was characterized by repression and terror. Political opponents, real or imagined, were persecuted, tortured and ‘disappeared, ’ elections were fraudulent, corruption became institutionalized and the country became a safe haven for Nazis and other international criminals. By the time Stroessner was overthrown, 75% of Paraguayans had known no other leader.
Even today the Colorado party maintains political control despite having provided nothing but miscreant leaders who’ve benefited from economic corruption, been thrown in jail and sought asylum in Brazil. In 2001 ex-Central Bank official Luis Ángel González Macchi, who was caught embezzling millions of dollars, was appointed caretaker president.
In April 2003 Nicanor Duarte Frutos, another Colorado party member, won the presidential election with 37%, lower than any other past party member. The ex-journalist claimed he’d ‘break the stronghold of the elite’ while dogmatically claiming to be ‘the one who directs.’ The Colorados went on to win every successive election too until they were finally ousted in the historic events of 2008 when former bishop Fernando Lugo, a man with no prior political experience, was elected president of the republic.
Lugo’s popularity in the Paraguayan heartland remains high in 2010 and for many Paraguay is at last taking steps in the right direction after decades of Colorado misrule. His biggest achievement to date is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Dam treaty. Originally agreed under the corrupt Stroessner government, benefits to the country were sacrificed in favor of benefits to the dictatorship, and ever since the renegotiation of the terms has become the Holy Grail of Paraguayan politics – often talked about but never actively sought. Lugo campaigned on a renegotiation ticket that caused many to pour scorn on his credentials as a serious candidate, but his success surprised many and represents an enormous financial gain to the nation.