For much of the early history of the Spanish empire it is Asunción, rather than Buenos Aires, which is the colonial centre for the entire region south of Brazil. The first settlement at Buenos Aires is established in 1536. In 1537 colonists construct a stockade fort hundreds of miles up the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. Completing their work on Assumption Day, they call the place Asunción.
In 1541 Buenos Aires succumbs to attacks from Indian tribes. The settlers at the mouth of the great river system abandon the site and escape upstream to Asunción. Almost forty years pass before colonists from Asunción return to the site of Buenos Aires and re-establish the town.
Asunción has many advantages. Its longer continuous existence makes it the traditional centre of Spanish rule in the region. Economically it enjoys a commanding position in the interior, on the route leading up through the Andes into Peru. Yet it is also accessible by river from the Atlantic for ships drawing anything up to nine feet.
This city becomes the starting point for Jesuit missionaries, as they press further into the interior to establish the famous reducciones of Paraguay. And it is subsequently the centre of growing colonial hostility to the missionaries, when their settlements become powerful – resulting eventually in armed raids on the missions and the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.
A severe blow is struck to the pride of Asunción when its offspring city, Buenos Aires, is made in 1776 the capital of the new viceroyalty of La Plata. Resentment of the pretensions of the new capital is no doubt part of the reason why the citizens of Asunción refuse to join Buenos Aires in 1810 in its declaration of independence from Spain. An attempt at coercion by an Argentinian army under Manuel Belgrano only stiffens their resolve.
However the Spanish governor of the province achieves what Belgrano cannot, when he enlists Portuguese help from Brazil against the Argentinians. This is too much for Asunción. In 1811 the colonists throw out the governor and declare their own independence as the republic of Paraguay.
A time of three caudíllos: AD 1814-1870
After a brief period of anarchy, the first of Paraguay’s long series of caudíllos emerges. José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia is elected dictator in 1814 and three years later secures the office for life. Using his unlimited powers, he adopts a rigidly isolationist policy – treating Paraguay almost like a political microcosm, with himself playing the role of an 18th-century enlightened despot.
He allows no contact or commerce with other nations, but within Paraguay he actively encourages agricultural and industrial improvements to make his isolated realm economically self-sufficient. An efficient army is built up to safeguard the frontiers.
Though verging on madness, Francia’s measures reflect to some extent the special nature of Paraguay. Ethnically it is a more homogeneous community than others in south America. The Spanish have always been a small minority here among the Guarani Indians, and from the start a mixing of the races is accepted as normal. By the 19th century nearly all Paraguayans are mestizos.
Lacking the divisions familiar elsewhere (from peninsulares at one extreme of society to indigenous Indians at the other), the Paraguayans are well equipped to feel a sense of national identity. Yet, as a nation, they are in a very weak position – flanked by two massively powerful neighbours in Brazil and Argentina. Francia’s policy has a certain logic.
After his death in 1840 there is a brief interim before a new dictator is securely established. Carlos Antonio López, coming to power in 1844, ends Francia’s policy of isolationism but continues to strengthen the nation by promoting industry, building railways and providing the army with modern equipment and fortifications.
The same programme is continued by Francisco Solano López, who seizes power on his father’s death in 1862. He gives Paraguay a telegraph network, but his main passion is the army. He builds it up to a regular force of 60,000 men and he imports German officers to train them. But the possession of this strength tempts López into an adventure which is a disaster for Paraguay.
Flexing his muscles, López picks a quarrel in 1864 with Brazil. The pretext is Brazilian intervention in a civil war in Uruguay. In response López marches north to capture the Brazilian town of Corumbá. Then, when refused permission to cross Argentinian territory for an invasion into southern Brazil, he responds by attacking the Argentinian town of Corrientes in April 1865.
Within a matter of months he has united against himself Brazil and Argentina, at normal times mutually and implacably hostile. They are soon joined by Uruguay in what becomes the War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War.
Amazingly López holds out against his powerful coalition of enemies for five years, but this is a terrible time for Paraguay. López’s control becomes more tyrannical (in 1868 he executes several hundred citizens accused of joining in a plot against him) and the casualties of the war itself are appalling. As many as 300,000 people, rather more than half the population of the country, are calculated to have died during the five years of the conflict.
Asunción is captured by the allies in 1869. López continues a guerrilla campaign until he is caught and shot by Brazilian troops in 1870. In the aftermath of the war Brazil and Argentina annexe large sections of Paraguay. Together they occupy the rest of the country until 1876.
Liberales and Colorados: AD 1870-1932
After the death of López in 1870 Paraguay acquires a constitution which remains, technically, the basis of political life in the nation until 1940. With the emergence of an electoral system, two parties are formed – the Liberales and the Colorados, reflecting the standard Liberal and conservative clash prevailing elsewhere at the time.
In practice power rarely changes hands through the ballot box. Successive regimes result more often from coups and military intervention. Paraguay remains inward-loooking, concerned with its own tumultuous affairs. Not until the 1930s does the republic again become involved in a major international conflict. The issue is rivalry with neighbouring Bolivia over the Chaco region.
The Chaco War: AD 1932-1935
The Gran Chaco is a huge arid low-lying plain, in which savanna grasses and scrub are interspersed with regions of saline swamp. It is an unenticing area, but discoveries of oil in the early 20th century raise hopes (later unfulfilled) of great wealth in the region.
It has never been considered necessary to define any exact border here, but now both Bolivia and Paraguay begin building small military outposts (almost every place name here begins with ‘Fortín’, a humble word in the Spanish military lexicon sometimes equivalent to little more than pillbox or bunker). From 1928 there are occasional clashes between these outposts, in a process which escalates by 1932 to outright war.
The first major engagement is at Fortín Boquerón, taken by the Bolivians in June 1932 and recaptured by Paraguayan forces in September. There is subsequent fighting over an eight-month period around Fortín Nanawa. The likely advantage seems on the side of Bolivia, a larger nation with a better equipped army. But the Bolivian troops, from highland regions, prove less well adapted to fighting in the lowland swamps. More of them succumb to disease and snakebite than to bullets.
By 1935, at the end of an inconclusive war, 100,000 men have died. A peace signed in Buenos Aires in 1938 gives Paraguay most of the disputed region but brings within the borders of Bolivia the port of Puerto Suarez, with access to the Paraguay river.
Attempts at reform: AD 1936-1954
The upheavals of the Chaco war pave the way for fresh political departures in Paraguay. The Febreristas, a newly formed left-wing group, seize power in 1936 and impose measures which win wide public support. Paraguay’s major enterprises are nationalized; land reforms include the distribution of small holdings to veterans of the war; and steps are taken to introduce a degree of social welfare.
The commander-in-chief during the war, José Félix Estigarribia, is elected president in 1939 and introduces a new constitution in 1940. This does not prevent him granting himself the official powers of a dictator. But Febrerista policies suggest that the stranglehold of Paraguay’s land-owning oligarchy may at last be broken.
However Estigarribia dies in a plane crash later in 1940. Power is recovered by the Colorados, representing the conservative interests of the land-owners. The reforms are cancelled, military rule is reimposed. The revived conservative dictatorship is threatened in 1947 by an armed uprising of Febreristas and Liberales, but after an initial success the rebels are suppressed.
Paraguay forms close links with Argentina during the Perón period, first under Federico Chávez (president from 1947 to 1954) and then in the early years of Stroessner – a caudíllo who proves himself capable of dominating Paraguay to a degree not seen since Francia and the López family.
The Stroessner years: AD 1954-1989
Alfredo Stroessner, grandson of a German immigrant, is head of Paraguay’s armed forces when he seizes power in 1954. He immediately imposes an extremely repressive regime with scant regard for human rights. In the manner of dictators he also engages in an impressive programme of public works – in particular the vast hydro-electric Itaipú project, a shared undertaking with neighbouring Brazil.
Under Stroessner elections are held every five years, sometimes with opposition parties given a genuine chance to compete, but in the prevailing political climate the Colorados are always safely returned. In 1983 Stroessner is elected for a seventh presidential term. Then, in 1989, he is at last deprived of power in the same way as he took it.
Democracy: from AD 1989
In February 1989 Andrés Rodríguez, a senior commander in the army, leads a coup which topples Stroessner. Rodríguez promises to bring democracy to Paraguay. In an election in May 1989 he himself wins the presidential race – and since he is a military candidate standing for the Colorado party, the immediate impression is that little has changed. But the new president frees all the political prisoners, legitimizes political parties, introduces freedom of the press and brings in a new constitution effective from 1992.
Little is introduced in the way of much needed social and economic reforms. But Rodríguez duly steps down at the end of his term as president.
The presidential election of 1993 is won by Juan Carlos Wasmosy, a rich businessman rather than a soldier. He is admittedly the candidate of the Colorado party. But the elections are freely contested between rival parties, and are generally agreed to have been fairly held.
Civilian government survives a serious threat in 1996 when Wasmosy attempts to dismiss one of his senior generals, Lino César Oviedo, for engaging in political activity. Oviedo refuses to go, whereupon Wasmosy arrests him and charges him with insurrection. In a success rare in Paraguayan history, the legitimate government prevails.
In elections held in May 1998 another civilian candidate, Raúl Cubas, wins the presidency for the Colorado party. In the two houses of the legislature the Colorados retain a majority over the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, but only by a relatively narrow margin – 24 seats to 20 in the Senate, and 45 to 35 in the Chamber of Deputies.
The real circumstance may be even less favourable to the Colorado party, which has held continuous power in Paraguay since the death of Estigarribia in 1940. The elections in 1998 are marred by widespread allegations of fraud.